Well, I’ve finally been able to finish this challenging book. To be honest, I skimmed the last quarter of it. Slow Food Nation: Why Our Food Should Be Good, Clean, And Fair was a real struggle for me. Ostensibly the book is about exactly what the title says: the slow food movement and the philosophy behind the goals of “good,” “clean” and “fair.” Really Petrini’s work is a bizarre mixture of self-promoting autobiography, name dropping, a travelogue, a political manifesto against the agro industry, a vague sort of self help guide and an almost spiritual exhortation to embrace the lifestyle and thinking of a gastronome. It’s no wonder with all of that going on in a mere 255 pages that reading this was tough going. I simply cannot agree with Alice Waters, who wrote in the introduction that Petrini’s writing puts “big ideas together in sparkling, strong language.” ‘Sparkling’ and ‘strong’ suggests a kind of crisp clarity that I could not find anywhere in this book. Instead it was written in a repetitive, contradictory and condescending style that left me very irritated.
The Slow Food movement has its origins in Italy as a reaction against what, to some, was the gradual disappearance of traditional food lifestyles and the rise of fast food chains in Rome. Petrini consistently targets the agro industry as a leader in the disconnect between the farm and table throughout the West. As a result he complains somewhat histrionically that the world “seems to be drifting aimlessly.” Quality, taste and biodiversity have all suffered as a direct consequence of people leaving farms for the cities and becoming disconnected with their traditional culinary cultural histories.
He’s ambivalent about industrialization. On the one hand, he clearly recognizes that it has improved life for many. He cites the example of the virtual end of malnutrition and scarcity of food in western societies as evidence of that. Yet he raises the concern that these same changes are ultimately “unsustainable” as nature becomes more and more “an object of domination.” Throughout the convoluted text, Petrini returns again and again to agro industry as the real problem. By focusing on quantity versus quality; exploitation of farmers and agricultural workers; the use of pesticides; and relying on a few agricultural products which can be easily transported vast distances, thereby reducing diversity and damaging the environment further, industry is literally wrecking the planet. It’s true that monoculture and pesticide use cause environmental problems. But is it obvious that the older methods of agricultural production, used on a large scale, are environmentally superior to the current ones used by big industry? He does not really offer a lot of facts to support this grand thesis. But he is persuasive and whether or not you really believe the world is at risk, he does have some good ideas for improving your appreciation of food and wine.
As a self-styled gastronome, Petrini is all about quality and taste. He’s really into relationship building with your local farmers as “co-producers” or maybe even getting back to nature and growing your own food. He seems positively convinced that this will improve quality and taste. That may be. Yet I couldn’t help noticing that nowhere in this book does Petrini ever recommend in any serious kind of way that aspiring gastronomes should actually learn to cook. How, I wonder, would someone know what to make from produce at the farmers’ market or their kitchen garden if, as he claims, we’ve all been raised on pre-made foods that you merely reheat?
I do appreciate the idea that we need to learn to taste though I still firmly believe that taste is subjective. The Slow Food tasting workshops that are offered around the world do sound intriguing. I’d love to go to a tropical fruit tasting fair in Rio de Janeiro sometime, for example. Perhaps we can see the 2016 Olympics while we’re there? Seriously though, must one attend a special workshop or will home tastings do? That’s what the WC crew does with wines and it seems to work out pretty well. I definitely notice vinous nuances much better now that I’ve been consciously paying attention and writing about them for this blog. An added benefit of home tastings might also be less damage to the environment. Instead of taking a huge jet to another continent to learn to appreciate mango better, I can do it from home. Sure, the mango needs to be shipped to me, but I understand that those large ships use less fuel per load than planes. The net effect will be less environmental damage, though with this more environmental friendly plan, I’d miss out on the fun sounding trip.
Travel is another problem issue in this complex work. Petrini strongly champions growing locally and learning about the local culinary history of food wherever you happen to live. I get that. At the same time he emphasizes quality and variety as key for any gastronome. Doesn’t variety by necessity imply foods from beyond any particular locality? Petrini identifies travel as a “right” for all gastronomes. And it certainly sounds like he travels a fair bit. He flies from northern Italy to San Francisco quite regularly. But he also gives anecdotes throughout the book about visits to Mexico, India and Scandinavia, to note only a few. Frankly I’m jealous. It gets a bit absurd at times. One of his fondest memories comes from a Barbaresco tasting held at the Marriot hotel in Times Square. These wines come from Petrini’s home province in Italy. What does that mean?!? He travels thousands of miles on a jet plane to sample wines from vineyards that he could have bicycled to from his home. Isn’t that the kind of thing that leads to the destruction of the environment? I wonder. Perhaps since we’re talking about people traveling rather than food, you can conveniently ignore the environmental cost because it’s out of the realm of concern for the gastronome?
He’s most passionate while decrying the “cultural annihilation that has affected the countryside of every part of the world, on a scale that is unprecedented in human history.” I’m hard pressed to fully grasp what that means. I do get it that there have been mass migrations from the countryside into cities; a trend towards eating out more and cooking less, at least in more developed industrialized places; and that advertizing and marketing has taken hold of the food industry more and more. Does that equal ‘cultural annihilation?’ I don’t think so. It’s merely cultural change, which is an ongoing process for all time. Yes, certain food traditions get lost over time, but there are new things to enjoy too. I couldn’t have developed a taste for sushi living here in the United States had it not been for the industrial changes of the 20th Century which permitted fresh fish to be flown overnight from anywhere in the world. Without improved shipping methods, I’d never had the chance to develop my love for French wine either. Even Petrini recognizes that “traditional” foods are the product of change. He notes that tomatoes are native to the New World and pasta is a version of something developed by China carried through the Middle East. But Italy alone claims paternity for spaghetti with tomato sauce.
I couldn’t help but see this seeking for a fantasized past of high quality, tasty regional food as an attack against the US. As I’ve already mentioned, Slow Food itself is a reaction against the expansion of fast food chains in Italy. I suppose it was in America that fast food chains were born. Beyond that, Petrini completely dismisses the idea that American culture offers any culinary tradition that meets his criteria for taste and quality. Alice Water’s Chez Panisse is the one possible exception that defines this general rule. That’s obviously absurd. As I’ve noted elsewhere, we Americans have rich traditions of regional cuisine. I won’t bother to enumerate them because I don’t think that we need be defensive on this point. Instead it suggests a kind of cultural snobbery and superiority underlying the writer’s world view that is quite troubling.
In the end, this book touches on a lot of exciting and controversial issues: the growth of the agro industry, changes in patterns of eating and living, environmental issues, and the recognition that taste matters. I have to admire his emphasis that learning about food is a lifetime occupation. I just feel that it’s not quite enough. Agro industry exists for a reason; so do fast food chains. Why? I think that the latter survive because a fair number of people like fast food. But what about about big agro? That’s something for which the book has no answer. At his best, Petrini simply demonizes it as the source of the problem. That makes no sense. It’s not here by accident. What would happen if everyone did as Petrini suggests, and go back to nature and begin to cultivate food in small plots ourselves? With the necessary duplication and inefficiency involved, I suspect that we couldn’t grow enough to sustain us all. There are a lot more of us now then there was two hundred years ago. Whether you like it or not, the agro industry exists to sustain the massive world population. We should look at that first before dismantling it wholesale.