Doing Well By Eating Well

Slow Food, a group from Italy dedicated to sensual correctness, will soon be urging Americans to rediscover and protect their culinary patrimony
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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."

Anyone who spent time tasting the cheeses, breads, or cured meats on the exhibition floor or in the laboratories would happily come to the defense of the microbes that made them all distinctive. Lardo di Colonnata, for example, is fatback cured for months with salt, pepper, rosemary, and other herbs and spices in vats made of white marble from local Tuscan quarries. It melts in the mouth when eaten in paper-thin slices, leaving the mingled flavors of pepper, pork, and rosemary lingering on the tongue. Lardo di Colonnata does not depend only on the plump pigs still raised in Italy (in contrast to the leaner pigs of America, bred to produce pale meat practically indistinguishable from veal). It depends on the winds of the Tuscan mountains, the porousness of the marble, the large-grained sea salt that melts slowly into the fat. The very air of a place -- not just the soil -- gives food its flavor and its particularity.

Slow Food is wary of biotechnology not to be Luddite -- unlike, perhaps, a group calling itself the Animal Liberation Front, which pursues its goals by launching terrorist attacks on the food industry. (Protesting Nestlé's use of genetically manipulated products, last Christmas the group sent to a national news agency two panettoni, produced by Nestlé-owned companies, that had been injected with rat poison -- causing a sudden recall of the two popular brands of cakes during the height of the selling season and a threatened shutdown of a Nestlé-owned Italian plant.) Slow Food's aim is to encourage the survival of foods imperiled because of high labor costs. A few of the products it has nominated for inclusion on its Ark are mortadelline di Campotosto, an egg-shaped sausage made in Abruzzo of lean pork meat with lard and strips of bacon (and no nitrites) and dried for four months near a fire; caciocavallo podolico, the "king of cheese from southern Italy," sharp of taste from being ripened as long as two years, and scented with wild herbs from the fields the cattle graze on; and crema di carrube, or carob cream, made by a very few families in Apulia and Sicily of soaked, cooked, and cracked carob beans, to be used in place of sugar. France has its own list, including oranges native to Nice, from only a few dozen century-old trees; red-violet blood peaches, or pêche sanguine de Manosque, from Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, nearly eliminated by frosts in the forties and fifties and by the substitution of higher-yielding varieties; and petit épeautre, an ancient grain related to emmer, durum, and common wheat.

Then there are the items that show the remnant desire to throw a few Molotov cocktails: tonno di tonnara di Favignana, from Sicily, tuna that has been bled to death and is white-fleshed and more delicate than driftnet- or line-caught tuna; and lattume di tonno, tuna sperm that is layered with salt for a month, washed, dried, and served in thin slices over salad or breaded and fried. Originally used as an aphrodisiac, lattume is today both a delicacy and a curiosity.

This May, Slow Food will make one of its most ambitious moves so far -- announcing a list of American foods to go on the Ark, as part of the cross-country tour its leaders have planned. It aims to persuade local foodies and ex-radicals to found convivia, branches that will hold tastings of local products and promote their use by restaurants and markets. Slow Food is counting on its existing convivia in California, Illinois, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, Utah, and Vermont to identify products for the Ark.

It takes time to think of what qualifies as a medieval cathedral in the United States, with its relatively short history and its ever-frenzied embrace of the very latest technology, which obliterates artisan traditions. Only one American food producer, Jonathan White, of Egg Farm Dairy, in Peekskill, New York, dared rent a booth at the Salone del Gusto; White has directed the Slow Food convivium in New York. His cheeses, already well known to American connoisseurs, are obvious Ark candidates, and so are southern country hams, fruit preserves such as apple butter and cherry jam, apple cider, and New Orleans pralines. Foreign enthusiasts may inspire us to preserve our own patrimony.

ANTHROPOMORPHIC animals like pandas and koala bears make wildlife supporters get out their checkbooks. Putting a face to a food makes it come alive both in the mind and on the palate. Personal warmth can make it come alive in the heart.

Flavio and Ferdinando Marino, brothers in their forties, grind corn at the Mulino Marino in Cossano Belbo, near the truffle capital, Alba, below Turin in the hills of the Langhe. Aside from bearing names beginning with F (a whim of the grandfather's), the men of the Marino family have in common a belief in milling only an old variety of eight-row corn, which takes much more care to raise and has a much lower yield than modern varieties. They develop seed corn and give it to the farmers who grow it for them -- a very expensive step. The flavor is better, they insist, not to mention that the variety is close to what grew in the area for a century or more.

A visit to the mill, where the Marino brothers use millstones produced near Paris before the Second World War, and sharpen the grooves by hand with hammer and mallet, was enough to persuade me and several colleagues who discovered the family at the conference that old and slow is better (admittedly, we didn't need much persuasion). The brothers' wives, aunt, and sister served a polenta feast, featuring circles of fried polenta with creamed salt cod; bread made, shockingly, in a bread machine, but good nonetheless; and the pièce de résistance -- two kinds of boiled polenta, coarse- and fine-ground, served with bagna d'euv, a tomato and tuna sauce with chopped hard-boiled eggs seasoned with parsley, garlic, and rosemary, and its hot twin, bagna d'infern, with anchovies in place of tuna, extra garlic, and hot pepper. The Marino polenta, even when later cooked it in my kitchen without any of the fragrant local ingredients, was clearly superior: fresher, nuttier, fuller-flavored.

Fulvio Marino, the twelve-year-old son of Ferdinando, took over the tour of the mill and even the lunch in the big family kitchen, answering "Si si si" -- a peculiarly Piedmontese form of emphasis -- to even the most tentative question. He managed to be both officious and charmingly at ease, with the adults who crowded the long table and with the playmates his age who appeared after lunch. With his experiments on the Internet and his rapid-fire disquisitions on family history, Fulvio seems set to inherit the business, even more than his fifteen-year-old brother, Fausto.

On a long walk after a long lunch Fulvio listened intently to his grandfather's tales of escaping with his partisan comrades by way of a tunnel cut through the town wall when German soldiers thought they had the place surrounded. He pointed to the sunnier parts of the hills, which grow the best corn, and enumerated the production of the various farms, all starting from the same seed corn provided by his family. He even jokingly promised a nine-row variety in honor of the next Salone del Gusto, which is to be held in the fall of next year. Slow Food has recently nominated Marino polenta to be on the Ark. I nominate Fulvio to be Noah.


Corby Kummer is a senior editor of The Atlantic and the author of (1995).


Illustration by Marco Ventura

The Atlantic Monthly; March 1999; Doing Good by Eating Well; Volume 283, No. 3; pages 102 - 107.



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