Slow Food: Can You Eat Well and Save the World?

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Giuseppe Cacace / AFP / Getty Images

A man holds tomatoes at the Salone del Gusto gastronomy fair on Oct. 22, 2010

At midday on Oct. 23, some 300 young people sat down to eat in a shopping mall in Turin, Italy. But instead of the usual food-court fare of burgers and Cinnabons, lunch for these mostly 20-somethings consisted of rice-and-broccoli salad, stewed sweet potatoes and hand-chopped beef tartare — all of it served on recyclable paper plates draped with raw kale leaves. If that seems a surprisingly wholesome meal for the setting, that's kind of the point: the "eat-in," organized by the Youth Food Movement — an arm of the Slow Food organization — was devised in part as a protest against fast food. "By doing this and by making Slow Food work, we're saying no to the industrial food that most people are forced to eat," says Gabriel Vidolin, a 21-year-old Brazilian chef who helped prepare the meal.

The eat-in was but one event at the 2010 edition of Terra Madre, a biannual international gathering that brings together roughly 5,000 farmers, activists, chefs and everyday eaters from around the world for four days of networking, mutual education and cheerleading. In its size and fervor, the event is a sign of Slow Food's growing strength: 24 years after writer Carlo Petrini and a small group of fellow Italians first protested the arrival of McDonald's in Rome's Piazza di Spagna, Slow Food has become a massive global movement, with 100,000 members in 130 countries all working for food that is "good, clean and fair." But in its twin dedication to both politics and lunch, Terra Madre lays bare the uncomfortable tension at the heart of Slow Food: Is this about saving the world or eating well?

For Petrini, the answer is both. Although in its earliest incarnations Slow Food tended to emphasize the pleasures of traditional ingredients and preparations, the organization is increasingly becoming more political. In addition to working to protect traditional products, it is currently involved in projects to improve school lunches around the globe and promote sustainable agriculture. At a press conference on Saturday, Petrini announced plans to sponsor 1,000 gardens in Africa in the coming year and called "for more politics in food journalism and less food porn."

And yet at the Salone del Gusto, an immense public fair of Slow Food–approved products that takes place as part of Terra Madre, it was all food porn all the time. A robustly mustachioed man discussed the finer points of cheese aging as he shaved crumbly samples of Parmesan from an immense wheel; a group of stout ladies dressed in red strung golf-ball-sized tomatoes into bunches for hanging. Most of the 800 stands featured Italian delicacies — cured meats, bronze-cut pastas, thin bottles of grappa — but 100 foreign "presidia" (Slow Food–speak for foodstuffs certified as artisanal and sustainably produced) were also represented, from pink Chilean quinoa to Senegalese fruit juices.

"A lot of people see Slow Food as a middle-class supper club," said Raj Patel, author of Stuffed and Starved and an expert in food security and justice issues. "But it was always Carlo's genius to see that the best way of recruiting people is through pleasure."

Certainly that tactic has worked in the U.S. With 700 members, the American delegation to Terra Madre was the event's largest, and the mood in its meeting was decidedly celebratory. Attendees discussed their successes building urban farms and supporting farmers' markets. Well aware that the organization is seen by some as elitist, Slow Food USA president Josh Viertel called for greater efforts to improve the access that underprivileged communities have to wholesome food and for better protection of the rights of food-industry workers.

Author Patel believes that the organization, though making important strides, has yet to live up to its ideals. Looking around the room, he asks, "Where are the labor representatives? Where are the Hispanic workers? If Slow Food USA is serious about 'good, clean and fair,' there should be a lot more Spanish speakers here." He is also critical of the plan for a thousand gardens in Africa, viewing it as perhaps excessively idealistic and insufficiently political. "What's more important is to stop our government from doing the things it does to stop Africans from growing their own food, from having their own gardens."

And so it went at Terra Madre, politics and pleasure circling each other, looking for common ground. Sometimes it worked: a lawyer involved in a suit against seed-and-chemical company Monsanto bonded with an Ethiopian herbalist over a display of Madagascar vanilla and a shared sense of outrage about genetically modified crops. But sometimes it didn't: two Senegalese women in brightly printed dresses caressed a box of fragrant organic clementines but were unable to afford the price.

"Is there a disconnect between what goes on at Terra Madre and the Salone?" asked Iowa farmer Larry Cleverly. "Sure. But as a farmer, I don't begrudge anyone getting a good wage for their work. And just being here has renewed my faith in food and community."

In the end, creating that sense of community may be Terra Madre's greatest accomplishment. Dutch farmer Pieter de Brock found himself overwhelmed by the attention he received for the peppery sausage he makes from free-range Drenthe Heath sheep, Western Europe's oldest breed and one that he and a few others have saved from extinction. "As a shepherd, you spend a lot of time alone with your herd," he said, offering thin slices to a crowd of waiting hands. "But here, it's amazing. There are lots of people interested in the same things as I am. I'm doing a lot of talking."