Those Slow Foodies haven’t got it all right.
Towards the end of the research for my university project on Slow Food (I keep referencing it so I’ll publish it on line once it’s marked and returned), I looked into its critics. The criticism wasn’t essential for my study but it proved to be a catalyst for a useful reinterpretation of this traditional, local food movement.
If you look into the beliefs of Slow Food you struggle to not get caught up in the rhetoric. The movement’s charismatic Italian patriarch and president, Carlo Petrini, extols the impressive virtues of local, high quality, traditional food production and the gastronomic pleasures of the table, all as the key to a more balanced outlook on life. The aim is to ensure a greater enjoyment of these quiet material pleasures so that we may break free from the constraints of materialistic modern mass consumption, symbolised by fast food.
Slow Food is attractive for consumers because it is, at once, both nostalgic and ‘trendy’. It looks back to a traditional golden age before big corporations straddled the earth and families learned to love each other through the conviviality of a shared home-cooked meal. Yet, it is also the domain of the affluent, as only certain people can afford to shop at the farmers’ market or farm shop, and therefore becomes an incredibly desirable mode of consumption.
A simpler, quieter world is incredibly attractive. And, with the focus on local delicacies and freshly-made produce, it’s a tasty solution too.
Food historian Rachel Laudan isn’t quite as convinced. In the two articles I read (details below), she attacks the basic premise that Petrini and Slow Food assert: that the old ways of food production and consumption were better.
Laudan notes that ‘fresh and natural’ food was not desirable to our ancestors. Before the revolution she terms ‘Culinary Modernism’ in the nineteenth century, the peasant diet was extremely limited; fresh meat was rank, tough and couldn’t be refrigerated; crops were wholly reliant on the foibles of seasonality; and unprocessed food such as wholegrain bread – now so often proclaimed as a paradigm of healthiness – actually dangerous diseases.
Furthermore, Slow Food’s focus on the local is unfavourably compared with the fact that local food was all that our ancestors could ever hope for. In fact, “the tyranny of the local” was one of the greatest afflictions, Laudan tells us.
Culinary Modernism, including new methods of industrial production, packaging and distribution, provided processed, preservable food, originally restricted to the elites, at an affordable price.
Thus, Laudan argues, Slow Food’s basic tenets, that older, local and natural is better, are inherently incorrect.
Despite this strong argument, Laudan didn’t convince me to dismiss Slow Food as a misconceived fancy. In fact, what it did was make me draw out the very best aspects of what Slow Food is suggesting.
Historical studies might show that traditional systems of food production were not better. As Laudan notes, whether natural, traditional and local food production is better – for the individual, for the community, and for the environment – needs to be decided on a case by case basis.
But Slow Food has more than just cheese, wine and pasta at its heart. Strip back the focus on new food consumption patterns, and Slow Food is about recapturing control of personal lives and communities, from the fast life of high workloads, material gluttony, and international brands and corporations.
Again, this needs to be tempered, as many aspects of our modern world are wholly desirable and are sustainable, but Slow Food provides a useful message to us all as we go on in our daily lives.
Material wealth is good if its true value is enjoyed and recognised, regional communities must be preserved for the tradition and diversity that the bring, and our fast life can have damaging consequences, if we let it go too far.
Rachel Laudan, ‘A Plea for Culinary Modernism: Why We Should Love New, Fast, Processed Food’, Gastronomica, 1 (2001), pp. 36-44
Rachel Laudan, ‘Slow Food: The French Terroir Strategy, and Culinary Modernism’, Food, Culture and Society: An International Journal of Multidisciplinary Research, 7:2 (2004), pp. 133-144