Eighteen years ago in Rome, an Italian journalist, Carlo Petrini, saw a McDonald's open on Rome's Piazza di Spagna and realized that, for the conquering hamburger, no space was sacred. Petrini, who had been a militant student in the early 1970s and went on to found Italy's first radical independent radio station, began a mission to alert the world to the loss of local culinary traditions in the wake of mass production.
He founded the Slow Food Movement, which took up the defense of such delicacies as a succulent Sienese pig appreciated in the courts of medieval Tuscany, the Albenga violet asparagus of Liguria, and various handmade sausages and salamis -- such as the Campotosto mortadella of Abruzzo and donkey salami of Veneto -- whose recipes are now known only to a handful of old Italian farmers. The movement grew out of the gastronomical branch of ARCI (Associazione Ricreativa Culturale Italiana), a national network of social clubs closely associated with the Italian Communist Party. The dissident Communist newspaper Il Manifesto originally published the gastronomical supplement called Gambero Rosso (the Red Crab), which evolved into Slow Food's authoritative restaurant and wine guides.
While still drawing nearly half its members from its country of origin, Slow Food is finding support all over the world -- there are now some 60,000 members in more than 111 countries. Just last month, the movement inaugurated a full-fledged culinary institute in Italy. In the United States, fast food's homeland, Slow Food has taken solid root, expanding to about 5,000 members in 62 chapters around the country. With health issues ranging from disease outbreaks among farm animals to obesity in humans grabbing the headlines, the movement is not at a loss for recruitment slogans these days.
Last month's cover story of the Ecologist magazine, the bible of that country's radical environmental movement, hails Slow Food as "a movement to save the world." Its philosophy of supporting local produce and local farmers is endorsed by the Ecologist as one of the solutions to that bête noir of various radicals, globalization.
"We were born as a gastronomical association, paying attention to the traditional pleasures of the table and wine, in order to oppose in some way the crazy speed of the fast life -- the way of life and food production that leads to the homogenization of flavor and erosion of culture," Petrini tells the Ecologist.
While Petrini's gastronomical goals are in some ways commendable, his argument has the formula backward: the erosion of culture is the cause of all the culinary ills -- not to mention countless other kinds of ills -- that Petrini laments. The fundamental question is, what causes such erosion in the first place?
ACCORDING TO A STUDY released last month by the World Health Organization, some 36 percent of Italian children are now overweight, and 10 percent are obese. The rest of Southern Europe, known for its purportedly healthful Mediterranean diet, also fares badly, with Malta, Greece, Spain and Croatia -- hardly fast-food nations on the American scale -- rounding out the top five in the survey.
The Italian Health Ministry said that, although obesity in Europe had not reached the epidemic proportions of the United States, the figures are disturbing. Italian Health Minister Girolamo Sirchia proposed a revival of the religious tradition of fasting on Fridays, with schools offering reduced portions.
Mario Di Pietro, a pediatrician, said that too much pasta was not in itself the problem.
"Fighting excessive weight is not just a matter of diet," said Di Pietro. "It has to do with your entire way of life," he added. Di Pietro runs a seven-day course on healthy eating that includes a ban on television as well as junk food. He went on to note that, as Italian women abandon the role of "mamma" to pursue careers, homemade foods are being replaced by less healthful store-bought and fast foods.
A few years ago, Massimo Salani, a Roman Catholic priest from Tuscany, stirred up controversy by calling fast food "the fruit of a Protestant culture."
"Fast food reflects the individualistic relation between man and God introduced by Luther," Salani said, prompting such clever headlines in the following day's Italian newspapers as, "Theologian Excommunicates the Hamburger."
"The individualistic relation between man and God, started by Luther, is also reflected in the world of eating," Salani went on. "Lacking the community aspect of sharing, fast food is certainly not a Catholic model," he added.
While other denominations might make arguments about their particular gastronomic traditions, Salani's point was a good one in that it addressed the erosion of an underlying tradition that has led to the kinds of problems the Slow Foodists and others lament.
Giacomo Mojoli, a vice president of the Slow Food movement, demurred when asked about Salani's attack, saying Slow Food took a secular, rather than a religious, approach to the issue.
"Fast foods are dangerous because they bring about the homogenization of taste, because there is no cultural diversity," he said. "But there is no sense in demonizing them," he added.
Unfortunately for those cosmopolitans who crave cultural diversity, when cultures are allowed to deteriorate one ends up with fewer of them, not more.
THE POLITICS OF FOOD has never been more intriguing. With the release this month of the documentary Super Size Me, in which its director embarks on a no-holds-barred fast food feeding frenzy, many are attacking "corporate culture" for shoving junk food down their throats. The bigger problem could be that they are allowing this polymorphous corporate culture to take the place of a genuine culture and tradition -- including any fundamental beliefs and values -- they lack.
And so the Great Relearning in the culinary realm will have to begin. If the Italian communists who founded the Slow Food Movement really want to preserve their gastronomic culture and health-obsessed Americans really want to improve their diet, instead of focusing on the black celery of Trevi and the Ischia cave rabbit of Campania or worrying about what McDonald's executives want them to buy, they would do well to protect a way of life that values more than the exotic and the expedient.
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