The Slow Food Story

The Slow Food Story: Politics and Pleasure

By Andrea Belcham

A review of The Slow Food Story: Politics And Pleasure by Geoff Andrews

Published on October 1, 2008

The Slow Food Story: Politics And Pleasure
Geoff Andrews

McGill-Queen's University Press
$22.95
paper
196pp
978-0-7735-3478-0

If recent coverage in our media is to be believed, we Canadians are increasingly worried about our food. More specifically, the quality of the food we purchase, the environmental impact of our consumption, and the treatment of those who produce our food have left a bitter taste in our mouths, prompting us to seek other means of satisfying both hunger and conscience. We hear stories of individuals turning to community-supported agriculture, Fair Trade, and farmers’ markets as solutions. With The Slow Food Story, Geoff Andrews looks at those who’ve taken the further step of collective action by participating in Slow Food, a movement that focuses on the connection between food and cultural identity, and that works co-operatively to promote regional agricultural sustainability. Slow Food, he assures readers, entails much more than bourgeois dining clubs.

Andrews’ academic analysis begins where Slow Food began, in Italy in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Left-wingers reacted to the “pervasiveness of the fast life virus” (and the resultant erosion of food traditions, food diversity, its taste, and the convivial spirit) first by opening working-class osterias, then by organizing into what, after the 1987 publication of a manifesto, would become Slow Food. Then as today, as Andrews is keen to stress, the movement was inseparable from politics. Although it still keeps its headquarters in Bra, Italy, and though its figurehead remains one of its founders, Carlo Petrini, Slow Food has spread rapidly. It comprises 84,000 official members in over 120 countries; it hosts international conferences like the pivotal Turin Terre Madre in 2004; and its projects range from education (including its own university), to publications, to grassroots activities that help farmers strengthen their markets. The author believes the movement has global appeal because it

reflects a desire on the part of quite different people for an alternative way of living, in which pleasure is central, whether as an ideal to be reclaimed from industrialized and standardized rituals of Anglo-American capitalism, or from the bland, routinised legacy of Eastern European communism, or as a necessary condition of survival from corporate multi-nationals in developing countries.

Indeed, it is this elevation of pleasure that makes others suspect Slow Food. The stereotypical Slow Food participant is the middle-aged, middle-class Italophile who gathers with his or her privileged friends to feast on elaborately prepared meals paired with fine wines. Petrini acknowledges that while some “convivia” (as member branches are known) may stall thus, the greater intent of the movement is to persevere with its activist roots. Andrews’ many case studies demonstrate Slow Food’s potential – jam-makers in Romania and Polish cheese-making shepherds have benefited by Slow Food support, as, it appears, have many other small-scale producers. Certainly, there is much to admire about the group’s ideology, like its emphasis on “eco-gastronomy” (a culinary science that blends responsibility with the right to pleasure). Slow Food is also notable for enabling dialogue between conservatives and radicals, academics and farmers, using the universal of food as a touchstone.

Yet the movement is complicated by pragmatics. Some of these problems, such as the difficulty Slow Food faces in maintaining democratic order amongst its ranks when convivia and their activities are so far-flung, Andrews dutifully addresses. Others, he omits. For example, one cannot deny that its Presidia program-which recognizes and promotes artisanal food products and traditions deemed endangered-perpetuates certain power relationships, the gaze of one party determining the relevancy of another. We must remember, however, that this book tackles a phenomenon that is even now developing. Andrews has crafted a defense of Slow Food’s significance that may not convert readers, but that will at least encourage them to look at food more holistically. This is a work to be savoured with a critical palate.mRb

Andrea Belcham lives in Saint-Lazare, where many of her best neighbours are trees.

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