The Slow Food movement celebrates local farmers, regional foods, and culinary traditions, preserving biodiversity and cultivating solutions to climate change.
By CINDA CHAVICH
When activist Carlo Petrini launched the Slow Food movement in 1986, it was in response to the spread of American fast food around the globe.
McDonald’s planned to raise their golden arches next to the iconic Spanish steps in Rome, and Italians were outraged. It represented a challenge to their very way of life — an insidious attack on the Italian food culture, their artisanal ingredients, and the tradition of gathering around the table to enjoy them. Thousands rallied in the famous piazza, determined to defend Italian gastronomy.
Soon Slow Food ideals spread beyond Italy’s borders, with chefs, farmers and food lovers around the world organizing Slow Food chapters (or “convivia”) to preserve and celebrate local farmers,
regional food products and culinary traditions. Petrini started a Slow Food University of Gastronomic Sciences near the group’s headquarters in Piedmont,
built a Slow Food publishing house, and organized biannual Terra Madre Salone del Gusto events to bring Slow Food artisans and acolytes together.
His grassroots manifesto grew into a massive, global network.
SLOWER FOOD IS A GIVEN
Fast forward more than three decades and Slow Food ideals are deeply ingrained in the popular culinary zeitgeist — top chefs don’t even mention the provenance of the ingredients on their menus, as “local” and “sustainable” are a given.
We shop for artisan breads, made by local bakers using freshly milled flours and traditional methods, and visit farmers markets for seasonal fruits and vegetables grown close to home. Farmhouse cheeses and classic charcuterie are now made beyond their countries of origin, based on the skills of our ancestors, while small-batch craft beer and spirits gain ground on industrial beverages.
Food waste and nose-to-tail/root-to-shoot cooking is part of the conversation in restaurants and at home, where millennials dabble in culinary DIY, making mozzarella, fermenting kimchi, and dining together around convivial long tables.
Fast food is now authentic world food — you’re just as likely to stop for sushi, Korean chicken or quinoa salad, as burgers and fries.
So have we taken the lessons learned from the food activists who rallied at Rome’s Spanish Steps to heart? Has the Slow Food movement finished its work?
Yes and no, says Brooke Fader of Wild Mountain Food + Drink in Sooke, the point person for Slow Food Vancouver Island and Gulf Islands.
“These values have been absorbed by the Canadian food culture but the issues - farming, the environment, social justice - still remain,” she says.
“The focus, or the seed, is still on promoting local food and food producers, but as we have now been promoting these ideas for close to 30 years in over 150 countries, our strength is really in the network and how we can come together to learn from, and support, one another.”
THE BIG SLOW FOOD PICTURE
Slow Food remains focused on education but there’s less emphasis on meetings and memberships, Fader says, and more on campaigns, especially those related to local food issues, indigenous traditions, ecological farming and biodiversity around the world.
Sometimes it’s a hyper-local cause. Slow Food members recently joined the Island Chefs’ Collaborative to raise $9,500 for Metchosin pork producer Tom Henry, helping to buy piglet-friendly farrowing pens for his new barn at Stillmeadow Farm.
Or it might be a national campaign. Fader worked with the Montreal convivium to launch Slow Food’s Chef’s Alliance project in Canada. The Chef’s Alliance is a network of more than 700 chefs and cooks worldwide, who support biodiversity and local farmers. Canada’s 11 members — including Wild Mountain’s Oliver Kienast, chef Brad Holmes (formerly OLO), The Whole Beast, The Farmer's Apprentice and chef Jesse McCleery, of Pilgrimme — are also committed to using wild and foraged ingredients, from herbs and mushrooms to seaweed, and include Slow Fish and “presidia” foods (like Red Fife Wheat) on their menus, says Fader.
Slow Food and its stylized snail logo is recognized internationally, with several specific campaigns and arms, from Slow Fish and Slow Meat, to Slow Wine and Slow Food Travel. There’s an Indigenous Terra Madre event to address the issues specific to indigenous people, their land, culture and food sources around the world, and campaigns to support small, family farms.
Food sovereignty and access to clean, fair food for all is a growing issue, too.
The latest Slow Food initiative is the Food for Change Campaign, working to “cultivate solutions to climate change.”
“Food is both the cause and victim of climate change, but also a possible solution,” says the group’s website. “Our food choices have a direct impact on the future of the planet.”
This year — April 29, 2023 — Slow Food is focusing on the global issue of food waste with a World Disco Soup Day , created by Slow Food Youth Network to promote the discussion on the topic of food waste, cook dishes from food scraps and enjoy the process of learning together.
AGRICULTURE, FOOD AND CLIMATE
It’s all related to the Slow Food premise that “eating is an agricultural act and producing is a gastronomic act,” and why the non-profit now partners with organic agriculture and environmental groups.
As a recent Canadian Food Studies Review article examining the country’s food system concludes, how we produce the food we eat today is a major contributor to many modern problems, from climate change and loss of biodiversity to deforestation, food waste and food security. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says changing our diet is key to a sustainable future.
“The alarming pace of food biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation, and their impact on poverty and health, makes a compelling case for re-examining food-agricultural systems and diets,” says an FAO report, advocating for sustainable diets and food systems that address both human and ecological health.
Taking on projects to address these interconnected issues, and educating consumers about how their consumption patterns affect the world, is now also one of Slow Food’s primary objectives.
“We see this acknowledged more abroad where Slow Food advises the FAO and receives funding from the EU and the UN for this important work and breadth of knowledge,” says Fader.
Closer to home, Slow Food members are advocating for oceans, wild salmon and west coast fishing families through initiatives like Slow Fish and saveourbcfisheries.org, tackling fisheries quota and licensing polices. After their submission to the government’s Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans this spring, the committee recommended dramatic reforms which would return license and quota ownership from corporations to working fishing families.
“Slow Food holds an important role in researching and sharing information with our network,” adds Fader, noting that fishers, scientists and chefs on Vancouver Island face issues similar to those in other countries, and can find support from members worldwide.
The goal, says Fader, is to “engage, empower and educate consumers to make better food choices, lifting them from passive consumers to active co-producers of the food culture they want to be a part of.”
VANCOUVER ISLAND SLOW FOOD PIONEERS
When Mara Jernigan first heard about the Slow Food movement 20 years ago, she was a young farmer in the Cowichan Valley, a chef with a keen interest in local food. She soon joined forces with Sinclair Philip, owner of the hyper-local Sooke Harbour House, to launch Slow Food Vancouver Island. After Montreal, it was the second Slow Food convivia in Canada, and soon boasted 100 local members.
Jernigan took a deep dive into the organization, eventually becoming the national president. She says her decade of volunteer work with Slow Food literally changed her life – leading to her current work as a culinary consultant, spreading her Slow Food ideals around the world.
“Slow food did as much for me as I did for Slow Food,” says Jernigan. “I feel very humbled to have lived through that time, and being part of changing things. We created a community.”
“It gave me the opportunity to meet amazing people and travel to Italy every year,” she adds.
Jernigan was asked to be on the international Ark of Taste Committee, working with experts, veterinarians and ethno-botanists from Japan and South America to identify unique, regional foods. The Canadian Ark of Taste highlighted rare foods from coast to coast – from the Canadienne dairy cows of Quebec, to the wild nodding onion, the saskatoon berry and the Okanagan Sockeye salmon.
“It was all volunteer work, but it was fun.”
A DELICOUS REVOLUTION
Jernigan admits Slow Food is not the same as it was in the early years. Slow Food predates the internet, so joining once required sending a cheque to the group’s headquarters in Italy, and face-to-face meetings were central to local groups. Early food research revolved around academic explorations of rare heritage seeds and livestock breeds, wild plants and traditional recipes.
Today Slow Food communities gather on line, working on global food issues and political advocacy. Beyond the biennial Terra Madre Salone del Gusto conferences in Turin, Italy, there are now more regional events, like the Canadian Slow Food National Summit, and the US-based Slow Food Nations international food festival. At a recent Slow Food Cascadia in Vancouver, Washington, a luau and pig roast, hard cider garden and marketplace were featured, alongside a Slow Food Summit, with panels and speakers discussing salmon fisheries, tribal management and food-based social movements.
The current generation may be food-obsessed but it has become harder to find those who will volunteer for the cause, says Jernigan.
“In a way, people know more than ever but know less than ever,” she says. “Farmers markets are better than ever but people are going around the world, robbing cultures of their superfoods for hipster trends. The knowledge is wide but it is superficial.”
Still she remains hopeful.
“Slow Food is a resourceful army of volunteers all over the world.” she says, “It runs on good will, because the Slow Food message is positive — not a protest but a delicious revolution.”
SLOWING DOWN NOW
Slow Food’s headquarters is still in Bra, a town in Piedmont where I once traveled to write about the region’s big red wines and rare white truffles. I remember touring the Slow Food University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo and the new Eataly food market in Turin.
The latter was entrepreneur Oscar Faranetti’s celebration of small-scale Italian food artisans and Slow Food products, a sort of Disney world for food shoppers, and a private offshoot of the nascent food movement. Set inside an old vermouth factory it’s a sprawling homage to artisanal Italian ingredients.
Now there are 39 Eataly markets around the world, with the 50,000 square-foot Eataly Toronto in fashionable Yorkville, the 40th store and seventh in North America. It makes Eataly “the largest Italian retail and dining experience in the world”, says a press release announcing the brand’s latest expansion.
Whether this is evidence of incredible progress in the international farm-to-table movement — or another example of a high-minded ideal usurped by big business — is open to interpretation.
But it’s certainly proof that Slow Food has grown from its Italian, anti-fast food roots to an organization embracing lovers of local food around the world.
Carlo Petrini still heads Slow Food international in Italy. He’s written more manifestos — in the form of several books on slow topics — and is the figurehead of a movement that continues to influence the way we cook, shop and eat.
But “slow” has come to mean much more than preserving artisan food and small farms. It’s a philosophy of living responsibly and in harmony with nature, a search for balance in a frenetic world, writes Carl Honoré, author of In Praise of Slow.
“Fast is busy, controlling, aggressive, hurried, analytical, stressed, superficial, impatient, active, quantity-over-quality. Slow is the opposite: calm, careful, receptive, still, intuitive, unhurried, patient, reflective, quality-over-quantity. It is about making real and meaningful connections — with people, culture, work, food, everything.”
Slow Food didn’t stop the mega corporation McDonald’s from gaining a foothold in Italy, or anywhere else around the globe. The golden arches mark a cavernous café of Roman-style arches in the posh Piazza di Spagna, doling out hamburgers and gelato to locals and tourists alike.
But in an era when clean food production, food security and the impacts of climate change are more important than ever, there may be no better time to join the people who are working hard to go slow.
“It’s just about going to a farm, buying some food from a farmer, going home and cooking it, and sharing it with friends and family,” says Fader. “It’s really just that simple.”
To get involved, visit Slow Food Canada or www.slowisland.ca and learn about new local campaigns and initiatives, from Slow Wine and Slow Food Chef’s Alliance, to community gardens and saving BC fisheries
This feature was originally published in EAT magazine