As an Italian-American child, the kitchen was the central room in my family growing up. For us Italian-Americans, our earliest memories contain images of our grandmother in the kitchen, mom along with an aunt or two assisting while vegetables were cut, pasta was plunged into boiling water and hand-chopped bunches of basil were delicately stirred into a huge pot of sauce. Hungry children shuffled between their feet, running in and out of the kitchen, playing tag, screaming at each other in reprimand for small bouts of childhood teasing, waiting, observing the ritual of loving preparation. To this day, I don’t know if there is anything I consume that gives me as much comfort as my mother’s spaghetti.
The way in which we prepare, serve and eat food connects us to our heritage and plays a huge part of our human experience. This is true not only of Italians, but cultures across the globe.
Every traveler I have ever spoken to about Italy comments foremost on the food – the multitude, the simplicity, the freshness and flavor. And so it is with great enthusiasm I share with you today one of the most encouraging, and rapidly growing movements surrounding Italian food culture.
This week marks the start of the biennial event, Terra Madre Salone del Gusto, an international gastronomic festival taking place in Turin, Italy dedicated to the Slow Food movement. It is an event I am working to take a group of food lovers and those interested in biodiversity, agricultural sustainability and eco-gastronomic issues to in September 2018.
In 1986 Carlo Petrini, at the time a culinary journalist, founded the Slow Food movement as an opposing response to the opening of a McDonalds near the Spanish Steps in Rome. In 1989, three short years after that initial protest, representatives from 15 countries gathered in Paris to sign the Slow Food manifesto. “Let us rediscover the flavors and savors of regional cooking and banish the degrading effects of Fast Food.” the manifesto declares.
Slow Food’s primary goal is to preserve traditional and regional cuisine, to encourage the farming of plants, seeds and livestock which is characteristic of the local ecosystem – and at the same time devalue the production and promotion of fast food and globalization, which we have found leads to an overwhelming amount of disease, shortened life expectancy and a diminished quality of life for both humans and animals.
The movement towards food cultivated, regulated and manufactured with the utmost respect to the local region and its people has spread to over 160 countries worldwide with 100,000 members. Each country is divided into chapters (convivium) and each convivium is responsible for promoting local artisans, local farmers, and local flavors through regional events such as taste workshops, wine tastings, and farmers’ markets.
It is no surprise America has embraced these ideas with the inception of Slow Food USA. Americans love and value Italian products. We often consider them superior to our own. And we can no longer deny that our country, our planet, is at its limits in terms of global warming, deforestation, and the deterioration of human health (to name a few).
A fantastic resource provided by Slow Food USA is a list of endangered foods. The hope is that if we are aware of these diminishing natural resources, we will be more apt to mobilize in the favor of resource heritage. Did you know American Rye Whiskey is facing extinction? We invented the stuff! But with the diminishing cultivation of rye grain in America, the US is now forced to import it.
2004 saw the inception of the first university focusing on the organic relationships between food and cultures and training those pursuing careers in food and tourism industries. The University of Gastronomic Sciences located in Bra, Italy – also the home of Slow Foods headquarters, is a huge step towards acknowledging that the role of food not only in Italy, but on a global scale needs to be researched, preserved, analyzed and brought to the forefront of our agricultural economy.
The idea of Slow Food is not simply attempting to preserve a cultural food heritage, but also an organization questioning and exposing our rapidly declining food culture. Signore Petrini’s manifesto exposes a deeper, more rooted, more immediate issue.
As Americans, we never stop. We work, and we work, and we work some more. While I greatly admire the American work ethic, it is lovely to see Americans slow down when they travel to Italy. Americans are fascinated by the Italians. They sit in piazzas, they take long lunches, they sleep in the middle of the day! These are not American concepts of every day life and most Americans believe such leisure should be reserved for vacations. We have for much too long (since the 1920’s post WWI automobile and drive-in boom) cast aside traditional processes in lieu of swift production and cost effectiveness.
Interestingly enough, the Slow Food movement inspired Cittaslow (translated as “Slow City”), a non-profit organization founded in the Chianti region of Tuscany, promoting the adaptation of these food concepts – local, regional and sustainable – to how we live our lives amongst the urban makeup. Cittaslow’s motivation is to “enlarge the philosophy of Slow Food to local communities and to government of towns, applying the concepts of eco-gastronomy at practice of everyday life.”
These cities, such as beloved Positano, Orvieto and Bra, who have received the official Cittaslow recognition abide by certain criteria – they must have a population less than 50,000 and accept guidelines such as working to conserve the local environment, implementing programs to promote small businesses and provide solutions to slow down the pace of urban traffic flow.
From my many years living and working in Italy, I am not shocked this movement found its roots in Italy. I am not shocked that the rest of the world has taken notice. Italians can be exemplary when it comes to quality of life in many regards, especially when it comes to honoring the rich traditions of our cultural Italian heritage.
After all, many have argued, it is the unforgettable, impeccable food of this country that is the true masterpiece.
LeAnne J. Smith
*In September 2017, Thesis Travel will host 12 travelers who will gather together in Milan to set out on an eleven-day gastronomic tour and tasting of Italy’s finest products. “Gastronomic Italy: Culinary Excellence and the Slow Food Movement” will stop in Bra, Parma, Modena, Bologna, Florence, Siena and Orvieto. If you are interested in learning more about this trip, please email me.