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On Sunday afternoon Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini had just finished a lunch of rare wholesomeness at a long, sun-dappled table behind a log farmhouse just outside of Champaign, and was expanding in Italian upon the themes of his new book, Slow Food Nation: Why Our Food Should Be Good, Clean, and Fair. Craig Svozil, a young chef from Vie, sidled up to to his interpreter and asked if the august gastronome had tried the lamb prosciutto. “I made it,” he whispered.
Petrini took in the news and his eyes widened. “Eccellente!' Complementi!" "In Italy they call it a violin," he continued through his translator. "They hold it like a violin when they cut it.”
The visit to Prairie Fruits Farm, which took place the day after Petrini's speech before more than 500 at Northwestern Law School, was arranged by Slow Food Chicago, and a set designer couldn't have manufactured a more perfect pastorality for the Illinois stop of his book tour. Four baby goats frolicked on the lawn, while on the other side of the table a plump speckled Sussex hen clucked and pecked in grass. In attendance were some of the local celebrity farmers championed by the group. There were John and Connie Caveny, Monticello producers of Bourbon Red turkeys and Rouen ducks. Henry Brockman, a fixture at the Evanston farmers' market was there, and Stan Schutte--named 2006 Farmer of the Year by the Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service--was grilling brats with his son on a giant rig beside the driveway. Hosts Leslie Cooperband and Wes Jarrell make the only farmstead cheese in Illinois, which means it is made on the premises with milk from their own goats. These farmers were the real deal. One had arrived with an ugly purple lump on his lower lip, the result of a kick from one of his sheep.
Petrini was accompanied by a small entourage of young organization staffers, including Erika Lesser, director of Slow Food USA. The day before she sat with her hands folded, translating, while Petrini wandered the Northwestern stage, addressing the audience as much with his hands as with his words. An Italian woman later described his oratory, heavily inflected with the idiom of his Piedmont hometown of Bra, as like that of an politician from the 70s, colorful and a little old fashioned. “Cursed be those that reduce gastronomy to the spoon and pot!” he declaimed, meaning those who imagine gastronomy as a narrow focus on recipes and cookbooks rather than the multidisciplinary science he proposes will save the world from itself.
The farm visit was the sort of exercise in “taste education”--going out to meet the people and visit the places that produce good food--in which Petrini thinks everyone should be taking part. Before lunch Leslie Cooperband led the group through the the farm's cheesemaking operation, housed in a converted machine shed. Before entering the cheese cave (a walk-in cooler), a woman broke off from the group, poised her nose next to a bale of hay, and inhaled. “I love the smell of hay,” she sighed. Petrini posed for pictures standing next to Cooperband and Jarrell with a plastic container full of aging blue. Then it was time to meet the goats, who obligingly proffered their heads for scratching.
Petrini's visit to the United States hasn't all been baby goats and heritage turkey enchiladas. A book signing at San Francisco's Ferry Plaza Farmer's Market was scotched when vendors there objected to a section in Slow Food Nation relating an earlier visit, and the scuffle blew up on the blogosphere. In what could have been just an undiplomatically translated bit of soul searching, Petrini addressed a common criticism of the local, organic, and sustainable products he celebrates: they can be be prohibitively expensive to the eater of average means, let alone for the poor. In it he described a farmer at Ferry Plaza who claimed he earned enough from selling high priced squash in two monthly trips to the city that he could support his family and spend hours surfing. Petrini went on to liken the market's customers to “actresses, [who] went home clutching their peppers, marrows and apples, showing them off like jewels, status symbols.”
At lunch Petrini, who had visited our own boutique Green City Market, said he wasn't trying to be critical. “He is not against the fact that it is expensive,” said Carlo Bogliotti, the Slow Food staffer who translated. “For him, when the farmer earns money it is always right. The problem in the the U.S. is not that you have expensive foods in farmers' markets. The problem is that food is too inexpensive. The food is too cheap and cannot be quality.”
Petrini believes that taste education will bring quality to the mainstream. Once people know what is good and are willing to pay fairly for it, he argued Sunday, a host of small farmers will respond and a host of small local economies will develop to meet the demand.
Still, critics of the Slow Food movement, wonder how a dismantling of the agro-industrial complex capable of producing lots of cheap, low-quality food will feed the world. As befits the name of his organization he's not in much of a hurry. All of this will happen slowly, he said, at a manageable scale. He's not advocating a Pol Pot-style agrarian revolution--these are market-driven solutions, after all--though some of his rhetoric contains a revolutionary whiff of the late-60s Italian left from whence he came. “We need to increase the number of farmers,” he pronounced. “This is how we will prevail over the capitalist-industrial system!”
After the meal he stood and praised the food produced by the farmers and the chefs in the group. “I was really curious to see how these goats were being raised,” he said. “I've decided if I get to have another life I want to come back as a goat here.” He then posed for a group photo, kissed the women goodbye, and headed back out on the road.