Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Slow Me the Way

Whenever I travel, I generally have at least one book in hand. If, despite all inclination otherwise, I have to fly, I usually have two books packed, one of which is often a book on food. (You can take the cook out of the kitchen, but...)

As I wrapped up my journey last week, I hauled out book number two to start reading on the flight home: Slow Food Nation: Why Our Food Should Be Good, Clean, and Fair by the founder of Slow Food, Carlo Petrini.

I confess to being of two minds as I picked up the book at the library. On the one hand, I appreciate what Slow Food has done to make people more aware of culinary traditions, to preserve biodiversity, and to encourage the rejection of a frenzied pace of life that does little to strengthen our health, both individually and as a community. The Slow Food Movement has spun off other related groups, all falling under the broader rubric of Slow Living -- and that's something that has had great appeal for me in the past few years as I've made conscious decisions to step back from "having it all" in order to appreciate the smaller and slower aspects of life.

But I'm also keenly aware of some of the criticism leveled both at Slow Food and at Petrini. Some critics point to the high cost of Slow Food convivia membership or dinners and declare the movement to be an elitist one, despite the original purpose of the organization to make good food available to everyone. (Tom Philpott at Grist outlines both.) Valid arguments also exist to show that while eating Slow may be a good idea, it requires a great deal of work, and that can't always be balanced with the rest of our frenetic lives. And Petrini himself has drawn heat for observations made in this book (pages 130-131) about the legendary Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market in San Francisco, calling it a "boutique" frequented by "actresses" and supplied by farmers who charge exorbitant prices in order to limit their appearances at the market and to save time for their personal leisure (charges that were aptly refuted by some of the farmers in question).

Still, in the interest of fairness, I read on. And, to sum it up -- well, if I wanted to persuade someone to incorporate more local foods into his or her way of life, this isn't the book I'd recommend.

Don't get me wrong. Petrini knows a great deal (after 20 years of Slow Food, he'd better) and has traveled to experience firsthand some of the problems with agriculture as well as some of the solutions. His message is pretty basic: the food that we (meaning all of humanity) should eat should be good, clean, and fair. A brief elaboration of those three criteria would be:

--good means quality of taste, nutrition, environmental impact, and work behind the production of the food
--clean means that, as far as possible, food should be grown or raised with no or extremely little chemical input (pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics, etc.) and with as low an environmental impact as possible
--fair means that the food is produced in a way that offers a decent living to those who work to produce the food... as well as that the food is affordable to all

A better summary of these points, based on a talk Petrini gave in San Francisco, is available at The Ethicurean, but you get the idea: good, clean, and fair are all intertwined, and to neglect any one of the three is to lessen the probability that the others will be of high quality.

But I have to simplify these points because Petrini takes over 200 pages to elaborate those three points in both exquisite and excruciating detail, often in elaborately crafted and lofty sentences that smack of a dry academic tome and rarely backed up with references. I'm not looking for bland sound bites here, just a clear logical outline that doesn't keep looping back over itself in ornately tangled patterns of ponderous prose. (I can do that myself!)

Sometimes Petrini's writing is lyrical, almost poetic, as he gives rein to his passion for good food and its role in our lives, and he reveals connections that might otherwise slip by unnoticed:

Like language, cooking contains and expresses the culture of the person who does it; it is the repository of the traditions and identity of a group. It self-represents and communicates even more strongly than language, because food is directly assimilable by our organism: eating someone else's food is easier and more immediate than speaking their language (p.77).

No one has the right to judge someone else's food on the basis of their own "cultural" taste: if we accept the description of food as a language, it becomes a means of communication, and in order to judge it we must learn to recognize the categories of the good which have codified it, as a language, in that particular culture. We must learn other culinary languages (p.108).

You can see, though, that even at the best of times, it takes a while for Petrini to get around to clarifying his main point. I'm not sure whether some of my difficulties with the style are due to his original text or to an unwieldy translation, but his arguments often become repetitive, parenthetical, or just plain burdensome. And while I have no doubt that there exists plenty of room for academic volumes on the subject of food, I find the formal, almost pompous tone of much of the book to belie the author's undeniably heartfelt opinion that good food and eating should involve all people of every socioeconomic and educational stratum. (Who will read this book other than "elitists" and "critics"?)

Petrini does shine when he makes the connection between eating good, clean, and fair food and making sustainability a larger part of our lives overall -- a connection I love to see:

For many people, cooking -- and the kitchen as the place where the activity takes place -- is becoming an antidote to the lifestyles imposed by the dominant social model, a form of gastronomic resistance and protection of diversity (p.79).

Well, yes! In addition, while he recognizes that not all of us can be farmers, he pleads for the idea of self-sufficiency and the right for everyone to secure their own food supplies by producing what they can by themselves (p.137). Whether that's in maintaining a small garden plot of your own or by making your own preserves based on what you find from local farmers is up to you and your individual circumstances.

As always, Petrini upholds the pleasure principle: if food doesn't taste good, why do we bother? And why don't we seek out food that does taste good? Nutrition may be taught in schools, but from a very young age, he declares, we should be teaching how to taste food and to enjoy how it fits into our culture. He applauds the growth of school gardens and sees them as one major step in getting us back to a food network that actually works, that connects us back to the land and the source of our well-being.

There's a good deal of useful information in this book, and if you're looking for a text in "modern gastronomy," which is part of Petrini's purpose in writing, then by all means, read this book. But for those who are already supporting local foods and looking for ways to expand their knowledge and activity -- or for those who are looking for a way in -- this isn't the best book to get you going. I came across relatively little that I hadn't already read elsewhere, and the writing style and roundabout arguments made me set down the book periodically so that I could uncross my eyes. (Sorry, Carlo. You're just not my cup of espresso.)

There are good points in this book. But why make it difficult to draw more people in to support those points? Petrini points out in one of his most beautifully succinct sentences, "The small farmer can save the world from the abyss: let us give him the chance to do so" (p.136).

To which I would say, so can the "small eater." So close the book already and let us eat!


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