“What is slow food?”
I posed this question to two of my more enlightened friends, self-proclaimed “locavores” and rigid followers of the organic movement, and these were their candid responses:
“Oh, I don’t know … bad service in a restaurant?”
“Does it have to do with slow cooking?”
Hmm. Then I asked my youngest child the same question. Being all of five years old and obliged to understand the literal meaning of words, he plainly responded, “It’s not fast food.”
Aha! Now we’re getting somewhere … or are we?
A Twenty-Year International History
According to their Web site, Slow Food  is an international “non-profit, eco-gastronomic member-supported organization that was founded in 1989 to counteract fast food and fast life, the disappearance of local food traditions, and people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from, how it tastes, and how our food choices affect the rest of the world.”
Somewhere in that fantastically long sentence are the tenets of a movement that began as a protest to the building of a fast food chain restaurant (McDonalds) near the famed Spanish Steps in Rome, Italy. It has over 100,000 registered members in 132 countries around the world. In each country, the movement is spearheaded by local chapters known as convivia and there are over 1,000 convivia worldwide. In the United States, it is known as Slow Food USA. Forty-two states have at least one convivia and there are 200 convivia nationwide. Some well-known American members are Alice Waters, Michael Pollan, and Eric Schlosser.
The slow food movement is a response to the loss of agricultural biodiversity and local food heritage due to the global domination of industrial agribusiness and convenience food. The concept of eco-gastronomy, which is the foundation of the movement, is that there is an inherent connection between delicious food and responsible farming. Slow food is good to taste because it is farmed using clean, renewable methods. Slow food is fair because food producers receive just compensation for their work and anyone can have access to it. Thus the phrase “Good, Clean, and Fair” has come be known as the movement’s slogan.
Slow food shares many of the ideals of the organic movement (e.g., clean production of food) as well as the eco or green movement (e.g., use of renewable resources in production and reduction of carbon footprint by supporting local farms). These two parallel movements have become omnipresent in the entertainment business as well as in politics. This year, Academy Awards went green and First Lady Michelle Obama recently broke ground for an organic garden on the White House lawn.
So why is it that the majority of Americans know so little about the Slow Food Movement? And why are my two incredibly crunchy friends left out of its circle of trust?
Slowing Down in a Fast Paced Society
The United States gained entry in this global food club in 1998, just as the words “organic” and “green” began to aggressively court the mainstream. While it was easy to understand the implications of organic and green, slow food had a misunderstood message. Organic meant better health because you avoided putting chemicals in your body. Green meant saving the planet as well as (eventually) saving money because you drove a hybrid car or used compressed fluorescent light bulbs. Big box stores like Costco and Target started to carry organic and green products, from cosmetics to toilet tissue. So it was easy to be organic or green because its advocates made the message accessible and participation effortless.
But slow food? Americans who eventually heard about it equated the movement with elitism or simply didn’t understand its intent. It didn’t help that many foods associated with the slow movement are called “artisanal,” which most people interpret as “unjustly expensive.” And a movement that asks people to slow down, cook and eat together, and enjoy their food, in the land where the concept of fast food originated and the culture behind it flourished to the point of worldwide franchising, seemed completely contradictory to the American way of life.
The opportunity to piggyback on the organic and green movements has also mostly been squandered. To learn about the movement and attend any of their events, you needed to be approached by a member of the local convivia. At green markets, which thrive around the country and should be the biggest venue for promoting its cause, Slow Food USA is barely a blip on the radar and the evidence is in the numbers. Based on their Web site, Slow Food USA has a total membership of around 18,000, the size of a small town anywhere in the United States. With 200 convivia spread over forty-two states, that is an average of ninety members per convivia—not impressive considering that there are over 300 million Americans.
Slow Food USA has a magazine, The Snail, which promotes and discusses their cause. But you must be a registered member in order to receive it. In comparison, Organic Gardening magazine has a circulation of 235,000 issues for every bimonthly issue and Organic Spa magazine has a circulation of 70,000 issues for every bimonthly issue. And you can often find these or related magazines on newsstands. So while the Americans who embraced all things organic and green—like my two enlightened friends—might have been open to the ideals of Slow Food USA, they simply were not exposed to it.
Bringing It to the Masses … Slowly
In 2008, Slow Food USA finally decided to debunk the falsehoods of their misunderstood movement as well as advertise their cause on a grand stage. The city of San Francisco and Slow Food USA hosted an event known as Slow Food Nation, which it hopes to replicate every year. Over 60,000 people attended the Labor Day weekend event; it had 3,000 collaborators and over 600 print and web articles written about it. It aimed to be the Woodstock of the food world, with topical discussions and seminars led by renowned food writers and chefs mixed with musical performances and a marketplace. And it began with an ambitious food declaration, read aloud in the rotunda of San Francisco City Hall.
Here’s what we learned about slow food in the United States from Slow Food Nation 2008:
- Slow food is more than just wine and cheese. There are all types of fruits and greens as well as meats and poultry that are raised on local farms using clean, sustainable, and renewable methods. And artisanal products can range from cooking oils to hand lotion, many of which are affordable.
- Slow food can be fast food. Vendors who make street food or “on-the-go” food can do so with produce that is slow food. And fast food chain proprietors can be affected to seek out slow food if there’s a demand for it. So fast food and slow food do not have to be mutually exclusive entities.
- Slow food can support a community. By planting community gardens and victory gardens, slow food can be made accessible to those who otherwise could not get it. Slow food is not elitist if it can become accessible to everyone.
- Slow food is green food as well as organic food. Because the local farmers who provide slow food use sustainable methods, slow food shares the same goals as the green and organic movements. Slow food also reduces the carbon footprint of an entire community because it depends less on food that travels from other parts of the country or even overseas.
- Slow food is inclusive. Slow Food USA has replaced word “convivia” with “chapter” to sound more approachable. They are planting community gardens in every chapter and actively reaching out to college students to broaden their appeal.
The truth is that my two enlightened friends are actually participating in the slow food lifestyle. They just didn’t know it. What they need now is to be educated on what it all means. I just hope they will learn about Slow Food USA from someone other than a friend who just happens to be writing an article about it.