Italy’s “Slow Food” Pioneer: How My Love for Food Ripened into a Life’s Work
In 1986, Carlo Petrini and a group of friends threw a big pasta feed in Rome’s storied Piazza di Spagna (the Spanish Steps). The event was a protest against the opening of the first McDonald’s in Italy. Out of that grew Slow Food, an organization that now includes 100,000 people in 150 countries, all committed to local food and the traditions associated with it. Buon gusto!
Sarah van Gelder: How did you end up focused on traditional, local food?
Carlo Petrini: I grew up in a place where social events and leisure time are mostly related to food. Food was and still is an essential aspect of festivities, conviviality, of Piedmont traditions like singing and dancing, and thus growing up I became aware of this cultural, social, historical aspect of food, which was starting to be threatened by a false idea of modernity.
A basic tenet of Slow Food is that everyone on the planet should have the right and access to good, clean, and fair food.
There are food-related scenes from my childhood that I still remember. My grandmother, for instance, used to collect all the breadcrumbs from the table after a meal instead of throwing them away. It was my grandmother who instilled the interest in my country’s flavors and tastes in me by always giving me the feeling of being loved and taken care of with good food. Children are likely to develop a special relationship with their grandmother’s culinary traditions because of the love associated with it. That’s why comfort food is most likely foods from childhood. The influence goes way beyond developing preferences for certain dishes and includes a whole set of intrinsic values about convivial and affectionate family structures and cultural practices.
van Gelder: How did your love of food lead you into activism?
Petrini: I had to do something in reaction to the planned opening of a McDonald’s restaurant in Piazza di Spagna in Rome. Adding a large, yellow “M” sign would have aesthetically disfigured this cultural and historic place, and public opinion opposed it. We decided to organize a convivial event distributing a pasta dish in the piazza, because pasta is part of Italian culture and tradition—the flavors and tastes of our memory—and symbolizes the resistance against homogeneous, “same everywhere,” fast food. McDonald’s opened anyway, but we achieved a compromise: the “M” sign was limited in size. After this incident, we resolved to create a movement to save traditional tastes and products all over the world. They are not only essential for the preservation of biodiversity on the planet, but also for our cultural patrimony and sense of identity.
van Gelder: What does Slow Food have to offer in terms of improving our health?
Petrini: Canned, frozen, or instant foods contain less nutritional value, and even fresh products usually travel a long way, maybe even from a different continent, so that the fruits and vegetables have to be harvested a long time before they are actually ripe.
Slow Food promotes local food and only what is in season. We prefer, as far as possible, to use what the territory has to offer—ideally to know the producers so that we can get familiar with the product we are buying and ask questions about it. If we cook a dish ourselves with simple ingredients, we can create a healthy plate with authentic flavor.
van Gelder: You say in your book, Terra Madre, that pleasure should be democratic. What do you mean?
Petrini: A basic tenet of Slow Food is that everyone on the planet should have the right and access to good, clean, and fair food. Nobody should have to go to bed hungry and everyone should have access to food that is culturally desirable. An African community, for instance, should be able to choose food that they enjoy eating—their traditional food that is often more nutritious than the Western diet foreign countries sometimes impose on them.
van Gelder: Does Slow Food speak also to hunger?
Petrini: We focus on drawing attention to the fact that the world’s current food production is enough to feed the world but that food provisions are not justly distributed around a world where around 2 billion people are overweight and 1 billion remain undernourished. We need to distribute food more justly.
We as Slow Food members try to support small-scale local producers all over the world. Western industrial agriculture produces cheaper food, which hurts local markets and introduces products that are not even culturally desirable to the locals. The fight against hunger is above all a political fight, since we have to try and impose regulations in favor of local farmers.
van Gelder: What about the poverty that seems to go along with being a food or farm worker?
Petrini: Our philosophy is good, clean, and fair food: Good because it is healthy and tasty; clean because it is produced with low environmental impact and with animal welfare in mind; and fair because it respects the work of those who produce, process, and distribute it. It is important to compensate farmworkers, fishermen, or artisanal producers in a fair way that provides them a comfortable standard of living.
van Gelder: The Slow Food movement has become international. What does Slow Food mean to your members from Africa or Asia?
Petrini: Just as in all the countries where Slow Food is active, Slow Food members in Africa and Asia are organized in local groups called Convivia. They come together to cherish their local culinary traditions during events, taste workshops, and conferences.
Our “A Thousand Gardens in Africa” project has created nearly a thousand food gardens in schools, villages, and on the outskirts of cities in 25 African countries. The gardens are farmed sustainably, using composting techniques, efficient water use, local plant varieties, and natural pest treatments. The project is a means of guaranteeing a supply of fresh and healthy food to local communities, improving the quality of life, and developing local economies.
van Gelder: Is industrial agriculture needed to feed everyone? Or is there an alternate way of interacting with nature?
Petrini: There is a common misconception that we have to produce more to feed the world. By producing, consuming, and wasting too much in the Western world, we take away the right to food security in the poor countries. In order to feed the world, a different approach is necessary—one that considers the long-term consequences of farming methods. If we treat nature and the people who produce food respectfully, value our territory’s potential, we can live more in harmony with nature and reduce the number who are hungry in this world.
van Gelder: How does overproduction and waste in developed countries take away the right to food in poorer countries?
Petrini: For example, the intensive farming of chicken in the West threatens African markets. We prefer the choicest parts of the animal—legs and breast—and export the wings to Africa. They are sold at much lower prices than African farmers need to charge to make a living. A similar phenomenon is happening in terms of grain production. We overproduce subsidized grain in the West and export it. This harms local production because, despite the transportation costs, the subsidies allow the imported grain to sell for a lower price than local grain. These examples are just two out of many showing how we destroy local markets in developing countries and impose our own foods on them, which might not even be culturally desirable to them.
van Gelder: What is “slow knowledge”?
Petrini: Slow knowledge refers to ancient and traditional skills and knowledge—production methods that people have been relying on for centuries but that have been replaced by more modern industrial techniques. Slow knowledge methods take time and consider the impacts on the environment—something—society started to disregard at some point.
van Gelder: You mentioned earlier that you grew up immersed in Piedmont traditions of food, music, and festivities. How are you preserving those traditions?
Petrini: One of the Piedmont traditions I still practice every year with the students from the University of Gastronomic Sciences is a ritual of welcoming the Spring, called Cante j’euv. We walk from winery to winery singing until the owners open their doors and feed us their products and wine while we continue to entertain them with singing and dancing.
Another important Piedmont festival I go to every year is the Fair of the Bue Grasso di Carr, an ancient but still active fair dedicated to the Piedmont breed and to the tradition of having a fat ox for the Christmas festivities table. During this festival, the town is transformed into a community of joy, laughter, and smells. Visitors come to eat bollito, the traditional boiled meat dish associated with the event, which contains all the different parts of the ox.
As I have traveled around the world, I have realized that all cultures have similar events that promote conviviality in relation to traditional foods and associated rituals. I mean, what would Thanksgiving be without a turkey? We have to realize that certain foods are deeply rooted in culture and tradition.
van Gelder: What do you believe are our biggest challenges going forward, and how does Slow Food address them?
Petrini: Our biggest challenges are fighting food waste, stopping ocean and land grabs, establishing sustainable fishing and agricultural policies, guaranteeing animal welfare, safeguarding biodiversity, and protecting small-scale producers. Most importantly, we need to provide drinkable water to everyone, feed the hungry, and guarantee access to food that is culturally desirable for every person on this Earth. With the collaboration of other organizations and engaged citizens committed to a more sustainable food system, I believe we can move mountains and stop big multinationals from destroying the existence of small-scale artisan producers.
Illustration by Julie Notarianni.