by John Bain
What to call this new crop of organic, locally produced, sustainable restaurants? Is it a consumer-driven fad? A spasm of upper-class eco-guilt? A shrewd business strategy?
Whatever else it is, it’s a movement. And it’s called Slow Food.
I was surprised to learn that this was not a label invented after the trend was already evident. In fact, it’s an honest-to-God social movement started by Italian journalist Carlo Petrini in response to the opening of a McDonald’s restaurant in Rome circa 1986.
The original movement had more to do with the quality of food and how we eat than “sustainability” as know it today. In fact, it literally revolved around eating organically produced food slowly, European-style; in Petrini’s “Slow Food Manifesto,” he describes the human need for the “sensual pleasure” of a tranquil, drawn-out meal. He does say we should “rediscover the rich varieties and aromas of local cuisines”, and the text does assume that the current system of industrial agriculture is rotten, but the focus is on our subjective experience (the “rediscovery”) rather than changing the system.
It’s a counterblast to fast-paced industrial capitalism that’s more John Ruskin than Karl Marx (or even Michael Pollan); here, the antidote isn’t open struggle but rather one that is rooted in the mind, in the way we look at and experience food. In other words, it’s an essentially aesthetic argument for better food.
So we’re in good company here. In 1986, Slow Food wasn’t asking you to make a sacrifice for the Earth; no, it was asking you to enjoy yourself with organically produced food, and since doing so benefits the Earth, all the better. And who doesn’t like to eat well?
Nowadays, Slow Food includes a clear sustainability ethic through its emphasis on local sourcing. The movement boasts thousands of members around the world, many of them heading up local businesses of their own. Obviously the ethos of “slow food” has developed a much wider appeal, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there were over a million ethical foodies the world over.
Of course, to grapple with this new trend of local and sustainable food we have to deal with the familiar retort: “Most people can’t afford this stuff!” Well, that’s true. Average people don’t have time or money for “aesthetics” or whatever else the health-conscious upper crust is fussing about.
But think of it this way: locavore businesses create jobs. Local jobs. Eating slow is a way of bringing our communities closer together after the collective shock of globalization.
And consider this: McDonald’s is actually pretty expensive! I (admittedly) go pretty often, and last time I went my meal was something like 8 dollars. If I had gone to an organic food co-op I could have eaten better for a similar price – and if I was feeding a family of four, I probably would have saved money.
Ay, there’s the rub: it’s all about the cultural change, winning hearts and minds. People go to McDonald’s because it’s easy and they perceive it as cheap. If we start arguing against McDonald’s from some lofty philosophical viewpoint, people stop listening because they have families to feed. If we start from the stomach (or rather, the tongue), however, that’s a different story – and I think that’s what Petrini’s getting at here. From then on we can go to the wallet and make our case.
Of course, not everyone has time for all this. If you’re working two jobs the absolute last thing you want to do is to go home and cook dinner. So the system itself has to change, top-to-bottom, before the ideology of food can afford a complete revamp. But until that day, we can be proud to say we’ve planted a seed –and right here in New York, not two hundred miles away.