Easy Does It

The Slow Food Movement Takes on the Fast Food Culture

The sun was setting for the Delaware Bay oyster. Once a prominent cash crop for harvesters along New Jersey’s southern shores, mismanagement, parasites and pollution depleted the river’s raw bar and decimated a once-thriving trade. This seafood lover’s treat, with its "fine, mild flavor [and] plump meat quality," might have disappeared entirely, but then the U.S. branch of the Slow Food movement intervened, connecting the few remaining harvesters to restaurants, distributors and consumers. The Delaware Bay oyster is now world-renowned, and has became a protected delicacy.

Slow Food meals, such as this gourmet salmon steak with oysters, are based on sustainability and quality.© Corbis

"Slow Food is an international movement dedicated to saving the regional cuisines and products of the world," says Patrick Martins, president of Slow Food USA. "It could be a style of cooking, like barbecue, cajun, creole or organic. Or it could also be rare types of potatoes or peaches, turkeys or pigs, anything that’s fallen by the wayside due to our industrial food culture."

Clearly, Slow Food’s primary focus is not on saving endangered species, but on saving endangered ways of life that revolve around the stomach. For Slow Food, it’s not just animals and plants that are threatened, but also recipes, harvesting methods and production techniques.

With the aim of fighting "fast life," Slow Food straddles the line between environmental and cultural preservation. The organization neatly shows us how sustainable living doesn’t mean settling for blandness or opting for ascetic retreat.

Food Revolt

"We must be environmentalists to be gourmets," says Carlo Petrini, who founded Slow Food in Italy in 1989. The provocation was the opening of a McDonald’s next to the Spanish Steps in Rome. Petrini’s goal: not only the propagation of leisurely, more epicurean lunch habits, but a more enlightened and patient approach to life in general. It is a delicious union of education, politics, environmentalism and sensual pleasure.

According to Martins, one of Slow Food’s successes is the spread of "convivia" (local chapters). Internationally, Slow Food boasts more than 65,000 members across 42 countries. As of 2002, Slow Food USA claimed 74 convivia. There are chapters in New York, L.A. and New Orleans, and also in smaller places like Fargo, North Dakota and Small Green Island, Washington.

Convivia provide local networks for people who share Slow Food views and attitudes. It’s a casual grassroots rebellion that could someday take down the mighty Whopper. According to Marsha Weiner, who leads the 200-member Washington, D.C. chapter, "Each convivium is different and independent. Our group organizes farm visits, hands-on demonstrations with chefs, lectures and social events. We just had a traditional Japanese tea ceremony in honor of the cherry blossoms." Weiner says Slow Food also gets political. "We work with American Farmland Trust and encourage members to contact politicans," she says.

A 16-member convivium in State College, Pennsylvania, organizes potluck dinners, lectures and educational trips. According to co-leader Anne Quinncorr, "When people hear about [Slow Food], they want to latch on to it. The celebration of the table is something everyone can understand."

Pedestal Foods

Under certain conditions, Slow Food enshrines diverse foods like the Delaware Bay oyster, the Green Mountain potato and the Sun Crest peach in the "Ark of Taste," a metaphorical protector. In some cases, Slow Food will arrange for marketing specialists and distributors to rescue the endangered delicacies and their producers from financial ruin.

Vegetarians might have mixed feelings about the group’s work. The organization welcomes non-meat eaters, but is not necessarily geared to their needs. But if your rationale for eschewing flesh relates to animal rights, health concerns or environmental sustainability, then Slow Food is in much agreement. By promoting local free-range methods over factory-farming concentration camps, Slow Food is reducing some of the cruelty. According to Martins, the percentage of vegetarians in Slow Food is equal to the percentage outside.

Many of the foods on Slow Food’s protected Ark do boast significant health advantages over their mass-produced counterparts. Beef from an Ark-listed Piedmontese cattle breed has 85 percent less fat than standard beef, and less than 38 percent of the calories. Kamut, an ancient Ark-listed Egyptian grain, evolved separately from the majority of today’s grains, providing an alternative for sufferers of wheat allergies.

Savory Sustainability

Martins says Slow Food helps ensure sustainable development "by supporting producers who are doing the right things and writing about them [in the house organs, SLOW and The Snail]." He adds that relying on small producers helps fight massive global resource exhaustion. Slow Food argues that the fight for the world’s stomachs will ultimately be won by quality, not convenience.

The success of Eric Schlosser’s sensational expose, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal is indicative of a national awakening. Still, despite the rising tide of protest against "McWorld," there remains some doubt about Slow Food. The most common charge is that Slow Food is elitist. Another complaint is that today’s lifestyle doesn’t provide time enough for such choices. To fight these claims, Slow Food focuses on culinary education and informational lectures. Quinncorr even organizes a summer camp built on a gastronomic theme.

"We live in a consumer society with a high-powered advertising engine that manipulates people to want things they really don’t need," says Quinncorr. "But we’ve also gotten accustomed to wanting a "good deal." Mass-produced food had the good intention of getting more affordable food to the greatest number of people. But, there’s no foresight given to environmental impact. A peach grown by a small-scale suburban farmer may be a bit more expensive, but, damn! It tastes like a peach, and when you buy it you’re keeping that farmer in business and fighting urban sprawl."

Slow Food advocates are settling in for a long struggle, but they say victory will eventually be theirs. On the day fast food dies, says Martins, "We will raise a glass of organic wine and say good riddance."

BENJAMIN CHADWICK, a former E intern, is a Virginia-based graduate student with an appreciation for the finer things in life.