APPETITE can join forces with radicalism, and both sides can be the stronger and the prouder for the meeting. Or so a group originating in (where else?) Italy would have it. The message is one that many thousands of people in Italy and across Europe apparently want to hear, and that many Americans will learn about in a few months, when the group, Slow Food, barnstorms the United States. Slow Food combines great issues of recent decades, such as safeguarding the environment and cataloguing and preserving indigenous crops and traditional social groupings, with a distinctively nineties hedonism. It calls for "biodiversity" and "ecosingularity" -- terms that could come straight from the environmental movement -- but also instructs members to be ready for what its manifesto calls "suitable doses of guaranteed sensual pleasure and slow, long-lasting enjoyment."
This ideological stew mixes sixties idealism and the Italian love of show and bombast, along with a wish to give a socially conscious gloss to desires most people succumb to anyway. Carlo Petrini, the founder of Slow Food, first broadcast his leftist ideals in the 1970s, on a pirate radio station in his native Piedmont (home of Fiat, and thus a labor stronghold), using an American-made transmitter left over from the Korean War. Now forty-nine, he is still a tireless orator who never shies from a microphone. It was in the seventies, Petrini recently told a group of journalists, that he realized he had been impeding his own cause by denying himself pleasure. "I came to understand," he said, "that those who suffer for others do more damage to humanity than those who enjoy themselves. Pleasure is a way of being at one with yourself and others." Petrini practices what he preaches: he's a big, shaggy, bearded man who clearly loves to eat as much as declaim.
The catalyst for Slow Food was the announcement that a McDonald's would open in the middle of the Piazza di Spagna in Rome -- an unthinkable invasion and, to Petrini, a provocation that could not be ignored. In 1986 he devised his manifesto, and representatives of fifteen countries endorsed it at a November, 1989, meeting at the Opéra-Comique, in Paris.
If the price of saving what's right with the world is doing something you like anyway, albeit with a bit more thought and effort, then Slow Food has devised a winning strategy -- something Petrini lacked as a self-denying radical. What began half in jest among a group of like-minded, high-spirited friends has turned quite serious and quite large. Today Slow Food counts 65,000 members (nearly half of them Italian) in thirty-five countries, and publishes a beautifully designed quarterly magazine, Slow,in English, Italian, French, Spanish, and German. Its guides to Italian wines, regional food producers, and restaurants are definitive.
In the seventies and eighties any Italian with pretenses to intellectualism sported a World Wildlife Fund insignia in his or her car window. Now Slow Food wants people to adopt endangered foods the way environmentalists adopt endangered animals -- only this time the means of preservation will be vigorous consumption rather than rigorous protection. It has launched the Ark Project, publicizing foods "threatened by extinction" in an effort to persuade consumers to seek them out and restaurants to serve them regularly -- the idea being that market demand will spur supply. (The Web site, with Ark listings, essays from the magazine, and a membership form, is at www.slowfood.com; the phone number is 1-877-SLOWFOO.) Doing good by eating well: it's an irresistible combination.
SLOW Food demonstrated its powerful appeal last fall in Turin at a five-day food festival, trade show, and consciousness-raising jamboree called the Salone del Gusto, or Salon of Taste. I confess to having been utterly aroused by the conference -- in fact, overstimulated. I was hardly alone: 126,000 visitors found their way to the convention center -- formerly a Fiat factory -- where the meeting was held. They crowded the aisles, looking for free samples and acting very concerned about the rarity of the savory or sweetmeat in question. Massimo D'Alema, Italy's Prime Minister and a Slow Food member, toured the floor with his old friend and leftist ally Petrini. At one point on Sunday afternoon ticket sales were halted, when the aisles became impassable. Lavazza, Italy's largest coffee company and a Salone sponsor, was obliged periodically to shut down the stand where it served complimentary espresso -- 60,000 cups in all. The stand was the spiritual center of the conference, embodying as it did the soul of Italian culture, the café, and it was sometimes stampeded.
Hundreds of foods and wines competed for attention. Multiple "laboratories," or seminars, took place from early in the afternoon until late at night, nearly all of them of great interest. In one two-hour slot alone a visitor could both taste and learn about six rare mountain cheeses produced according to old traditions in the northern regions of Italy; vinegars made from vintage German wines, served on two specially created dishes; Carnaroli and Vialone Nano, the two rice varieties most prized for risotto, and their different textures when cooked; seven dried meats, cured in alpine valleys in Italy and Slovenia; dishes featuring saffron grown in Italy, Spain, Iran, India, Turkey, and Switzerland; five varieties of coppa, cured pork shoulder, from six regions spanning the length of Italy; and fish couscous, pastries filled with tuna and capers, and other Tunisian dishes, prepared by chefs flown in from Tunisia for the occasion.
It's rare that a food conference attempts to bring together food producers, cooks, and authorities from many countries. It's also rare that an Italian conference manages to run with great efficiency and to deliver on everything promised. That this conference did both might be because Turin, an industrial city in the northwestern corner of Italy, is known for efficiency. It also might be because Slow Food has caught the imagination of artisans and gourmets around the world, who turned out in force and wanted to show what they could do. Cooks and farmers came from Australia, Chile, China, Greece, Japan, Mexico, Morocco, Spain; a Palestinian delegation served a meal jointly with its Israeli counterpart. Uniting the world seemed as simple as breaking pita bread and sipping cardamom-spiced coffee together.
Perhaps the reason for Slow Food's popularity is its aim to celebrate and preserve rather than to criticize and vanquish. Petrini tolerates the fast food that first roused him to act -- or at least he claims to. "I'm against formulas of how to live in the world," he says. "If you want to eat at McDonald's, go ahead." He even thinks, rather optimistically, that a sufficient number of meals at McDonald's will turn bored diners back to the tradition of their forebears. "Taste is like an umbilical cord," he says. "We all return to our grandmothers, no matter how many detours we take along the way." Saying, Doing, Tasting, a recent Slow Food book, is aimed at showing elementary school teachers and parents how to teach children not only good nutrition but also the history and culture of the food they eat and the importance of sharing it with family and friends.
With enough time and enough McDonald's and the like, of course, there will be no roots to return to. The Americanization of the European Union means the homogenization of foods. Europe-wide laws of sanitation could spell ruin for many of the mountain-cheese and cured-meat producers who brought their products to the Salone. "They're insisting on two bathrooms, one for men and one for women, in malghe," Petrini told the journalists in outrage, referring to rural mountain dairies that are often one-man operations. Petrini compares cheese to a medieval cathedral -- an irreplaceable part of cultural patrimony that took centuries to create: "I cry when I see what Stilton has come to, with pasteurized milk that kills the microbes that made that cheese great. We must create an international movement to defend microbes."