Missing the point on Slow Food

In the same New York Review of Books piece that I wrote about on Monday, Michael Pollan discusses Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini:

Ever the Italian, Petrini puts pleasure at the center of his politics, which might explain why Slow Food is not always taken as seriously as it deserves to be. For why shouldn’t pleasure figure in the politics of the food movement?

The suggestion here seems to be that we have only two options when deciding on the role of pleasure in food politics. Either we follow Petrini’s lead and put pleasure front and center, or we take the position that pleasure shouldn’t “figure in the politics of the food movement.” Of course, it’s a false dichotomy. One might, for example, believe that food should be enjoyed but that treating workers, animals, and the planet with respect is more important than one’s personal pleasure.

The more serious flaw here, though, is Pollan’s contention that detractors of Slow Food are objecting only to the movement’s emphasis on pleasure. As Kim Severson explained in the New York Times, some have been put off by “what they saw as elitism and an inflated sense of importance.” Slow Food doesn’t merely emphasize pleasurable eating. It pushes expensive, gourmet foods. This is a criticism to which the movement has responded in the past, for example, in a post by Brian Sinderson on the Slow Food USA blog:

It is, however, easy to understand why people think it may be true, that we are just a bunch of well-heeled yuppies stuffing our craws with foie gras, even though what we are truly about is genuine salt-of-the-earth stuff, and not just figuratively. Our purpose in celebrating all these wonderful, unique (and yes often “gourmet”) foods is not a way for us to demonstrate some ill-conceived moral superiority…but rather it is our attempt to preserve the histories, traditions and cultures that make each of us who we are.

That explanation might sound reasonably compelling, at least until you read two paragraphs further:

Petrini said it very well on his recent US tour. “A gastronome who is not also an environmentalist is an idiot. An environmentalist who is not also a gastronome is, well, sad.”

There might not be anything moral about it, but that’s certainly a claim to superiority. That line happens to be one of Petrini’s favorite maxims, and the Slow Food founder explained it a little bit more in an interview with The Globe and Mail last year:

A gastronome has a vision that is more holistic, interdisciplinary and complex. A gourmet just focuses on the pleasure of the dish. He is an egotist.

Thus, when Petrini uses the term “gastronome,” he’s talking about somebody with a complex relationship to their gourmet food. Certainly, that sounds better than the “gourmet” Petrini denounces as an egotist, but it doesn’t make his denunciation of non-gastronomes much more reasonable.

After I fractured my jaw last spring, my mouth was wired shut for three weeks, I was unable to chew for another three weeks, and hard foods were off-limits for six weeks more. Silly as this might seem, as my mandible became more free, a few actions that had once seemed ordinary came to hold a certain element of triumph. The acts of opening my mouth, chewing, and biting hard foods carried with them the statement that I had overcome a rather unpleasant ordeal, and it was remarkable to be able to do these things again. While the sense of triumph has faded somewhat over the months, biting into a crisp apple or a crunchy almond continues to give me a certain pleasure which I suspect many gastronomes couldn’t even begin to understand.

I don’t mean to advocate for the promotion of mandibular fractures to enhance gastronomical pleasures. Nor do I claim that this appreciation confers upon me any superiority. The point is that culinary pleasures are complex, shaped by one’s experiences and attitudes. When Petrini says that an environmentalist who is not a gastronome is sad, he insinuates that my enjoyment of an apple is somehow less worthy than the pleasure he derives from eating foie gras or caviar, simply because my food is less fancy. It’s bad enough that this attack is unprovoked, mean-spirited and narrow-minded. Consider also the fact that some of the people it targets are making a deliberate choice to eat in a less damaging way, and it becomes pretty hard to take Petrini seriously.

1 Comment »

  1. I am a “card-carrying member” of Slow Food, a fan of Pollan and an admirer of Petrini. All that said, I appreciate your point of view and concur, in certain areas about the inflated sense of self-importance. I saw that same trait in a recent interview with Barbara Kingsolver – whose writing and lifestyle I admire. Yet, when I look out across many professions, movements or disciplines, I see similar behaviors. Your thoughts remind me that “words matter” and that a flip comment or poor selection can harm the very movements that we are working to support.

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