Part 1: What is Slow Food?

The Slow Food logo: A simple snail.

There are more than 31,000 McDonald’s restaurants worldwide. These 31,000 restaurants operate in 119 countries and on six continents. Every day 47 million people make a trip to the McDonald’s counter for quick fix food – burgers, fries, chicken-nuggets, sodas and milkshakes are ready in mere seconds.

The magic of McDonald’s is that locations from Bangkok to Brussels, Germany to Guantanamo Bay and Suriname to Sri Lanka offer almost the exact same thing. Globalization has allowed fast food restaurants around the world to sell cheap and homogenous meals for only a few bucks.

But in 1986, when McDonald’s dared opened a branch in Rome, near the Scalinata della Trinità dei Monti, also known as the Spanish Steps, Italian journalist and gourmet Carlo Petrini decided to put up a fight against the homogenizing forces behind the Golden Arches.

Petrini and others gathered at the Spanish Steps to protest Mickey D’s infiltration into one of Rome’s historic landmarks and into the longstanding traditions and appreciation of true Italian food.

This protest led Petrini to found the Slow Food organization, which now has more than 100,000 members around the world. Petrini wasn’t just angry about a globalized McDonald’s burger replacing traditional Italian foods like prosciutto, carbonara and risotto. He knew that the fast food giant had the power to quickly corrode the community that previous food traditions created. Petrini wanted to preserve the way Italians have eaten for centuries: sitting around a table, eating local ingredients and enjoying the company of others during a meal.

Since its inception in 1986, Slow Food groups, also known as “convivum,” have sprouted in 132 countries and counting. Oregon is host to nine Slow Food groups in places like Portland, Newport, Corvallis, Ashland, Coos Bay and Eugene.

The Slow Food organization logo is a simple, orange snail, and the group’s motto is “Good, Clean and Fair Food.” Slow Foodies aim to take a thing or two from the snail. They don’t want eating to revolve around drive-thrus, yellow and red packaging, or eating in the car. Slow Foodies make a point to prepare food slowly, eat slowly and enjoy a community atmosphere at the dinner table.

The Slow Food Eugene group regularly meets for food events. The most recent major event was in late August: a Mexican-style “One-Field-Meal” hosted by the Deck Family Farm in Junction City. The meal, which fed over 250 people, was a traditional Mexican barbacoa: lamb and goat slow roasted in a pit of hot river rock, over a pot of simmering vegetables.

Because the Slow Food movement grew from and has been quickly taken up by gourmets, foodies, wine connoisseurs and people who generally have money to spare, the group seems to have gained a somewhat elitist reputation. In a March 2008 article published in MetropolisMag.com, journalist Bruce Sterling called Slow Food’s mission hypocritical and compared Slow Foodies to the “planetary elite.” Sterling wrote that Slow Food “began as a jolly clique of leftist academics, entertainers, wine snobs, and pop stars,” and says not much has changed since its inception.

Slow Foodies, who bristle at the mention of this reputation, are quick to question why people who enjoy non-processed food and eating around a table are labeled as elitist and snobbish. So, why do the raw, local ingredients that Slow Foodies enjoy cost more than non-local and processed foods shipped from around the globe?

Why does a head of lettuce at the local farmers market costs double the price of a head of lettuce shipped from Argentina at the chain supermarket? Why does a loaf of bread that contains 35 ingredients, including high fructose corn syrup, costs a third of the price of a locally made loaf containing five ingredients?

What’s the deal? One reason certain foods, especially those sold by fast food restaurant chains, are cheaper than locally and simply produced organic foods is the long history of US government subsidies.

One of the most heavily subsidized industries in the US today is corn. According to the Environmental Working Group’s Farm Subsidy Database, corn received $56 billion in federal subsidies between 1995 and 2006. The majority of subsidized corn is not edible to humans, but is fed to fatten livestock or is made into high-fructose corn syrup.

According to the USDA, 55% of subsidized corn is used for animal feed in the US.  A cow, whose stomach does not do well on a corn diet because it is made to eat grass, is quickly fattened with corn-based feed. The cow is then slaughtered and most often made into hamburger patties for fast food chains.

Because subsidized corn is so cheap, high-fructose corn syrup has become cheaper than regular sugar. In 1985 Coca-Cola stopped sweetening their sodas in the US with cane sugar and instead replaced it with HFCS. The corn-derived sweetener can also be found in the most unlikely places like whole-wheat bread, deli meats, ketchup, pasta and pizza sauce, milk and canned soup. According to the USDA Economic Research Service, every American consumed an average of 56.2 pounds of HFCS in 2007.

Subsidized corn means cheap corn, and cheap corn means cheap HFCS. Many doctors believe there is a strong connection between increased HFCS consumption and obesity. The American Dietetic Association claims that HFCS is one of multiple contributing factors to the American obesity epidemic [link]. According to a Seattle Times article, between 1970, when HFCS hit the mass market, and 2000, when Americans were consuming 73.5 pounds of HFCS, the rate of obesity more than doubled. HFCS, especially in the concentrations found in soda, have been linked with diabetes in adults and children. Chi-Tang Ho, food science professor at Rutgers University, found that soda containing HFCS has very high levels of carbonyls, highly-reactive compounds that are associated with tissue damage.

Slow Foodies say they are not necessarily fanatical about buying organic products, but they do put a major emphasis on purchasing locally produced foods that are in season. For Slow Foodies in the Northwest, strawberries and artichokes in December are a no-go, but they won’t hesitate to take seconds on winter squash and yellow onions.

Compared to the vast sea of subsidized corn, sweeteners, meat and the 47 million daily McDonald’s customers, the 100,000 members of the Slow Food movement appear but a tiny island. But, members of the group don’t mind being being slow. They don’t mind instilling Slow Food culture on people, one individual at a time.

“For people to experience this really delicious, wonderful and fresh food,” says Tom Barkin, president of Slow Food Eugene. “That’s really the point.”

Slow Food and Downtown Eugene:

Researching this enterprise story took me all over Eugene from the University of Oregon, to Long’s Meat Market in South Eugene.  Although Slow Food is not necessarily associated with one Eugene neighborhood, my idea to focus on this group as part of a downtown focus article came because the Slow Food Eugene group has an informational booth at the downtown Eugene Saturday Market.  By the time I was researching, the downtown Saturday Market was closed, but I will surely visit when the temperatures rise.

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1 Response to Part 1: What is Slow Food?

  1. Pingback: Part 3: Focus on Tom Barkin: Slow Food Eugene President « Reporting 1 Blog

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