When I was a child in Bra in Italy, hardly any mothers had a job, grandmothers lived with their children and grandchildren, and lunch and dinner were rites you couldn't miss. Even if the world was collapsing around you, you would go home at a set time, sit down at the table and eat a full meal fondly prepared by the women of the house. Most ingredients came from local markets, though a lot of the vegetables were grown directly in our allotments, and meat came from animals raised by friends or acquaintances. The most "exotic" foods were bought at the neighborhood grocer's shop.
This typically Italian family scene has changed radically. In the 1960s and 1970s, the advent of supermarkets and cheap, mass-produced food swathed community-based economies in a cloud of unfashionable traditionalism. The boom years brought new freedom and money to spend, on food but also on leisure. Women were emancipated at last and started to go out to work. Convenience foods were all the rage: margarine replaced butter and refined oils ousted extra virgin. Home-baked cakes and handmade pasta were out, factory-produced replicas were in. In the late 1980s, food processing become an out-and-out revolution. In the subsequent loss of domestic and artisanal savoir-faire, traditional produce and biodiversity were threatened. It's no coincidence that the Slow Food movement came into being at a time when homogenization looked set to prevail in a country that had always been proud of its regional diversity.
The founders of Slow Food sought to highlight this distinctive feature of Italy. Respectful of our own past, we reappropriated a more human, less frantic pace of life to celebrate conviviality, the enjoyment of company round the table. Slowly since the mid-1990s, things have started to change. Perhaps due to concern over scandals to do with tainted food and the increasingly critical state of the planet, the idea that our food system needs to be changed has crept into the minds of many.
The food production revolution that transformed Europe and North America meant more and cheaper food for all. But there were negative effects, too: environmental harm and a loss of cultural identity. Now that emerging nations are following in our footsteps, the downside is evident. If we can't force those who are starting to glimpse emancipation from poverty in countries such as China, India and Brazil to avoid our bad examples, we can at least propose more sustainable models of producing food.
It is important to trigger the virtuous processes that lead to food that tastes great, is ecologically benign, and is produced and consumed in a way that is fair to all. We must look to the past a past which, in countries like Italy, is not that far away, and which, in prevalently agricultural parts of the world, still lives on. We need to learn from what we have forgotten or set aside in the name of modernity. The values of rural societies are the values we have to restore to our food, and hence to our culture.
These values teach us that food is better when it is fresh and seasonal, when it is produced close to home, possibly by people we know, and when it is eaten with the people we love. I'm not advocating a return to the family scene of my childhood; such environments were often indicative of poverty and social backwardness. And going back to the old days would force women back into the kitchen. But we can find ideas in the past that we might apply in our increasingly complex society, and so ensure a serene future for ourselves and the earth. Food is central to our lives. It would be wrong to turn it into nothing more than a fuel enabling us to move faster, hence accelerating the consumption of the earth and its resources. In fact, it would be the worst mistake we could ever make.
Carlo Petrini is the founder and president of the Slow Food organization
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