Freeing Gastronomy and Embracing Slow Food

Using food as a tool for empowerment and transformation in today’s rapidly changing world.


| May 2016



Pitchfork in the soil

In the wake of food freedom, chefs and consumers alike are recognizing food’s ability to strengthen communities around the world.

Fotolia/xactive

Food and Freedom: How the Slow Food Movement is Changing the World Through Gastronomy (Rizzoli Ex Libris, 2015) by Carlo Petrini, the founder of the Slow Food organization, sends a strong message for food justice. An advocate for “good, clean, and fair” food, Petrini believes in empowering people by giving them control over access to their food production and distribution. The following excerpt from Chapter 11 focuses on the current state of gastronomy, and how we can move forward with positive change.

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What Next?

When they are freed, an animal that has always lived in a cage or a person who has been in prison for many years is bound to feel at least a bit disoriented. It is after liberation that the hard part comes: the animal has to learn to feed itself on its own and it won’t necessarily survive (I have always been amused by the question Michael Pollan asks animalists. What would happen to hens set free from a henhouse? Answer: they would probably be killed by a fox or a pine marten), while the ex con would struggle to find a job, integrate into society, and overcome the prejudices that surround him. Sure, they would be free, but to do what?

Now that it has shaken off its yoke, gastronomy, too, is limping along uncertainly and paying the price of prejudice. It is not immune from contradictions, but these are actually a sign of complexity. We have freed gastronomy, but is it really free? The easy answer is no. You only have to switch on the television to see why. I have already evoked analogies with pornography. Food on TV is pure showbiz, with competitions between cooks that boil down to a race against the clock; recipes that have to be thrown together in a few minutes for the husband just home from work who wants to watch the news; restaurants that are madhouses in which chefs alternate excesses of rudeness and seductiveness; primary ingredients that are treated as unimportant; producers and farmers who are shown like animals at the zoo, to accentuate their curious, often bizarre sides. Often even the sternest critics of this TV ignorance fail to realize that all they have to counter it is an antiquated model of gastronomy that champions an elitist approach to the enjoyment of food: the restaurant as a holy place where the cult of personality surrounding chefs is defended to the hilt; recipes that are always sublime and superlative, not to mention photogenic; expensive, super-select primary ingredients. That of the classic old gourmet model of the connoisseur who invests himself with innate—more often than not impromptu—critical skills is a world in which the farmer does not exist. Gastronomic criticism has evolved with the web and now has more power than ever in terms of diffusion and capacity to reach an increasingly interested audience. Read through the right filters, it provides a service, but especially on the Internet, the range of a food writer rarely extends beyond restaurant reviews, personal takes on recipes, classifications of merit, a plug here and a snatch of gossip there. This is what attracts audiences on both television and computer screens, and this, too, is a response to food’s worst enemy, the market. Rightly or wrongly, there is a lot of talk these days about Good, but the questions of Clean and Fair are either ignored or seen as a boring fixation on the part of “Slow Foodites,” people who defend the past (hadn’t we said that we intended to erase it and its backyard gastronomy?) and the environment, nitpickers who don’t want us to eat tuna fish and salmon anymore? “Zero food miles” rhetoric, used at every turn in the most unlikely contexts without taking account of the fact that the local and the seasonal are a complex matter, is now devoid of content, like the environmentalist refrain of the 1980s. Some think that this is all we are; it’s a matter of points of view.

Declaration of Lima

I personally am happy to sit back and enjoy hearing everyone singing the praises of the cooks and chefs of the new wave of French bistros and the finest North and Latin American cuisine restaurants, all in search of good and clean food products that respect the dignity of farmers and often translate into direct collaborations and exchanges of products and knowledge. No wonder food bloggers now venture out of their usual circles of restaurateur and producer friends, who invite them to their own initiatives, and travel to Mexico, say, to discover the meaning of biodiversity in products that had previously all seemed the same and, amazed by so much wealth, advocate its protection; or when, on vacation they meet a peasant who changes their lives—or at least their way of seeing food—by letting them taste things they had never tasted before. Whether it is young people bridging a gap caused by inexperience or more seasoned journalists capable of taking new ideas on board, I am happy when I see this happen. I can sense that a network is growing and, above all, I convince myself that the role of small farmers and producers in local areas where gastronomy is not enslaved—simply because it has never existed there as we know it—will be a great driving force for change in the future. I can sense that gastronomy is being liberated thanks to their labor, to a mixture of different ways of seeing and doing things. I can sense that our past and our present, in which gastronomy was and is treated as little more than a game, reveal a model that we should not follow, but that will prove useful. Not only producers but also cooks and chefs are well ahead of the critics. In 2011, for example, some of the best chefs in the world met in Lima and wrote an “Open Letter to the Chefs of Tomorrow,” later renamed the “Declaration of Lima,” that suggests we rethink the direction we are moving in and acknowledge that something has effectively changed over the last thirty years. Paolo Marchi was the first to speak about this in Italy in an article on Identità golose.13 This is what he wrote:

Yesterday, Sunday, September 11, in Lima, in Peru, during the Mistura event [Author’s note: which I shall return to later], the chefs who make up the International Consultancy Board of the Basque Culinary Center in San Sebastian, in the Basque Countries, the University of Gastronomic Sciences [Author’s note: another one!] and its Center for Research and Innovation presented an “Open Letter to the Chefs of Tomorrow.” I have translated it. One thing is for sure: years and years of Slow Food haven’t passed by in vain in the four corners of the planet: