Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini at Eataly NYC

Sally Grant   New York

Carlo Petrini signing copies of his new book at Eataly, NYC.

Carlo Petrini signing copies of his new book at Eataly, NYC.

Recently I attended a talk by Carlo Petrini, the founder of the Slow Food movement, at the NYC branch of the Italian gastronomic chain Eataly. Appropriately enough on Earth Day, he was there to discuss the release of his new book Loving the Earth: Dialogues on the Future of our Planet. Petrini gave an impassioned talk (in Italian, accompanied by an English translator) on his philosophy of food culture and the impact agriculture has on the health of the world. The book is a record of conversations between Petrini and people who he feels are important in this debate, such as Massimo Montanari and Dario Fo in Italy, and Wendell Berry in America, among others from around the globe.

Subjects discussed on the day ranged from the joys of the table and the importance of family traditions and education, to Slow Food’s defence of bio-diversity and the necessity to comprehend gastronomy as a whole system related to the human condition and to that of the planet, including agriculture and husbandry. While Slow Food, which was founded in 1986, went some way to addressing issues such as the harmful effect of powerful multinationals, food waste, and malnutrition, Petrini noted that it is with two related initiatives begun in 2004 that these are tackled further – the creation of the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo (Piedmont), and that of Terra Madre, an international grassroots community of small-scale producers, cooks, and academics concerned with sustainable food and its access. Petrini emphasised young people as instrumental in this movement and at the Expo in Milan this year Slow Food is holding a “Terra Madre Giovani” event that encourages young farmers from around the world to share their ideas on the future of food production (3-6 October). The global emphasis of the movement is reflected in the meeting’s call to arms, which is available to download in various languages.

When asked by the director of Slow Foods USA about positive changes in this country, Petrini was complimentary. He admitted that food production did reach rock bottom here before it improved, and that there are still many policies with which to be gravely concerned (GMOs, the use of hormones in livestock, massive production scales, etc.), but he observed that the US was in fact an example for old Europe. In contrast to Italy, for instance, where he said farmers’ markets are being lost to traders, he has witnessed their massive growth in the United States. Petrini helped open markets in Chicago and New Orleans and mentioned knowing of 60 or 70 in the country at the time of his early visits. Indeed, since 1994, when the US Department of Agriculture first began recording the number of farmers’ markets, these have risen from 1,775 to over 8,000 in 2014. Tellingly, Petrini noted that in Italy “mercati contadini” are now often called by the English term “farmers’ markets”. He was also very enthusiastic about the resurgence of craft breweries in the US that, after hovering around the 100 count in the 1970s and early 80s, now number more than 3,000 (a return to the figures of the 1870s). And certainly in urban centres such as NYC, the demand for the small-scale and ethically sourced is burgeoning – this has led to the growth of enterprises such as rooftop farming and urban beekeeping, as well as to the opening of stores that specialise in products such as fair-trade, handmade chocolate or where the coffee is made from carefully sourced and locally roasted beans.

Want to buy a frying pan?

Want to buy a frying pan?

When Petrini called out TV chefs “che parlano, parlano, parlano” and put their name to frying pans, referencing this as a type of gastronomic pornography, it did seem rather ironic that we were sat having this debate in Eataly’s rooftop Birreria. While the store was first established by Oscar Farinetti in Turin in 2007, there are now twenty-seven Eataly outlets around the world. Partners in the NYC store include Mario Batali, Joe Bastianich, and Lidia Bastianich – all well-known television personalities in the US who also feature prominently in the merchandise of Eataly and, yes, who have put their names (at least in Batali’s case) to frying pans. Petrini himself noted this dichotomy, mentioning that he was brave to talk about “conscious citizens” rather than “consumers” (a word he abhors) in a centre of consumerism (though whether he meant Eataly or America in general – or both – was unclear). Rather, he urged that we look behind the vendors, and the products, to see how and by whom they were created so we can eat with both our mouths and our heads in an attempt to save the planet. He suggested that the revolution – a slow, quiet one – begins with schools and with farmers’ markets.

Organic veggies at the Union Square Greenmarket.

Organic veggies at the Union Square Greenmarket.

And so, while admittedly being seduced to first buy some fresh pasta and bread from Eataly, I headed to the Union Square Greenmarket to support the farmers whose products, in these early days of spring and after a long and cold winter, are blooming. I like to think that Carlo Petrini made it there later that day too.

[Postscript: With Farinetti due to open a “Fico Eataly World” in Bologna at the end of this year, a type of food theme park that has been termed a “Disneyland of Food” by the press, I would be interested to hear ACIS readers’ thoughts on this venture. I had the privilege of spending a semester on exchange at the University of Bologna as an undergrad ten years ago and the city will always be very dear to me. I particularly recall walking the medieval streets in winter, where the city felt dark, brooding, and somewhat mysterious. Above all (aside from study of course), I relished buying fresh produce from the market vendors in the Quadrilatero and the Mercato delle erbe and picking up items such as cheese, tortellini, prosciutto, olive oil, and chocolates from small speciality stores dotted around the old city (not to mention the institution Tamburini, where their made-in-house ragù and vitello tonnato were always temptations).

Italian Anemones at the market.

Italian Anemones at the market.

Of course this is one of the pleasures of Italy that many of us love and appreciate. So how do people feel about a food theme park in La Grassa, a city renowned for the quality of its food within a country already esteemed for its cuisine? Any ideas what the local Bolognesi feel about this enterprise? It appears from the news coverage that the venture, which is run in partnership with the city of Bologna, is being touted as a boost to the faltering Italian economy. But a development of this concept and scale does beg the question, at what cost? Does this Disneyfication of Italian food culture – something Carlo Petrini and Slow Foods have fought against since first protesting the siting of a McDonald’s at the Spanish Steps in Rome nearly 30 years ago – take with it the worst of America and leave behind the best parts that Petrini sees as an example to the world – the new focus on the small-scale, the locally-produced, and the human side of food. Something that has been at the heart of a very regionally proud Italy for hundreds of years.

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