Apr 162012
Slow Food The Case for Taste

Slow Foodists are unlikely to take kindly to this cogent and blistering criticism of the Slow Food movement and its gourmand-chief, Carlo Petrini. Rachel Laudan’s piece on Slow Food is ostensibly a review of Petrini’s 2004 book Slow Food: The Case for Taste, is in fact a history of the (conscious) development of terroir—pointedly referred to as a “strategy”—and what Laudan considers an analogous and to some extent equally vacuous concept, Slow Food’s pithy pseudo-slogan of doing good through eating well. In addition to a thorough explanation of what Laudan refers to as “culinary modernism” (i.e. affordable, varied food for everyone) and its critics (Moore Lappé, Pollan, and Petrini), the author provides a number of examples from Italy’s culinary past. The essay concludes with a pointed attack on the limits of what Slow Food can actually do, reigning in what Laudan sees as gastronomes enjoying themselves with a clear conscience.

“[Gastronomy] took eating out of the public realm and made it a matter of private pleasure. It modestly increased work for cooks, restaurant owners, shop keepers, farmers and gardeners, and tradesman. Of course it tended to breed tiresome snobbery and one-upmanship. But irritating as these traits are, they are not the greatest of human failings.” Laudan contends, though, that arguing that Slow Food will save the world without leaving out the world’s poor is disingenuous. I would add that like the locavore movement, it also misdirects (however well-intentioned the actors are) a lot of energy and thinking towards practices which are inefficient solutions to our problems.

This essay is an excellent reminder that there is no free lunch. Highly recommended.  ZN


The full bibliographic citation is:  “Slow Food: The French Terroir Strategy, and Culinary Modernism.  An Essay Review of Carlo Petrini, trans. William McCuaig.  Slow Food: The Case for Taste (New York: Columbia University Press).  Food Culture and Society: An International Journal of Multidisciplinary Research, 7. 2. (2004), 133-144.

 The original essay is available in free pdf format here:


Apr 022012
Carlo Petrini Slow Food

Adrian Peace’s 2008 piece about Slow Food’s Terra Madre event in 2006 is, despite the chronology, quite relevant today. Professor Peace, an anthropologist, attended the gathering in Turin in 2006 and describes it without the wide-eyed excitement of so many observers of Slow Food’s culinary (secular) mass. Peace mentions the standard critique of Slow Food–that it is simply the manifestation of the West’s middle class casting about for both a new means of distinction and some sort of meaning through (invented) authenticity–but goes far beyond it. She analyzes SF founder Carlo Petrini’s shamanic performance, and dissects the notion that artisanal producers are somehow inherently more “sustainable.”. While Peace  notes that “[f]etishizing the dignity of the small-scale producer within the figment of ‘a natural economy’ can easily result int he failure to recognize the indignities and inequalities imposed on numerous others within the narrow bounds of the rural community.” One wishes more anthropologists would turn their gaze towards Slow Food.  ZN

Gastronomica 8, no.2 (Spring 2008):31-39.

Jun 112011

“The Slow Food international movement officially began when delegates from 15 countries endorsed this manifesto, written by founding member Folco Portinari, on December 10, 1989.”

Despite this phrase on Slow Food’s site, the text found there wasn’t the original text, or rather wasn’t just that text. There was another little bit in the beginning, which Geoff Andrews gives in his paean to the movement (The Slow Food Story):

“The culture of our times rests on a false interpretation of industrial civilization; in the name of dynamism and acceleration, man invents machines to find relief from work but at the same time adopts the machine as  a model of how to live his life. … Against those, and they are in the majority, who can’t see the difference between efficiency and frenzy, we propose a healthy dose of sensual pleasures to be followed up with prolonged enjoyment.” I remember reading what is underneath that ellipsis, a reference to the bewildered herd, a phrase that was later struck because of its elitism, but I cannot for the life of me find the original version of the manifesto. Even in the Italian version of the Slow Food Manifesto the phrase above has been purged, not to mention what the ellipsis hides. I’d be interested if anyone could supply the original text, if for no other reason than history.  ZN

Jun 092011

This charming little volume by Geoff Andrews does an excellent job recounting the pre-history of the Slow Food movement, especially how it emerged from a highly politicized context. Petrini and his cohorts were among those frustrated with the petrification of the PCI, the Italian Communist Party, which in the 1970s seemed more interested in defending its turf and giving out jobs than in preserving cultural traditions. Several anecdotes make the book well worth it, from the description of Petrini’s visit to an ARCI club in Tuscany with its awful food, to the recounting of the historic demonstration against the McDonald’s at the Spanish Steps. My only critique, and this one a mild one, is that at times Andrews seems to be writing a paean to his pantheon rather than concentrating on history, but that’s perhaps to be understood, as Slow Food is nothing if not inspiring.  (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2008)  ZN

Jun 012011

The members of the artisanal salt association cleaning one of the evaporation pans.

I presented my paper “‘The Only Rock We Eat’: Trapani, Salt, & Identity” this past Friday at the American Association of Teachers of Italian conference in Trapani (Sicily). The day before, with my paper already done, I went and visited the saline (saltworks). My guide was the former director the Slow Food presidium for Artisanal Salt, dottor Franco Maria Sergio Saccà. The gracious dottor Saccà went through the history and technical details of the production of artisanal salt, but most importantly underlined that far from being a movement of the elite, Slow Food embraced all socio-economic levels: “Our members are doctors and lawyers, but also clerks in banks, farmers, and houswives.” He also explained that far from the oppressively exploitative organization of a hundred years ago, the artisanal saltworks in Trapani are run by a group of young men who decide collectively when and what to do each day. “How much salt do you use in a year? Is it too much to ask to pay €1 instead of €0.40 for a product that is better for you and keeps alive a tradition while providing an honest living for these young men?” A rhetorical question which made me add a post-script to my paper.

For more information about the Artisanal Salt producers, click here. Click here for my paper, The Only Rock We Eat, and here for the accompanying PowerPoint slides.

Ringrazio il preziosissimo aiuto del dottor Franco Saccà.

Feb 242011

While doing research for an upcoming conference paper on the history of salt production near the Sicilian city of Trapani, I was able to get a copy of the draft of a set of rules that will

Salt evaporation ponds near Marsala, in Sicily. The windmills were introduced by the Spanish to move water from one pond to the next. (Photo courtesy Matthias Süßen).

govern the Slow Food presidium for artisanal salt in the Trapani area. Reading the draft, I was surprised to learn that there actually several differences between sea salt (made in evaporation ponds) and mineral salt (which comes from a mine, and is also called halite). It seems that sea salt is better for use in foods as it can be used in smaller quantities given the fact that it is twice as soluble as halite, which  does not dissolve as easily at low temperatures.

I can’t pass on very much more from the three page draft, which is primarily concerned with the various processes of making salt in the old-fashioned (i.e. by hand) way, though it was interesting to note that the crystallized salt forms salt cubes up to 8cm across.

Feb 052011

Panagia, Davide ‘‘You’re Eating Too Fast!’ On Disequality and an Ethos of Convivium’, Journal for Cultural Research 11 (July 2007). A dizzying analysis that takes the reader through an ‘essentialist ontology’ in Artusi and on to the Slow Food Manifesto (which is corrected for gender) via Plato, Kant, Rousseau and Barthes! A provoking and worthwhile reading that includes a discussion of Barilla and pasta-selling strategies and a gutting of some of Artusi’s avuncular prose. SY

Jan 112011

Salone del Gusto by Gabriella Paiella

On Friday, October 22nd 2010, four friends and I made our way up north for Salone del Gusto and Terra Madre. The trip was initially up-in-the air as we had only managed to secure a spot at a hostel on the outskirts of Torino a few days before – the city had been booked up for the event since July. Bright and early the next morning, we caffeinated and began the brisk forty-minute walk to the old Fiat factory where the event has been held for several years. The festival was a clear economic boost to the city of Torino and signs everywhere advertised the Salone del Gusto and pointed tourists in the correct direction.

The first people we encountered at the fringes of the factory grounds were animal rights protesters brandishing gruesome signs of slaughtered animals with statistics of how many animals had been murdered for Salone del Gusto. We avoided them as best as we could and made our way to the line, which was organized and moved forward quickly despite the extraordinary numbers of people. Because we were all under 23, we could get access to the festival for the student rate of 12 euro each.

The theme of the Salone this year was ‘Food + Places: a new geography for Planet Earth’.  Upon entering, we found ourselves in a spacious, and well-lit main room with the atmosphere of an IKEA store. Indeed, every booth on this floor was advertising possible eco-friendly solutions to food packaging. Aside from a few curious visitors, most people avoided this first room in favor of the food fair itself – which was packed to the brim.

Salone was split up into several sections. First and foremost was ‘Italy’, – divided up like a grid according to region. We tried almost everything, including lenticchie from Umbria, peperonata from Piedmont, and cannoli from Sicily. It also seemed as if every other stand was sampling some sort of olive oil and bread. My traveling companions and I were surprised (and pleased), by the overwhelming amount of artisanal beer from Italy. All of the producers were extremely friendly and took the time to answer any questions we had for them about their products.

The international section was comprised of representative producers from everywhere from America to Azerbijan. In the middle of all of the food stalls were tables manned by indigenous representatives from Latin America and Africa. Many of them had spoken at Terra Madre and were selling handicrafts and distributing fliers about the current state of agriculture and small farms in their home countries.

There were also more specific novelty areas – such as the  ‘Cocktail Bar,’ ‘Enoteca,’ and ‘Street Food’ area, though those were both significantly less crowded than the other sections. This was most likely due to the fact that visitors had to pay extra to access them.

The demographics of the crowd were incredibly mixed. Every once in a while, a Native American farmer in indigenous dress would pop through the fair grounds with their Terra Madre delegate badge on. At the same time, there were several hundred well-dressed Italians teetering around in high heels and purchasing bags of wine and olive oil – making me wonder if they actually ever thought twice about the ideology of Slow Food. The stark difference between the two groups was interesting.

I was also surprised to see Autogrill and Coop stands scattered amongst the other stands. I knew that the Coop supermarkets had initially started as small cooperative movements on the left, but they have certainly strayed far from that model. Autogrill, meanwhile, seems to exemplify the very nature of fast food.

Even when we left Salone del Gusto and headed back to our hostel, we still felt as if we were in that general atmosphere. Everyone staying with us was in the city for the same reasons we were. For example, I met a girl from North Carolina studying abroad in Dijon and compiling an independent research project on organic food regulations. Another one of my roommates graduated from the college that I’m attending right now ten years ago; she was in Torino visiting her sister who acts as a liaison between farmers and farmer’s market organizers. One girl had graduated college in the States and moved to Rwanda to help AIDS victims set up small, microfinance farming operations. Additionally, we met two chefs: one from Lecce who had previously traveled around Europe acting out in “Chef’s Theater” plays. The other was a Brazilian who was hopping around Europe and getting by working at restaurants all over the continent.

As we all stayed up that night talking, I realized that there was a strong and diverse community of people dedicated to bettering the global food system.

Nov 282010

In a recent gastronomic insert of the Corriere dell’Umbria (16 Nov 2010, p.15),  there is an article called “Regina d’autunno dal bosco alla tavola” (Queen of Autumn from the Woods to the Table), which discusses ways to cook chestnuts. The author, Agnese Priorelli, underlines that chestnuts have been used for food since time immemorial, and mentions their use in many traditional dishes.

After these “historical” comments, Priorelli gives two recipes, one from the Gambero Rosso, a Slow Food publication: Duck Paté with Chestnuts. The recipe calls for duck breast, chestnuts, chicken livers, laurel leaves, onion, garlic, butter, pancetta (like bacon), white wine, olive oil, salt, and pepper. Though nowhere in the text is this recipe called “traditional,” the tone of the article (and, in fact, of the whole gastronomy insert) and the fact that the recipe is from a Slow Food cookbook, implies that this is a recipe that could have been eaten centuries ago.

Here again I see a desire for what I would call “philological food,” food that supposedly is the direct lineal descendant of ancestral culinary traditions, passed near-unchanged down through the ages, a cooking lets one fulfill the injunction of Mens sana in corpore sano through eating peasant food. But would an Italian peasant of, say, the mid-eighteenth century have made this dish. Given that the vast majority of Italians were poor, and the poor were effectively vegetarians, it’s unlikely. We can forget about duck breast, chicken livers, and pancetta (and even olive oil and wine, more than likely) being part of “popular” culinary traditions. The onion, salt, and garlic can stay, along with the laurel leaf, but the rest is an invention of more recent times, or is philological only with respect to a small upper class that could afford these products. ZN


Grazie a Daniela Buglione per la segnalazione.

Nov 262010

In January of 2010, McDonald’s Italy launched its McItaly burger, brainchild of corporate affairs manager Massimo Barbieri, among others. The burger was billed as “A meeting of tastes: the unmistakable taste of McDonald’s® meets the tradition of typical Italian ingredients.” The launch took place at the McDonald’s restaurant at the Spanish Steps, where in 1986 the protest (against the opening of that same restaurant) that launched Slow Food had taken place. Present at the launch was Luca Zaia, the then Italian Minister of Agriculture. Zaia praised the McItaly, made exclusively of Italian products, and even gave the burger the ministry’s official patronage. This unleashed a storm of somewhat hysterical criticism, both from Slow Food and other commentators abroad. Carlo Petrini, founder of Slow Food, wrote a letter to the McItaly burger (and to Zaia) and even denounced the menu item as anything but Italian: “Whose grandmother ever made something that looked like this?” he asked rhetorically on the RAI weekend show Che Tempo Che Fa. The Ministry of Agriculture issued press releases denouncing the gastronomic snobs and underlining the Italian-ness of the burger and its aid to farmers in Italy. The polemic continued for two months, until the (already planned) end of the McItaly promotion dampened further polemics.

Minister Zaia at the unveiling of the McItaly.

The unanswered question is “What is Italian?” Is it the presence of Italian-made ingredients? If so, then practically all of McDonald’s products are Italian, as the sourcing is largely national. Or is Italian grandmum’s cooking, as Petrini implies? Modern dishes like spaghetti all’amatriciana are out then, as they are largely post-war, meat abundance-induced dishes. Despite Italian opinions to the contrary, most of their food cannot be philological in the sense they want it to be, i.e. that “Our food is good because it’s the way we’ve been eating for centuries, a balanced diet based on a peasant diet.” More on “philological food” to come. ZN

View the original press releases of McDonald’s and the Minister of Agriculture, Petrini’s letter in La Repubblica, and Zaia’s response.