From January 2010 til late last summer, PRK readers heard monthly from Anastacia Marx de Salcedo, an active member of Slow Food Boston, who regaled us with food- and drink-related tips, musings, book reviews, local histories and the like. Anastacia expressed her own views, but the topics on which she wrote consistently aligned with the mission and meaning of Slow Food Boston and the mothership, Slow Food USA.
Today, the mantle is being passed. While Anastacia hunkers down to complete her first book, colleague Alex Loud, Chapter President of Slow Food Boston, will contribute to PRK each month in a similar vein.
In his first post, below, Alex writes about Slow Food National’s current controversies. What should, and what shouldn’t, this organization be in the current food age?
Slow Food Boston
Although more than a generation behind us, 1986 does not, in retrospect, seem particularly different from today. Yes, a Macintosh was a boxy little brown computer and vinyl records were still common. Hip-Hop didn’t exist, but Rap was booming. Madonna was as ubiquitous as ever.
Yet, compared to the monumental changes witnessed over the preceding two generations (air travel, highways, computers, the atomic bomb, etc.), the space between 2012 and 1986 seems rather dull.
The same cannot be said, however, for the global food system. The supermarket shelves of 2012 may resemble those of 1986, but the system underpinning the supermarket has changed as radically as anything witnessed by my grandparents. In the U.S., food imports have risen 400% since 1986. Food production has become highly concentrated in massive corporate operations that produce not thousands of pounds of any given product, but millions upon millions. Imports from China, alone, increased from 433,000 metric tons to more than 2.1 million from 1997 to 2008.
We’ve also seen an explosion of “engineered” food, including genetically-modified “Round-up Ready” crops, lab-produced growth hormones to promote milk production in cows and, the large-scale use of antibiotics in everything from pigs to chickens to salmon and even shrimp. There have even been successful experiments with “in-vitro” meat — which is to say meat grown in a lab, absent an animal. Despite (or, perhaps because of) all this innovation, childhood obesity rates in America have tripled, as has the number of cases of diabetes diagnosed each year.
Given these wholesale changes in the world’s food system, it is not entirely surprising that food-advocacy organizations are changing as well. Most notably, these days it is Slow Food USA which has been undergoing a wrenching, well-publicized and occasionally nasty transformation. A transformation from what, exactly? Let’s go back to 1986.
On March 22nd of that year, an extraordinary event occurred in Rome: a McDonald’s restaurant opened. As prosaic as this event might seem here in America, this was a very big deal in Italy. Graced with a food culture as sophisticated and cherished as any on the planet, Italy had long resisted the temptations of American industrial zeal. Indeed, the very notion that food should be “fast” was anathema to many Italians, particularly so to a group of intellectuals, led by Carlo Petrini, which had been meeting since the 1970s to revel in all the joys that perfect food and wine can bring.
For this group, the challenge posed by the opening of a McDonald’s just yards from the Spanish Steps could not go unanswered. So they did what all good revolutionaries do: they demonstrated. Of course, this was Italy. So they also cooked up pounds of pasta to hand out to passersby while they demonstrated. The chant they came up with that day went like this: “We don’t want fast food, we want slow food!” With that, a movement was born.
Despite its roots in revolution, little about Slow Food since then has involved out-and-out rebellion. Rather, the focus has been on the quiet resistance of returning pleasure to the table, of seeking out and championing extraordinary foods and revering the artisan who gives life to the perfect cheese, wine, salumi or peach. Everything that industrial food was becoming in 1986, Slow Food stood against, but it did so in the kitchen, not in the street. Two decades passed.
In 2008, Slow Food USA got a new president. A former market farmer, Josh Viertel no doubt seemed to many to be an excellent choice to lead the American chapter of Slow Food. Who better to promote notions of reverence for food and its producers than someone who had actually toiled in the fields raising the perfect radish?
Not long after his arrival, however, Viertel began to take the movement in a different direction than some people expected. Political advocacy began to creep into the picture. Membership dues were lowered, and the use of social media was expanded and emphasized as the primary means of communication. In September 2009, Slow Food USA sponsored “eat-ins” across the country to promote changes in the Child Nutrition Act which was then before Congress awaiting re-authorization. This push into issues of “food justice” was not typical Slow Food behavior, and it came at the expense of iconic programs such as the Ark of Taste, which were suddenly receiving less attention at the national level.
The proverbial camel-breaking straw, however, came in 2011 with Slow Food USA’s introduction of the $5 Challenge. Hearkening back to the movement’s birth moment, this was a direct swipe at the fast food industry’s stranglehold on the claim of being the only inexpensive food in town. Slow Food members were encouraged to organize potlucks featuring unprocessed home-cooked dishes that cost no more than $5 per serving. Gone were chicken breasts in favor of chicken thighs, organic was optional and tenderloin of Charolais? Right out.
For some long time supporters, this was simply too much. After decades spent supporting the idea of food as an almost spiritual medium, here was Slow Food racing McDonald’s to claim the “more calories for less money” throne. Angry letters were written, memberships were renounced, bad feelings ensued. In December a group of prominent Slow Food supporters, led by Gary Nabhan, published a wishlist of 10 changes they felt must be made in order for Slow Food USA to “right its course.”
In this moment, I would like to be able to write the happy ending to this story. But I can’t. The transformation of Slow Food USA and the disagreement it has engendered is on-going. I can tell you, however, that I and my fellow leaders of the Slow Food Boston chapter support Viertel’s move towards a broader-based and more politically active organization. While programs like the Ark of Taste should remain part of the core mission, so too should programs that foster a more socially-inclusive organization. That said, I find it lamentable that we’re even having this discussion. I was originally drawn to Slow Food years ago because of the movement’s intense belief that food enriches and enlivens our existence. But, like it or not, the world has changed.
In 1986 the industrial food system was a Model T, trundling along at 35 mph — a speed that seemed quite fast at the time. Today, however, it is a Titan rocket screaming upwards towards the great unknown. The guidance systems are being designed as we fly. Back-up systems are non-existent. We don’t have even so much as a parachute in the event that things go wrong. Massive corporations are unilaterally making decisions that up-end literally thousands of years of human development and tradition. Perhaps Viertel’s critics are right: it isn’t really Slow Food’s job to force a discussion on issues like childhood obesity and food access. Yet somebody has to do it.
That demonstration in Rome 26 years ago may seem almost quaint today. But the fact remains that Carlo Petrini and his compatriots were on target. The opening of that McDonald’s was significant. It was the telltale sign of a burgeoning industry beginning to flex its muscles on a global scale. Then, it was Big Macs at the Spanish Steps. Tomorrow, it will be hamburgers grown in a lab solution.
Slow Food USA can try to hide itself away from this reality. It would be easier, in fact, to just focus on finding a great heirloom turnip. The risk in that case, however, is that Slow Food becomes increasingly irrelevant, not unlike the French plantation owners in the “redux” version of Apocalypse Now, living out an indolent lifestyle of privilege while the jungle around them shakes with the sounds of war.
(author’s note: the opinions here are my own and do not reflect in anyway an official stance by either Slow Food USA or Slow Food International.)