The opening of the McDonald’s on the Spanish Steps in Rome was the catalyst that drove Carlo Petrini to found the Slow Food movement in 1986. The 14000-square-foot, 800-seat McDonald’s, one of the largest in the world, has also been described as one of the most elegant, featuring frescoes, statue replicas, and a stone tile floor. Unlike most other branches in the world, this McDonald’s sells squid salad and gelato. Most controversially, this branch was where the “McItaly” burger was introduced personally by the Agriculture Minister this February, who donned a McDonald’s apron just for the occasion. All of the burger’s ingredients, which include artichoke sauce and asiago cheese, were produced in Italy, with the intention of stimulating local agriculture. It is unclear whether the unveiling of the product at the Spanish Steps branch, whose opening Petrini had protested, was meant to be an appeasement or an affront to him, or whether McDonald’s did not have Petrini in mind at all. In any case, Petrini had something to say himself, in response to the minister’s desire to “globalize Italian taste,” arguing in a _La Republicca_ editorial that “globalizing a taste means above all standardizing it to the point of impoverishing it and making it disappear.”
Beyond a formal level, speed actually has relatively little to do with the movement. Instead, the choice of the term Slow Food was meant to stand in direct opposition to the cultural phenomenon of fast food. Beyond just fast food, the Slow Food movement, in its manifesto from 1989, decries the “universal folly of Fast Life” which can only be opposed by “a firm defense of quiet material pleasure.” Hedonism, though not explicitly defined as such by the movement itself, is central to the philosophy of Slow Food. Pleasure is seen as the common human denominator which can be used to attract new eaters to the movement. According to Petrini, eating and making love are the two purest forms of pleasure a human being can experience. By using local ingredients and preparation methods, he argues, the highest amount of pleasure can be achieved. Yet, of course, the local-sourced ragù that requires 3 hours to prepare costs significantly more than a McItaly. The charge of elitism centered on the hefty price tag of a Slow Food lifestyle is the most frequent criticism of the movement. Petrini does not deny the price difference. He counters it, like most organic food advocates do, by explaining that if the hidden costs of fast food were to be incorporated into the price, it would cost just as much, if not more, than a Slow Food meal. He argues that, even if local food simply costs more, its societal benefits, such as fostering human contact and a connection to the product, justify the expense.
Petrini, a middle-aged, slightly pot-bellied man, spoke on Sunday to a fairly evenly mixed group of townies and students gathered in McCosh 50. His speech, delivered in an appropriately gesticular Italian with consecutive interpretation, did not venture far past the themes of the central tenets of his philosophy, besides including some direct addresses to the youth in the audience. He seemed particularly dismayed when, after he asked if anyone in the audience under 30 was considering one day working on the land, no one raised their hand. This is in contrast to Yale, where Petrini reported that 30 students had raised their hands. Petrini emphasized that, for Slow Food to realized, there must be more people working on the land than the two percent of the population that currently is. Perhaps to connect his ideas to the university crowd, he emphasized that farmers are intellectuals who must know every detail about the land and products they are cultivating. In his vision, then, it seems that a return to the land should be primarily motivated by ideology, not economics. Areas with unemployment rates in the teens or higher would seem to be the prime targets for a back-to-the-land message, but are absent from his list of speaking engagements. Besides college campuses, Petrini appears mostly at conferences and farmers’ markets. His message is getting out, but mostly amongst groups that likely already know or agree with it.
Upon closer examination, what makes Slow Food so enigmatic is that it seems a liberal movement, but is simultaneously reactionary. The values and conditions that are extolled in the Slow Food movement all existed in the 18th century. Petrini seems unwilling to make any concessions to the reality of globalization and capitalism. The context of the lecture also enhanced the reactionary quality of the argument: an Italian lecturing an American audience about the perils of the fast food. It is the American-, agribusiness- and mass-produced food that is destroying the traditionally Italian epicurism and craft. To restructure society to accord to Petrini’s vision would take much more than a family farm revolution. It would require convincing the public that it is worth twice or three times as much money to purchase food that is “slow.” In one interview, he gives the example of Italians who spend ten percent of their income on food and ten percent on cell phone charges. But if cell phones were not as important to them as food, they would have given up their phones long ago.
Urban, globalized life requires certain sacrifices. The rhetoric surrounding food can be applied to numerous other facets of life, and indeed have been. Under the umbrella of the “Slow” movement there is Slow Clothing, Slow Art, Slow Travel, Slow Architecture, Slow Sex, and countless other branches. Sadly, there is not enough time or money in life for everything to be Slow. Everyone must choose the Slow they want. What Slow Food has achieved is to provide the option, but it will never become the standard. There are farmers’ markets in most every city in the United States, but they will never replace the supermarket. When it comes to Slow things, some people will choose the ragù, some the handmade cashmere sweater, and yet others the orgasmic meditation class. As long as the choice exists, Slow has done its job.