Sunday, March 18, 2001

Slow Food

In the United States we pride ourselves on our efficiency. We are the home of fast food, drive-in automatic teller machines, clip on ties and the one-hour workout. Speed is a virtue, a selling feature of everything from radio stations to microwave meals to newspapers. "Give us 22 minutes, we'll give you the world." "From package to oven to table in less than 10 minutes." "Not the most words, just the right ones." It seems everywhere you turn, we're in a hurry to get to the next minute, whatever adventures that may hold.

Nowhere is that more apparent than at lunch. For many, it's a chance to grab a quick sandwich or a bowl of soup, and then bolt out to do errands or other activities. Maybe it's a quick turn on a stationary bike, or picking up that birthday present for your sister-in-law's party, or checking out the latest toys in the electronics section of your local store. But the idea of lunch for lunch's sake... a long, slow partaking of the individual elements for the sheer pleasure of it... is practically anathema to vast majority of those of us who are trying to cram 80 hours of obligations into a 40 hour week.

And even if you make the commitment to sit and enjoy, the clock is still an unwelcome partner. If you are taking time from work, your office mates up and down the ladder might be willing to cede you 60 minutes, but no more. If you have less pressing obligations, you become acutely aware of the fact that sitting and grazing seriously affects the waiter's ability to flip the table for an additional tab and tip. And you have to contend with the reality that all around you, people are rushing in, chowing down and heading out. In light of those factors, you have to have a pretty strong commitment in order to have that extra glass of wine.

But Carlo Petrini takes major issue with this hustle and bustle. The 52 year-old Italian food and wine critic took the appearance of the golden arches near Rome's Spanish Steps as a gauntlet thrown into his zuppa de pesce, and decided to fight back. Something had to be done, and he was just the man to do it. And so, using the snail as his symbol, he founded the Slow Food movement.

His aim is to give people pause, and cause them to put down their hamburger, their hot dog, their pizza and their sandwich, and revel in what else is offered. According to his official manifesto, "We are enslaved by speed and have all succumbed to the same insidious virus: Fast Life, which disrupts our habits, pervades the privacy of our homes and forces us to eat Fast Foods." In other words, the devil is not the antichrist, but Colonel Sanders.

Carlo's movement has struck a nerve with many, both in his country and out. It has spread, boasting some 60,000 members. It hosts Slow Food Fairs, wine conventions, taste workshops, magazines and guides. At a recent event in Turin, 150,000 people showed up to sample hams, cheeses, smoked fish, stuffed roast pig and other delights, not to mention a wide array of vinos. And in spite of our national obsession with drive- thru windows, there was even a sizeable American contingent, proudly displaying Cajun cooking and barbecue sauces, two culinary arenas where long, slow cooking can play a part.

Having just returned from Italy on holiday with my family, I can readily understand Signor Petrini's approach. For us, the best meals we had were not the dinners in Rome or Venice. While they were nice, there was an urgency to eating, a hustle that went with the time, a weariness that came after the end of a long day of touring. No, the best gustatory experiences we had were the long, slow lunches we enjoyed in Sienna and Bologna. We had a little wine, a little ham, a little pasta, a little dolce, a little cappuccino. We watched the restaurant slowly empty, the staff wind down, the people bustling by outside the window. Not once did I pine for the bowl of chicken noodle and crackers that usually accompanies my noon hour in the states.

Petrini actually see his campaign as a crusade with broader implications than just lunch. He wants it to be an international movement focusing on anti-globalization and anti-standardization, one which celebrates the assertion of local and regional identity. His manifesto continues: "In the name of productivity, Fast Life has changed our way of being and threatens our environment and landscapes. " While there may be some truth to the concept, it would seem that he's pushing a good thing too far. After all, it's a bit much to lay the responsibility for a toxic waste dump at the oversize shoes of Ronald McDonald.

Better that he should concentrate his efforts, as we did in Tuscany, on coercing us to sit and enjoy a plate of spinach and ricotta tortellini, or tagliatelle with a smoked duck sauce, or ribollita brimming with bread and beans. As his manifesto says, "May suitable doses of guaranteed sensual pleasure and slow, long-lasting enjoyment preserve us from the contagion of the multitude who mistake frenzy for efficiency." Or taken another way, sitting and savoring a plate of bruschetta, followed by a nice pumpkin risotto, then toping that off with some goat cheese and bread, followed by a plate of tiramisu may not cure the ills of the world, but it makes it look a lot better as it goes down.


Marc Wollin of Bedford is bilingual. He can order fish and chips as well as saltimbocca. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

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