Slow Food, High Gear

A new university in Italy aims to elevate gastronomy to an academic discipline—and put its students through a humbling workout.
SHELLFISH at a restaurant in the Po delta

Petrini’s hopes for the university and the movement came together unexpectedly at the Slow Food International Congress in November, just two weeks after the Viaggio ended. In the late 1990s he declared that the future of the movement is the developing world, whose rich repository of biodiversity and farming wisdom is under constant pressure from urbanization, agro-industry, and pollution. At the conclusion of the last conference four years ago, in Naples, he shouted, “Next time in Puebla!”

He meant the stunning UNESCO World Heritage site that gives its name to a region with what many believe to be Mexico’s richest cuisine. His idea was to get out of Europe. At the time, he confessed in his welcoming speech to the more than 500 delegates from 49 countries who did find their way to Puebla in November, he was expressing a somewhat wild and improbable hope. On such “beautiful lies,” he said, are dreams built.

The next morning a group of 12 University of Gastronomic Science students, fresh from the Viaggio, took the stage. In carefully composed, shiningly idealistic remarks, they announced their intention to build an international network linking young people working in food and farming. Already they had carved up the globe, each taking responsibility for devising ways for groups to exchange knowledge and collaborate on regional projects. They wanted to set up a Web site in time for the October 2008 meeting of Terra Madre, a biennial Slow Food gathering of nearly 5,000 farmers, artisans, and cooks from all over the world. (Notes on the network’s progress will be posted at

Then six young American activists, fresh from a national summit convened by the Yale Sustainable Food Project, took the stage to describe their own efforts: helping high-school students learn about farming and food production; pressing their universities to buy more food locally; even starting campus chapters of Slow Food. They had come to Puebla, they said, to join forces with the movement and enlist its support.

As the two groups filed offstage, the delegates rose to applaud them, many brushing away tears. In an improvised end to his scheduled speech, Roberto Burdese, the president of Slow Food Italy, announced that the two presentations would change Slow Food history. His prediction came true the very next day, when for the first time Petrini named a university student—John Kariuki Mwangi, from Kenya—to be one of the three international vice presidents.

In a bus on the way to the concluding festivities at Cholula, the site of one of the world’s largest pyramids, the two groups cooked up a scheme. They kept it to themselves while the delegates watched Indians in headdresses with six-foot quetzal plumes dance at the pyramid’s base. After dinner, Petrini, accompanied by a mariachi band, did a mean Mexican folk dance and led the room in a lusty rendition of “Cielito Lindo.”

Deep into the singing and dancing, the students sprang their scheme on the movement’s high command. They would stage a two-day happening in Pollenzo right before the next Terra Madre conference. Students, young food producers, and activists would learn about the movement. They would take over the town. Who could say what might happen?

Petrini and his cohorts, steeped in ’70s radicalism, couldn’t have been happier. This was one beautiful lie, they said, they would make come true.

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Corby Kummer is an Atlantic senior editor. More

Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." Julia Child once said, "I think he's a very good food writer. He really does his homework. As a reporter and a writer he takes his work very seriously." Kummer's 1990 Atlantic series about coffee was heralded by foodies and the general public alike. The response to his recommendations about coffees and coffee-makers was typical--suppliers scrambled to meet the demand. As Giorgio Deluca, co-founder of New York's epicurean grocery Dean & Deluca, says: "I can tell when Corby's pieces hit; the phone doesn't stop ringing." His book, The Joy of Coffee, based on his Atlantic series, was heralded by The New York Times as "the most definitive and engagingly written book on the subject to date." In nominating his work for a National Magazine Award (for which he became a finalist), the editors wrote: "Kummer treats food as if its preparation were something of a life sport: an activity to be pursued regularly and healthfully by knowledgeable people who demand quality." Kummer's book The Pleasures of Slow Food celebrates local artisans who raise and prepare the foods of their regions with the love and expertise that come only with generations of practice. Kummer was restaurant critic of New York Magazine in 1995 and 1996 and since 1997 has served as restaurant critic for Boston Magazine. He is also a frequent food commentator on television and radio. He was educated at Yale, immediately after which he came to The Atlantic. He is the recipient of five James Beard Journalism Awards, including the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award.

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