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From the archives:

"Doing Good by Eating Well" (March 1999)
Slow Food, a group from Italy dedicated to sensual correctness, will soon be urging Americans to rediscover and protect their culinary patrimony. By Corby Kummer

More articles by Corby Kummer from Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Atlantic Unbound | November 14, 2002
The Values of Good Food

In his new book, The Pleasures of Slow Food, Corby Kummer profiles a culinary movement that is really a philosophy of life


The Pleasures of Slow Food

The Pleasures of Slow Food: Celebrating Authentic Traditions, Flavors, and Recipes
by Corby Kummer
176 pages, $40.00

t's rare for a book about a movement to make your mouth water. But then again, it's rare for a movement to be about things as delicious as fluffy crepes cooked in the coals of a wood-burning fire, slathered with golden-green pesto; or homemade salami, spiced with nutmeg and caraway seeds. Slow Food was born out of a protest over McDonald's coming to Rome, and the movement is truly the antithesis of the McDonald's ethos. It prizes foods that are lovingly, carefully grown and prepared, and tries to preserve local farming traditions and rural landscapes. Many of its "meetings" happen over long, tasty meals, and it tells its members to prepare for "suitable doses of guaranteed pleasure and slow, long-lasting enjoyment."

In The Pleasures of Slow Food, Corby Kummer describes how Slow Food searches for artisans all over the world who are baking bread or making cheese or raising cattle, using time-honored, small-scale methods. Many of these traditions are under threat—whether economic, regulatory, or environmental. Slow Food helps the foodmakers by putting them in touch with one another, cutting through red tape, and introducing their products to restaurants and food-lovers around the world. Saving endangered foods is a way of achieving even more ambitious goals: helping small farmers succeed economically, protecting swaths of land, maintaining biodiversity, and preserving traditional ways of life. Kummer tells the stories of a few of those farmers—some of whom have been adopted by Slow Food, and others of whom have no connection to it but exemplify its values. For example, he profiles a New England man who is using heirloom apples to revive an old American tradition of fermented ciders. And he travels to a farm in Australia, where a couple has created a "botanical ark" of endangered plants from rainforests in Africa, Asia, and South America. Kummer also finds chefs from around the world whose recipes make wonderful use of the type of ingredients he's writing about.

Recipes From The Pleasures of Slow Food

Pesto alla Genovese
Fried Plantains
The philosophy that infuses Slow Food matches Kummer's own. In his role as a food writer for The Atlantic and other publications, including Gourmet and The New York Times, Kummer has always sought out artisans who use local ingredients and who have a passion for what they're doing. His articles are not about the food world's latest trends but about its elements: salt, cheese, eggs, butter, beer. Recently, Kummer has been writing a column called Palate at Large, in which he takes a dish (a perfectly rich sauce to serve with duck; Ecuadorian quinoa soup) and gives a sense of the history and culture behind it, along with a recipe for how best to enjoy it.

Perhaps no group has benefitted more directly from Kummer's interest and curiosity in food than his fellow staff members at The Atlantic. People will frequently gather nearby Kummer's office to sample the latest shipment of goodies from some remote part of the world—chocolate-covered espresso beans from a man in Zimbabwe, single malt Scotch from Scotland (who said magazine work was dry?), even butter from a small farm in Italy. In these impromptu tasting sessions, Kummer is practicing on a small scale one of Slow Food's central tenets: that once you get people to taste foods that have been prepared with thought and care, using the best ingredients, they'll want to seek them out for themselves.

Kummer, a senior editor at The Atlantic, has been at the magazine since 1981. He is the restaurant reviewer for Boston Magazine, and is also the author of The Joy of Coffee.

We spoke on November 8.

—Katie Bacon

Corby Kummer
Corby Kummer   

As Carlo Petrini, the founder of Slow Food, makes clear, his organization is about far more than just eating. Could you talk about the philosophy and the lifestyle that Slow Food represents?

I think that the reason it has won tens of thousands of members around the world is that it isn't just about finding very rare, delicious foods and enjoying them; it's saying, What can we do to help those foods survive in the modern world? So it kind of takes the guilt out of the gourmet.

It seems like an unusual mix of pragmatism and idealism.

It's true. I don't think that any other environmental group or food association had managed to make that combination. That's what makes Slow Food easy to enjoy and join. The movement happens to correspond exactly with the people and values I was writing about in The Atlantic for years. So naturally I think it's a great movement. Those values are to find people who for their own peculiar reasons—and they're usually semi-peculiar people—want to make food and not have a white-collar job, not be part of the nine-to-five world. They want to go back to the land in a way that gets them in touch with the seasons, growing cycles, animals, and good food. And they want to try to make a living at it. When writing for The Atlantic I'm always very careful to find people who don't have other ways of making money, so they're putting everything into it—their hearts and their economic futures. I really admire those people. Usually, if they're going to take that kind of gamble and that kind of risk, there's something a little crazy about them, and I find that kind of craziness and dedication really appealing.

It does seem to me from reading the profiles in your book that these people are going into this because they have a passion for it—not because they think it will be lucrative. They do figure out how to make a living, but you wouldn't go into this for the money.

Absolutely not. All they want is to be able to survive. They work all the time. They're always trying to make their foods better. They're really interested in what they do, which is what makes them interesting to listen to and write about.

Might economic factors limit this as a movement? I would think there would only be so many people who are passionate enough about these foods that they would go into a business where little money is to be had.

Well, there are a lot of them. And no one group has ever looked just for them and tried to bring them together. The beauty of Slow Food is that it has managed through guts, daring, and entrepreneurship to hook up a world-wide network. It works on a local level to help people navigate difficult local economies. For instance, it might help cheesemakers in Italy navigate the bureaucracy of the European Union. The European Union has mandated that you can't use wood tools in food production, but wood has bacteria that cheesemakers need for their cheeses. They can get variances, but obtaining them means filling out a lot of paperwork. So local Slow Food members will find someone with law expertise to help them out. Or they'll adopt a food and try to find a local restaurant to feature it, which results in a more reliable income for the foodmaker.

How does the food bureaucracy in the U.S. compare to that of the E.U.?

In the U.S. once you start selling, and especially if you're shipping, you're subject to a bunch of hygiene rules that are as bad as anything in the European Union. But if you sell locally and you're not distributing to other stores or sending by mail, I think it's more relaxed. What that means for the consumer is that you have to go to this farm stand, or that person's back door. I don't know how that varies from state to state, but I do know that the Massachusetts chapter is mounting field trips to cheesemakers and butchers and bread bakers so that people can learn about their craft—while they taste, of course. It's doing the kind of activities that make Slow Food so interesting in countries like Italy and Germany, but on a really good, American scale, with a more go-ahead optimism. They'll find a decent cheese and call up a store and ask, Will you sell this cheese? It's a pretty active role.

I was at a dinner last night where we had our first heirloom turkeys, which was the culmination of one of Slow Food's projects. As things were gearing up for the first Slow Food Awards there wasn't an American candidate, so they said to me, Find an American. There was one nomination, of a group called the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. I wrote about them, they got the award, and Slow Food USA, which only started two years ago and needed to have some showy initiatives to get some attention and really help some American people, teamed up with the ALBC to find some endangered heritage breeds of turkeys that would taste better. Then Slow Food called up around fifty farmers and said, Would you raise turkeys if we pay for the eggs and pay you something for the extra breeding costs? The farmers agreed. They sold the eggs in April at $75 apiece to various people who would be ordering their turkeys, the turkeys grew, and I met two of the farmers last night. One of them was a woman who told me that she had fifty turkeys and one night there was a minor gas explosion or something, it spooked the turkeys, and a couple of them escaped. From then on, for a month and a half, she slept in a tent with her turkeys, because she was so worried about them! That's the kind of slightly nutty, dedicated person Slow Food attracts.

Last night a wonderful team of French trained American chefs from the French Culinary Institute in New York made these turkeys, and they were delicious. I ate more turkey than I have at any Thanksgiving in years. I shocked myself. The white meat tasted like capon, meaning very fine-grained and very moist, with a good but distinctive, delicate flavor. And the dark meat was also, of course, moist, but not greasy, the way a lot of American turkey is. And it kind of tasted like pigeon, or some kind of wild game dark meat. It was just wonderful.

Could you talk about how you started writing about food in the first place? What are some of the challenges inherent in it, and the pleasures you take from it?

Well, Bill Whitworth, the longtime editor of The Atlantic, heard me one day describing the operatic rivalry between the two kings of Italian cuisine in America—the two Italians who taught food in both America and Italy and were the gurus for those who loved Italian food. There was such jealousy between them that if they found out that you'd taken the other's course, they wouldn't talk to you or accept you in their own. Even their followers wouldn't really talk to each other. After this lunch Bill said, I want you to write about that. I said, I'm too young to die—I'm not going to write about those two people. But I did start writing about food, which I'd always been interested in. I love, I think more than anything, literally, editing articles on politics and science and the arts for The Atlantic, but the thing I could write about that would interest these readers was food.

I always try to write for people who aren't interested in food, because the magazine is not a food magazine. So my goal is to capture people who don't care at all about food. When I get to the hard-core information about the cheese or the meat I'm really talking about, or now in Palate at Large, the recipe, I know that people will veer off and stop reading. But my goal is to get people who don't care about food to keep reading as long as possible. It's a very good exercise.

You traveled to Italy, Germany, Australia, and other countries in writing this book. How would you compare our attitudes about food—and about the type of values that Slow Food represents—with those of other countries?

I would say that the Europeans are pretty much converted already. In Europe almost everyone has memories going back over generations of food with actual flavor, food that's carefully raised. So Slow Food has appealed not just to rich people who like better things but to pretty much everybody who knows that there was once actually good food. Whether or not they can afford it, whether they feel they have time to make it, they know it's there, and that it's something to appreciate.

There's a real problem with Slow Food in America, and it's this: we don't have that memory bred into us, so it's still a movement of the elite. The goal is to get it to appeal much more to a grass-roots level, and that means making people taste it. Generally, once people taste eggs, cheese, barbecue, beer, bread, that has real flavor, they understand that this is something they'd like to have again, and that might be better than what they're having every day. But you have to organize events that will reach a wide range of people and give them something for a really reasonable cost. Or else they're not going to try it, and they're not going to know it, and it's going to seem like an elitist movement.

Well, you're always going to pay a lot more for grass-fed beef than you are for a hamburger at McDonald's, and it seems like it's going to be hard to get over that hump. Sure, people may know that the grass-fed beef tastes a lot better, but they aren't willing or are unable to spend the money on it.

I think that that's a red herring. Yes, people do feel that way and do think that way, but they don't understand that they are paying a lot for shipping. When you go to the farmer's market, it often costs less for much fresher and better produce than you can get at the supermarket, because there isn't the price of shipping built in. Of course, in the Northeast we have only three or four months of farmer's markets a year, so it just doesn't apply most of the time. I think the main cost in finding better food is the inconvenience. It's having to go to a market that is bothering to stock it. Also, in America we're used to paying unbelievably low prices for our food. We just don't understand that better food costs more. Europeans are used to paying a much higher percentage of their annual income for food. In this country it is an uphill battle. But still, I think if people stopped to think about what they're actually paying for as far as luxuries go, it's a small cost. And obviously it's much better in terms of health and flavor.

What seems so unusual (and fun) about Slow Food is how it mixes pleasure with politics. But I've also read an article about Slow Food grumpily complaining about just this mix—that it's "an agenda disguised as a good meal." Is there a risk of such a movement becoming too ideological—so committed to its goals that it overlooks the cases where, say, hybrid crops of genetically modified wheat might actually benefit places?

Slow Food deliberately doesn't take doctrinaire stands on genetically modified organisms and organic food. It's obviously against GMOs and in favor of organic food. But it recognizes that the obstacles to obtaining organic certification can be so great and so expensive (especially in America) that requiring organic certification will stop a lot of farmers it wants to help from being able to go on doing what they're doing. It's not going to let organic certification get in the way of trying to support better food or the use of land in urban areas for agriculture.

What types of people does Slow Food tend to draw? Does the same egalitarian, boisterous spirit with which Slow Food was founded still pervade it?

Yes, it does. There's a very strong ex-hippie faction, especially in Germany and England. In Italy, for example, it started out with and still has lots of gourmets, because gourmets love this food anyway. In America, the people who started it and got it going in the first place were definitely hippies and environmentalists. Now gourmets have been attracted to it, and I would say that the kind of people who before would have been involved in semi-elitist movements have absolutely converted to Slow Food, because it resonates with social ideals. Also, no other decent gourmet food and wine society has a very active life right now in America.

In the book you mention that Slow Food is now turning toward the developing world. What sort of challenges do you think it will face there? Will it have to operate any differently than it does in, say, the U.S. or Germany?

Yes, it will. In the Third World countries that are getting its biodiversity awards now, Slow Food wants to work through the development agencies already running and maybe provide them money, because those places, unlike Europe and America, don't have enough individual members to take really active stances helping artisan food makers. Slow Food realizes that if it's going to actually have some effect and do something in the Third World, it's got to work with already existing organizations. I think that the ideal will be to work with foundations that are run by people in the country and not by big international organizations like the World Bank or the United Nations. Slow Food will be looking to find any kind of local aid agency that can help and share its ideals.

Are there as many artisan foodmakers left in these developing countries as there are in places like Italy or France?

For cheeses and meat products, maybe there hasn't been the same rich variety in the developing world that there has been in Western Europe. But there are plenty of these artisan foods, and Slow Food is finding them. If you look at the awards this year, there was one in Guinea, Africa, for someone who is helping to preserve a tree whose berries can be made into a nourishing drink. It might not be a typical "slow food," but it's a food that has an important role in the native diet. It's interesting, it's handmade, it tastes good, it's nourishing. So these things exist, though maybe not exactly in the terms we're used to. Or look at the winner this year from Malaysia. They actively protested logging, and some of the villagers lay down in the path of bulldozers that were coming in. It's not a general Slow Food thing to get involved in that kind of environmental activism, but in this case the organization also went on to help save native plants and make foods that were made of them, and therefore keep the village economies going, which is the whole point.

How does the growing organic movement fit in with all this? Is it compatible with the Slow Food movement, even though it seems to be getting more industrialized and less local?

It should be compatible. One of Slow Food's goals should be finding ways for small farmers in America to be able to be certified organic without having to pay a fortune, whether it's helping them with paperwork, or subsidizing them for a year while they're making the transition to being officially organic. I don't know whether Slow Food has looked into it yet. But it's an important role the movement should play, so that organic isn't overwhelmed and subsumed by the food industry, which there's a real danger of.

In the U.S., how widely available are the types of traditional foods you're talking about? Judging by the locations of the restaurateurs you profile in your book, it seems like these traditional foods are much easier to obtain in cities on the East or West Coasts than they are in the places where they're actually grown.

Oh, it's hardly available. And the fact is that we have to start inventing traditions. It's the same thing in Australia—there was a break in the bond with the old country. Different parts of America with strong ethnic populations, à la the Pennsylvania Dutch, did have real artisan foods that developed with a regional slant based on a certain European model. But that has truly died out in many parts of the country and is hard to find.

What do you do, in terms of shopping and cooking and eating out?

All farmer's market, when the farmer's market is available, and then Zingerman's in Ann Arbor, and Bread and Circus, part of a national chain of health food stores. It really upsets me to resort to Bread and Circus, since I wish we had more markets that have local produce even in the winter. But there are more and more places in the Northeast that have hothouses, which keep the growing season going a lot longer. There's a guy named Eliot Coleman in Maine who grows things in an extensive greenhouse during the winter. There are restaurateurs in Boston who are patronizing local growers who keep herbs and other plants going through the winter in greenhouses. So that's local, but it's not that convenient for me to go out and get them. I guess I should be more of a Slow Fooder and make more of an effort to find them.

As a restaurant and food critic, you must have a bird's-eye view of how the food world has evolved over the past couple decades. What are some of the important changes you've noticed?

I would say that produce has gotten better, and organic has moved from being old, ugly, and the worst of health food to better, brighter, and fresher than most other produce. That's been a huge shift. The fact that Bread and Circus can be the most beautiful and best run supermarket would have been practically inconceivable before. Bread and Circus does try to feature
produce from local growers, and my long-term hope is that big chain supermarkets will be able to do the same on a national scale. But that takes changing the contract system the chains have with growers and transport companies, and that will take years and maybe an organized consumer movement.

The greatest change to my mind, though, is that when I started, the focus was on recipes that dazzled you with their odd yet fabulous combination of ingredients and all the technique you put into making them, which probably required much time at fancy cooking schools. The focus has gone from exotic recipes and dishes to ingredients and their quality, and featuring just a few to show them off. That's what I've been interested in at The Atlantic from the beginning, like with my cover story on pasta in the eighties. Anyone who writes about food and likes to travel falls in love with an ingredient because of the place where it's made and the people who make it. Now cooks in general seem to have similar desires.

What do you think? Join the conversation in the Books & Literature conference of Post & Riposte.

More interviews in Atlantic Unbound.

More on books in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Katie Bacon is an editor for The Atlantic Online. Her most recent interview was with Christina Schwarz.

Copyright © 2002 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.