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The future of food

(article, Eric Haas)

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The international nonprofit Slow Food has become something of a social movement, and it reached a critical mass last weekend at the Slow Food Nation celebration of American artisanal food. More than 60,000 people gathered in San Francisco's Fort Mason and Civic Center to visit a farmers' market, sample food and drink, watch documentaries, and attend panels and workshops on the many roles food plays in our lives. 

The last panel in the weekend's "Food for Thought" series was titled, simply, "Slow Food Nation." The panelists were activists, authors, and leaders of the movement: farmer Wendell Berry, physicist and environmentalist Vandana Shiva, journalists Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser, Chez Panisse founder Alice Waters, and Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini. It was billed as a "conversation about the local, national, and global impact of the philosophy and practice of Slow Food." 

In his new book, The Slow Food Story: Politics and Pleasure, Geoff Andrews argues that as Slow Food has grown into an international movement, its politics have become both more prominent and more ambitious; in general terms, it seeks to unite a typically conservative desire to preserve tradition with a typically liberal desire to remake the world. In more specific terms, however, the particular stances that Slow Food's various chapters endorse can vary as widely as the places in which they meet. Even though Petrini lauds the diversity of Slow Food's chapters — local, heirloom varieties of interests — as an essential component of the organization's overall mission, he seems to share the widely held feeling that the movement is ripe for a new, clearer statement of unified purpose. Articulating that purpose seemed to be the main goal of the conversation on Saturday evening.

[%image reference-image float=left width=400 caption="Slow Food Nation's Victory Garden in front of City Hall."] The participants were keenly aware of the fact that Slow Food has frequently been criticized as a bastion of liberal elitism, an insular network of people driven by a desire to justify their own opulence as morally and politically egalitarian, even while the cost of their events and the nature of their philosophy exclude the vast majority of the world. 

It's an old claim, and it's been leveled against the leaders of virtually every leftist movement from the Cuban revolution to the Animal Liberation Front. Apparently, however, it's still a pressing one; for better or worse, we all seem to accept the premise that a social movement is legitimate to the degree it is populist, and powerful to the degree it is popular. 

Berry began the discussion with a pointed redefinition of the concept of "pleasure," which is obviously integral to the Slow Food ideology. It is not synonymous with "idleness," he said, as most Americans seem to believe; it is not the exclusive domain of the rich. Rather, pleasure can be found in "good work," and is available to everyone. Such pleasure is only possible in a "decent economy," he said, which is our duty to create. The rest of the panel was eager to define such an economy in more precise terms. 

Schlosser reminded us of the Slow Food Nation slogan ("Come to the Table") and asked us to consider a population who could not afford to accept this invitation: the farmworkers, meatpackers, and restaurant workers (consistently referred to as "Mexicans") whose long hours, low wages, and deplorable working conditions help make the lives of Slow Food members possible. Social justice must be at the core of the movement, Schlosser said, if it is to avoid the danger of narcissism and realize its potential as something "truly revolutionary." He cited Waters' work with the Berkeley public-school system as a clear example of the heartfelt commitment — extending beyond the "liberal posturing" with which the movement has so often been accused — that he wants to place at the forefront of Slow Food. 

Petrini agreed. He reiterated his longstanding injunction to make all food "good, clean, and fair," contending that a truly enjoyable meal must necessarily embrace the principles of generosity and cooperation. He asked us to abandon our love of self-sufficiency and instead embrace the concept of interdependence as a guiding principle. 

Shiva reminded us that "most of the world is still farming," and that our concern for the exploited ("Mexican") farmworker should not allow us to forget the reason why that farmworker has come to the U.S. in the first place: free-trade agreements such as NAFTA are dispossessing poor farmers throughout the world, disallowing them from farming their own land and selling their own food at fair prices. In Shiva's view, the gestures of goodwill from organizations like the Gates Foundation — which donates GMO food and seed to farmers who have been thrust into starvation — do nothing more than legitimize this process, putting a pretty mask on the monstrous face of exploitation. The challenge she placed before Slow Food was to unite our fragmented social concerns and "become protectors of the \[global\] poor" by eradicating the (local) sources of their misery, which she identified as corporations like Cargill and Monsanto. 

Waters brought us from the global/local to the political/personal, asserting that "fast food has narrowed our experience of life," and that our most profound commitment as human beings should be to expand the bounds of that experience as fully as we are able. Slow Food is about a way of life – the Slow Life – and it is a direct response to the Fast Life that Petrini has so often attacked as a particularly American phenomenon. 

As the conversation developed, it returned to its traditional ground, articulating the ideal of a slower, more pleasurable way of living; it is the life we live, as Petrini explained, when we are governed by "good intentions and an honest heart." This is the core of Slow Food, the essence of the ideology that attracts devotees and prompts critics to malign the movement as a bourgeois fantasy, inaccessible to the working poor. The point of the discussion, however, seemed to be that this is precisely the wrong way of thinking about the issue; Slow Food is an effort to escape the strictures imposed by a monetary scale of value. In its best form, I think, Slow Food implies a personal stance explicitly at odds with the idea that the trophies of capitalism (wealth, efficiency, speed, opulence) make a good life. Life can clearly hold more profound pleasures, some of which can only be found in the enjoyment of a slow meal. It needn't necessarily be a matter of wealth. 

I didn't have the $45 to $65 necessary to sample the event's Taste Pavilions, for example, and I wouldn't have paid the $20 fee for the Food for Thought panel. (Admission was free with a press pass). But I could still enjoy the complimentary samples at the Civic Center farmers' market, and I took special care in eating the sandwich I brought with me from home. 

It seems worth considering Petrini's insistent claim, which he made again on Saturday evening, that we would do well to abandon our political obsession with economics. Still, as the conversation entered its second hour and the philosophical pronouncements continued to accumulate, certain inevitable questions began to present themselves: What is the purpose of sitting together, sharing lofty ideals, without getting anything done? Where do we go from here? 

Pollan voiced pecisely these concerns, and addressed them with an optimistic answer: We can seek a unified solution to our most pressing dilemmas — which he identified as rising energy costs, failing health, and global warming —  through a commitment to sensibly, ethically produced food. Pollan's optimism was taken up by the rest of the panel, who agreed that the Slow Food movement can plant the seeds for the type of profound global change necessary for the preservation of life as we know it. 

If Slow Food is to achieve this ideal, however, everyone agreed that it will need some help. I want to suggest that the help should not only come from the politicians and policymakers that Pollan identified; it should also come from the many younger and livelier organizations that already share similar ideals. 

After the panel ended, for example, most of the audience retired to official Slow Dinners at gourmet restaurants, where prices hovered at around $100 a head. Meanwhile, hundreds of young people from around the country gathered in San Francisco and Berkeley to share in free vegan potlucks of donated food, as they do every night of the week, courtesy of the international grassroots organization Food Not Bombs. These people were putting many of the ideals discussed by the panel into practice, and they were doing so with precisely the kind of conviction that everyone in Herbst Theater seemed to fear might be absent from their conversation. 

p(bio). A recent college graduate, [eric2haas@gmail.com "Eric Haas"] is a writer interested in food activism.


reference-image, l