Book review: how slow food is growing fast

Geoff Andrews, The Slow Food Story, Pluto Press, £14 99.


It all started with a bad meal in an Italian workers’ social club.  Carlo Petrini, a left wing activist with roots in the social movements of the 1970s, was angered by the meal because the pasta had been cold and the salad dirty but when he complained, he was given the brush off by other members of his group who argued there were more important things for activists to campaign about.

   But is there? A row ensued in the pages of an Italian left wing newspaper which widened out into an interesting question about the right of people to enjoy the simple pleasures of life, something the Left had tended to neglect in its battles over big issues such as workers rights or Third World poverty. Following a protest against the planned opening of a Macdonalds near the Spanish steps in Rome, Petrini went on to produce a manifesto for Slow Food and found what has become a worldwide movement.

 Initially it was a defensive idea, merely setting out a response to what was seen as the fast food virus, a cheapening of a need that we all have. Then it became more interesting, leading to the creation of a worldwide movement with 84,000 members in 120 countries. The idea is to foster an appreciation of the joys of food, the antithesis of the fast food culture in which eating has become akin to the filling the car tank at a petrol station.

 One of the interesting aspects of the Slow Food movement is that it can be equally attractive to people on the Left or the Right. Andrews examines this, accepting that there is a danger that such a movement could become an extension of food fadishness for the affluent middle classes. The real Slow Food Movement, however, goes far deeper than that, challenging the growing divide between food producers and consumers. The modern gastronome should not, therefore, be a mere foodie, sampling the best dishes without regard to their origin or production methods. Quite the opposite. They should have ‘an empathy for those who work on the loand and who will increasinlgy need to engage with urgent environmental and economic problems’.

 Andrews notes that it is no coincidence that the two countries with the highest rates of obesity, the US and the UK, are those which have most embraced the fast food culture. One can see the results of the failure to understand food and the potential way in which changing food habits can have a far wider effect on lifestyles in Jamie Oliver’s programmes on Rotherham where he met a woman who lived entirely on takeaways and transformed her life by basic education about how to eat better.

 Such possibilities offered by a greater appreciation of the importance of food are the essence of the Slow Food movement. There is a wide series of issues about food which are climbing up the political agendas of many Western countries which it can address. These range from concerns about obesity and factory farming methods to the growing demand for organic products and anger about the Tescoisation of the High Street. On an international level, there is Fair Trade, the rising cost of basic foodstsuffs and the growing threat of famine. Slow Food is a grass roots movement that can address all these issues but in a way that does not necessarily accord with the old divisions of Right and Left. For example, some British conservatives side with the Greens and the Left over environmentalist issues while some on the Left side with neo-liberals in resisting what they see as ‘food fascism’, whereby people are rebuked for taking the kids to Macdonalds or filling the freezer with £1 frozen pizzas.

. Slow Food, Andrews argues, is a metaphor for a change in lifestyle. It is about approaching the subject of food from a much wider perspective than either the fast food addicts of the old style foodies have done. With the credit crunch biting which hopefully will call a halt to the mad frenetic moneyfest that reduced life to a series of expensive but joyless experiences, it is a movement that could capture the zeitgeist.

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