On the cobbled streets of Rome, visitors and residents see what they expect: the Trevi Fountain flowing abundantly, piazzas crowded with locals and tourists, rows of vespas lining streets too narrow for even the smallest of Fiats. They expect coffee bars, bakeries, gelaterias, and salumerias sprinkled between the long established structures, like the Pantheon and St. Peter’s Basilica. They expect the gastronomic experiences to be as traditional as the monuments and to taste the culture embedded in the food. They don’t expect the menus to be translated into English, but many are; they don’t expect the classic Italian recipes to be modified for an American palette, but some are; and they certainly don’t expect to see a McDonald’s only a few yards away from the Spanish Steps. But there it is.
Carlo Petrini was nearing 40 years old when the McDonald’s opened in Piazza di Spagna in the 1980s. He had been living in the Piedmont region, where the connection between producers and consumers was direct and clear. That relationship was fundamental to the culinary culture in all of Italy, a country that prides itself so much in the regionality of dishes that emerged out of the consumer’s familiarity with the ingredients sourced from farms in his or her region. With supermarkets and grocery stores acting as the middleman in that relationship, the Slow Food Movement regards this mediation as a hindrance to the joy in local food experiences.
In 1986, after the opening of that first McDonald’s in Rome, Carlo Petrini founded the Slow Food Movement in Bra, Italy, under the motto: good, clean, and fair. Three years later, it became an international movement expanding primarily in Europe. Bra is in the Piedmont region, home to the University of Gastronomic Sciences, which, in 2004, was also founded by Petrini. The movement prioritizes gastronomic experiences that bring joy and feed our bodies well. Its manifesto campaigns for humanity to slow down; it claims that we move too fast for our own good in life, restricting the pleasure to be found in the necessities of life. It values sustainability and regionality and rejects waste and excess.
For decades, the movement has hosted events around the world to give independent and local food producers a platform to market their products. In the 1990s, the movement began publishing the Slow Food Editore and held the first Salone del Gusto, an event that occurs every two years to showcase regional culinary practices in Turin, Italy. The 2000s saw intercontinental expansion, with national chapters opening in Asia, South America, and North America, and the launches of the Foundation for Biodiversity and Terra Madre, an international network of producers and chefs international cooperation across foodways. In the 2010s, the continental branches expanded within their nations through interconnected webs of local communities that hold their own events more regularly between the greater movement’s international events. Slow Food Boston, for example, posts links to farm shares, delivery services, and other resources to substitute for the lack of gatherings due to COVID-19 at this time.
Since its inception in the 1980s, the Slow Food Movement has been weary of the fact that we live in a time where industrialization has led to technological developments that feed into a moment in which instant gratification is at our fingertips. With the lost connection between producer and consumer, we can get anything and everything we need blocks away at our local supermarkets. To find ingredients out of season all year long detracts from the joy and uniqueness that these ingredients bring to seasonal dishes. According to NPR, grocery stores dispose of 10% of their food inventory every year, and the average American household throws away 20% of the food in their refrigerators. The movement asks us to deconstruct the mechanics of life that have led to unhealthy and excessive habits and to live off the land as the land intends.
With the globalization of communicative practices and transnational trade, though, international borders have become permeable to cultural influence and foreign products. The ability to experience various ways of life pervades all aspects of culture, and we often see these experiences emerging in explorations of food. We are able to experience foodways and access ingredients that we might not ever have before. Years after the opening of the McDonald’s, Petrini recalled feeling “alarmed by the culturally homogenizing nature of fast food,” but that doesn’t mean that passionate chefs will allow culinary traditions coalesce into a homogeneous mess.
It is evident that chains like McDonald’s, which offers the same base menu at its nearly 40,000 locations around the world, establish a global network that does homogenize the nature of fast food. Not everyone, though, is in socioeconomic positions to regularly shop at farmers markets, where prices are higher and options are fewer. Not everyone has time to prepare meals for hours just to enjoy the experience of eating it for a moment.
On the one hand, Slow Food shrivels in its elitism. But on the other hand, Slow Food shines in its idealism: the idea of living an intentional life that considers the sources of the food one ingests and takes care to support independent regional producers is enticing. That it benefits the earth, independent and local producers, and our own bodies creates the illusion of flawlessness. Even so, the movement ignores how inaccessible it is to the masses. It neglects to recognize that it exists on the assumption that all people have the resources – time, money, space – to live with such intention. With the societal hegemonies we’ve created for ourselves, there will always be people who can’t afford to slow down to survive.