In 1986, protesters commandeered the Piazza di Spagna in Rome. They brandished bowls of penne as signs of their discontent; a McDonald's shall not pollute this Italian cultural stronghold! Out of this good-natured frustration at the possible arrival of a fast-food giant grew Slow Food, which has amassed over 100,000 members in 153 countries. This movement has the will of one man to thank: Slow Food president and founder Carlo Petrini.
Two weeks ago, I was lucky enough to hear one of Petrini's famed sermons when he came to Yale for a day as part of his college speaking tour. He arrived mid-morning, and spent an hour with an Italian class, and headed up to the Yale Farm to enjoy some unorthodox New Haven pizza, topped with freshly harvested veggies and cooked in our wood-burning oven. From the moment Petrini arrived, he took to the bustle of the Farm. He walked through the garden and straight to the oven, where I stood about to load in a pizza. I speak no Italian, but luckily Petrini has developed a talent for evocative gesturing. Moving his hands exuberantly, he communicated to me that he would like to try! Politely taking the pizza peel from my hand, Petrini slid the pizza into the oven.
After several plates of pizza and some much appreciated praise from the man himself about our thin crust, Petrini headed off to tour the garden. He discussed composting methods with our farm managers and tasted the last of our Sungold tomatoes, stalwarts hanging on in early fall. (A couple of days later, we would clear their remains to make way for winter crops.) He was excited to see we were growing collards, a leafy green he'd developed a taste for on a recent trip to Georgia. As the afternoon began to fade away, Petrini was ushered down the hill to prepare for his impending lecture.
Just before 5:00 p.m., I edged my way to the front row of the auditorium, which was packed to capacity. After the last seats were filled, and introductions made, Petrini took the stage, accompanied by The Atlantic's own Corby Kummer, who acted as his translator. It was only when he began to speak that I got it. I finally understood why Petrini is such a sensation.
He quickly abandoned the formality of the podium and began to stride across the stage, occasionally glancing at small pages of handwritten notes.
He quickly abandoned the formality of the podium and began to stride across the stage, occasionally glancing at small pages of handwritten notes taken from his pocket, but otherwise speaking off the cuff. With the spirit of a rousing revolutionary, Petrini launched into an explanation of the problems we face, and the attitude with which our generation should approach them. He began with a declaration of a disturbing reality that was also a call to arms: It is our responsibility to change the food system—a system that "underlies a monstrous environmental disaster." It is causing our soil to lose its fertility, the planet's biodiversity to plummet, and the number of farmer to dwindle at a rate that will soon leave us with no one to grow our food.
It is hard to get anyone to think about the future without the balance of immediate gratification or a tangible incentive to change, and Slow Food has both sides covered. While warning us in abstract terms about the demise of our food system, Petrini is sure to emphasize the importance of pleasure. Eating sustainably and protecting biodiversity also ensure us a spectrum of culinary delights for our gustatory enjoyment.
This ingredient, the conscientious enjoyment of eating, defines the appeal of Slow Food, but it is also its major weakness. Skeptics have often poked fun at the movement, imagining Petrini and the like enjoying their Parma prosciutto and artisanal cheeses while the real victims of our food system work to scrounge together enough dough to buy a cup of instant noodles. Petrini anticipated these concerns about class, using them to bring up a fundamental myth about our food system: industrialized food is not actually cheap. Whether through the decreasing fertility of our soil or in our health care bills, we are constantly paying for this "cheap food."
This is where things get really serious: At the heart of Petrini's philosophy is the idea of value. The market-driven food system has caused us to lose sight of the worth of a good meal, as well as the energy that goes into producing that meal. Good leftist that he is, Petrini reminded us that the labor of the farmer has been made to seem distant from the price tag we see at the supermarket. This seems to be the most important and most difficult part of Petrini's mission: to get people to step away from consumerism and reinterpret the value of food.
Petrini made this monumental shift seem feasible not only with his oration but also with some concrete reminders. Firstly, he explained that redefining value could be as simple as joining a CSA; invest at the beginning of the season and trust the farmer to deliver weekly installments of vegetables, rather than paying directly for what you see. The CSA system relies upon trust and what Petrini calls "reciprocity" rather than a direct relationship of commodifaction.
He also reminded us that in America this shift away from industrialized food is already progressing. In the past few years we have seen an eruption of food consciousness—microbreweries and farmer's markets across the country, for example. We are moving in the right direction.
Even with all of his impassioned encouragement, the problems Petrini outlined are overwhelming. It's hard to imagine that the small choices we make each day about food could eventually reform the whole system. But that's okay. Petrini explained that this process must happen calmly and slowly. "Transformation is stronger than revolution," he said, "but just as radical. It maintains life, memory, and tradition."