"We have lost our sense of time," intones Carlo Petrini, in mellifluous Italian. "We believe that we can add meaning to life by making things go faster. We have an idea that life is short — and that we must go fast to fit everything in. But life is long. The problem is that we don't know how to spend our time wisely. And so we burn it."
In an age of acceleration, Petrini, 50, is a staunch champion of all things slow. Over the past 14 years, he has built an international organization in reaction to the stark reality that, as a culture, we have become enslaved by speed and have succumbed to what his group's manifesto calls an "insidious virus: Fast Life."
Slow Food, a Bra, Italy-based nonprofit organization with more than 60,000 members in 35 countries, promotes and defends "slow," local, artisanal food traditions that have become victims of speed, technology, supermarket standardization, and homogenization. And this slow movement is growing fast. Slow Food recently opened an office in New York City — adding to its network of offices in Germany, Greece, Italy, Slovenia, and Switzerland — and will expand into France in 2001. Among its members, Slow Food boasts food luminaries from around the world, including Alice Waters, owner of Berkeley's Chez Panisse, as well as such bigwigs as Italian Prime Minister Massimo D'Alema and 1997 Nobel laureate in literature (and friend of Petrini) Dario Fo.
But the backbone of the movement is what Slow Food calls its Convivia — grassroots, transcontinental, "hypercaloric" groups of people from Sweden to Turkey, from Australia to South Africa, and from Singapore to Silicon Valley. Convivia members meet regularly to achieve back-to-basics goals: to have fun, to spread the Slow Food philosophy, to promote local traditions and superior local products, and to immerse themselves in pleasure. It's an epicurean's ideal. At the root of these hedonistic activities, however, is something more profound: a fundamental desire not to forgo what makes us human, a sense of our natural rhythms, and a participation in the simple rituals of life.
The carefully cooked ideas behind Slow Food are beginning to appeal to people outside gourmand circles. These ideas are a feast for those hungry for a respite from the blur of a connected economy — and, as Petrini puts it, an antidote "to the contagion of the multitude who mistake frenzy for efficiency." How so? As the group's manifesto (which was ratified in Paris by delegates from 15 countries) proclaims: "A firm defense of quiet material pleasure is the only way to oppose the universal folly of Fast Life."
Ah, la bella vita. Leave it to the Italians to create an organization devoted, as its Web site states, to "the Defense of and the Right to Pleasure." And where better to begin this firm defense than at the table — with the quiet material pleasure of food? Slow food.
But Petrini, a charismatic Italian who looks as if he has just walked off the set of a Fellini movie, explains that Slow Food is not simply a knee-jerk reaction to the homogeneity of fast food; it's a call for serious consideration of the effect that speed has on our lives. "Fast food is not our enemy," he says. "We can all eat as we want. If we have an enemy, it is the abnormal rhythms in which we are living our lives."
Being slow doesn't mean that you have to move slowly, chew a certain number of times per bite, or turn back the hands of time. "If you're slow, you're stupid," says Petrini. "This is not what we're talking about. Rather, to be slow means that you govern the rhythms of your life. You are in control of deciding how fast you have to go. Today, you might want to go fast, so you do. Tomorrow, however, you might want to go slow, so you can. That is the difference."
Petrini leans back in his leather chair behind his massive wooden desk in his office in Bra. He folds his hands across his ample paunch and, choosing his words carefully, continues: "It is useless to force the rhythms of life. If I live with the anxiety to go fast, I will not live well. My addiction to speed will make me sick. The art of living is about learning how to give time to each and every thing. If I have sacrificed my life to speed, then that is impossible."
Moments pass in silence until Petrini adds quietly: "We all go to the same place, so let us go there slowly."
The Ingredients of Slow Food
"Have you heard the joke about the turtle and the snail?" deadpans Patrick Martins, 28, president of Slow Food's U.S. operations, as he sips his espresso in a cafe in Bra. "In the middle of the forest, a turtle and a snail have a gruesome head-on collision. The snail is rushed to the emergency room, where a doctor asks what happened. On the edge of consciousness, the snail responds, 'I don't know, Doc. It all happened so fast.' "
Martins, a gastronome who wrote his master's thesis on the politics of medieval food sculpture when he was attending the Tisch School at New York University, speaks slowly and deliberately. Having delivered the punch line, he smiles liberally — a New Yorker who admits that he's lost some of his island edginess after two years in this small town nestled in the hills of the Piedmont region of Italy. "Just the type of joke you'd imagine we'd tell around here, right?"
Sure, considering Slow Food's penchant for all things slow. Not to mention that it is one of the few organizations in the world to select the snail as its logo and ideological symbol. The mollusk is featured in the windows of Italian eateries, known locally as osterie, throughout the country — a beacon to those looking for genuine, traditional, local cooking. It also happens to adorn everything that comes out of the office of Slow Food Editore, the organization's publishing arm. The folks at Slow Food are anything but slow when it comes to spreading the word. The organization publishes a wide range of materials: "The Snail," a newsletter that is distributed to all 60,000 members worldwide; "Slow: The International Herald of Tastes," a quarterly magazine published in five languages; and several prestigious food and wine guides, such as "Osterie d'Italia" and "Vini d'Italia."
After publishing Guida ai Vini del Mondo, a 1,250-page wine guide that describes 2,000 vineyards and 6,500 wines in 30 countries, Slow Food decided to embark on an equally ambitious project: the creation of an online catalogue of the world's artisanal food products and producers. "We plan to build a worldwide network of artisanal and traditional foods, and to use our network to promote those foods," explains Renato Sardo, 31, director of Slow Food International, which is responsible for coordinating all of the organization's offices and events. "Eventually, we want to offer people an entirely new food-production-and-distribution model — an alternative to the current big-scale, industrialized model."
So, yes, the joke about the turtle and the snail is the type of joke that you'd imagine hearing in the courtyard of Slow Food's villa on Via della Mendicita Istruita. The joke becomes poignant when you realize that Slow Food traces its origins back to what began, Martins says, as something of a not-so-funny joke. In 1986, McDonald's opened a restaurant at the base of the Spanish Steps in Rome's Piazza di Spagna. Petrini — who at the time was both a journalist and head of Arcigola, a nonprofit food-and-wine association that he had cofounded — was outraged. "Petrini loathed the idea of the ugly, neon, golden arches looming large in the middle of this beautiful square," says Martins. "Plus, he was outraged by the odor of fried food." So Petrini and a group of his leftist-intellectual friends protested and arrived at what Petrini calls an "Italian compromise": McDonald's removed its golden arches but continued to feed the Romans.
Over the years, Slow Food has evolved from a gourmet organization concerned solely with exalting food and drink to a movement with a mission to promote food diversity and to prevent the extinction of domestic animals, plants, fruits, and vegetables. In the Slow Food worldview, a loss of diversity — driven largely by our obsession with speed — means a gain of one thing: a bland, new world. "At the beginning of the century, for instance, there were about 200 varieties of artichokes in Italy," says Sardo. "Now there are only about a dozen. Each day, we lose several varieties of vegetable or animal species. Not only does that have huge gastronomic implications, threatening the diversification of taste, but it also has profound ecological implications." Given those implications, Petrini and his crew have coined the term "ecogastronomy."
Slow Food has launched two projects under its ecogastronomy banner: the Ark of Taste and the Slow Food Praesidia. The Ark of Taste aims to save and protect small-scale, quality food production from industrial standardization and, as Martins explains, "from hyperhygienist legislation, the rules of modern retail systems, and a modernity which meets 95% of the world's food requirements with fewer than 30 plants." Like Noah shepherding animals onto his ark, Slow Food places certain near-extinct foods on a list: lentils from Abruzzi; potatoes from Liguria; Pardigone plums from the French Alps; Firiki apples from Greece; Sun Crest peaches from northern California. Once a product makes the Ark of Taste list, Slow Food begins promoting that item through its network. For example, the organization was instrumental in getting Time magazine to write about the Sun Crest peach, a fruit with a sublime taste but a poor tolerance for travel. The result? Thousands of people contacted the small producer to sample its juicy gem.
But Slow Food knows that promoting a product through the media is a temporary solution. Enter the Praesidia. " 'Presidium' is Latin for 'garrison' and conveys our most militaristic approach to defending foods and drinks in danger of extinction," says Martins. A perfect example: Sciacchetra, a rare white wine that is produced only in the Cinque Terre region of Italy, an exquisitely beautiful, hilly area along the Mediterranean. Sciacchetra has been produced in that region since medieval times but has gradually become unprofitable for the remaining producers to make. So, in collaboration with private sponsors and public institutions, Slow Food purchased 20,000 square meters of the Cinque Terre and gave the land to one of the last three Sciacchetra producers in the world. Without the economic burden of rent, explains Martins, "that producer is now able to hire people to help him produce this wine and can pass on the tradition to future generations. In the next several years, we expect production to go from a few hundred bottles to tens of thousands."
Beer Here: Slow Food, American-Style
America — home of the hamburger, "nuke it 'n' eat it," and express lanes at fast-food restaurants. What could a country filled with superstars of speed possibly want with Slow Food? Plenty, according to Petrini, who believes that America is just about ripe for some slow food. "A lot of Europeans think that America is the empire of badness," he says. "They believe that Americans are the ones who need to be converted — the barbarians at the gate who need to be civilized. But that's not true. Americans have an enormous capacity to merge tradition with modernity, and they crave a sense of slowness now more than ever." As upstarts on the cuisine scene, Americans might play second fiddle to other nations' food patrimonies. But there's one thing that puts a gleam in Petrini's eyes when he thinks about American-style "slow food": beer. In fact, he believes that beer is one of the purest American expressions of what Slow Food is all about.
That is music to Garrett Oliver's ears. "Slow Food is concerned with preserving and even resurrecting lost traditions," says Oliver, 37, a brew master for Brooklyn Brewery, who has brought several brewing styles back from obscurity and who is widely regarded as one of America's leading brew masters. "At the turn of the century, there were 48 breweries in Brooklyn. Now there is just one." Oliver is responsible for a beer that has ended up on Slow Food's Ark of Taste: Brooklyn Monster Ale, an English-style barley wine that was inspired, in part, by a book called "Every Man His Own Brewer" — undoubtedly a page-turner when it was published in 1768. "Monster Ale is a slow beer," explains Oliver. "It takes four months to age, rather than the usual two to three weeks. We use a rare type of barley, called Maris Otter, which isn't cultivated much these days. And at 12.3% alcohol, you can't drink it fast. Well, you could, but it would bite your head off."
But Oliver acknowledges that Slow Food is about much more than ensuring that we have more choices than Bud, Bud Light, Coors, and Coors Light — the "Wonder Breads of Beer," as he calls them — when we open the fridge at our local liquor store. For Oliver, who grew up in Queens eating his fair share of frozen vegetables and Swanson dinners and drinking coffee made from Folger's crystals, Slow Food offers a way of living that complements his thinking. "If you think about it, some of the best times of your life are probably spent at the table with your friends and family," he says. "So how could you not make the time to secure those moments? What is so important in your life that you can't make time for things that give you pleasure?"
Oliver, a self-proclaimed "overworked American," has little patience for his peers who say that they have no time for such rituals but then spend hours in front of the television. "If you want to enjoy life, you have to think a little bit about what you might enjoy," he says. "The easy — and lazy — way out is to convince yourself that you don't have enough time. But we often let time pass by without making any real use of it. Instead, look at your day, and ask yourself, 'What would I really enjoy? What would I like to do? Whom would I like to be with?' " If we let the answers to those simple questions decide how we spend our time, Oliver believes, then we would spend our time differently.
Perhaps one of the best lessons that Oliver has ever learned about the importance of creating islands of slowness in a sea of high-speed frenzy is the one that his father inadvertently taught him. As a high-octane kid, Oliver would become exasperated whenever his father refused to join him in one action-packed activity after another. Oliver remembers asking, "Well, what are you doing that's so important?" His father responded, "I'm doing creative nothing," as he chopped vegetables in the kitchen. Oliver reflects on that response: "I'm 37, and I finally understand what my father meant whenever he would tell me that. To my dad, 'creative nothing' meant hanging out on his island of slowness. He was chilling out, relaxing, thinking — such simple things, but so many of us no longer know how to do them."
Easing up on our speed of thought — consciously creating islands of slowness — is exactly what Petrini and Slow Food call for. Says Petrini: "Ultimately, 'slow' means to take the time to reflect. It means to take the time to think. With calm, you arrive everywhere."
Take a minute, and think about that.
Anna Muoio (email@example.com), a Fast Company senior writer, speaks Italian — and is trying to eat more slowly. To learn more about the Slow Food Movement, contact Patrick Martins by email (firstname.lastname@example.org), or visit Slow Food on the Web (www.slowfood.com).
A version of this article appeared in the May 2000 issue of Fast Company magazine.