The slow food movement is on the move with the branding of Canada’s Cowichan Bay as the first “Cittaslow” community in North America. The Italian organisers, with scores of locations badged in Europe, intend to authorise the brand in many more places on this side of the Atlantic.
The quaint fishing village on Vancouver Island at the confluence of the salmon-bearing Koksilah and Cowichan rivers has all the required ingredients: a convivial community in a pleasing setting, with behind it an array of small farms producing everything from wine to organic bread grains. Could your community be next? (1) In Cowichan Bay village local residents crowded into Bruce Stewart’s picturesque True Grain organic bakery to sign up for the slow-food movement and give the branding application a rousing send-off. Back in Orvieto, north of Rome, the sages examined the evidence, weighed up the issues, and granted Cittaslow status. So now, you can add to famous names like Lucca (Cittaslow Tuscany) and Alassio (Cittaslow Liguria) the name of Cowichan Bay.
Cittaslow branding, and the history of the slow food movement, run directly counter to all the trends of modern life. It all started with Mikhail Bakunin (1814-74), one of the first to swim against the tide of modernity. The bearded Russian anarchist travelled around Europe urging the new wage-slave class to build self-sufficient communities independent of the bosses. His vision influenced the “ejido” communes that were established during the Mexican revolution, and which pointed towards the sustainable future we all hope to see evolving now. Back then, Bakunin stood against Karl Marx, who urged workers to vote in bourgeois elections, win them, and build a totalitarian worker state. With his alternative dream of sharing out land and living locally, Bakunin was even more subversive of big landowners than Marx: landowners literally owned their peasants then. The Russian bourgeoisie threw Bakunin in jail for 12 years and other countries persecuted him for the rest of his exiled life.
Towards the end of his days, Bakunin spent the first half of 1874 in newly-independent Italy near Locarno, and in July 1874 with his friends in Bologna where they planned an uprising that failed, causing Bakunin to flee back to Switzerland in disguise. Today, Bologna is a keen Slow Food convivium, and a bastion of anti-globalisation. Its McDonalds store is one of the few that has been obliged by the authorities to carry local foods. (2)
Local food and wine were necessities in the solar era that preceded ours. With fossil fuels, all that changed. Peasants and small farmers were driven off the land, farm scale metastasized, the soil became a chemical sponge and water became a drink sold in a throwaway plastic bottle. Part of the trend were the McDonald brothers, hot-dog stand operators in suburban Los Angeles, who invented in 1948 their “Speedee Service System,” a streamlined assembly-line for hamburgers, started franchising it in 1953 and sold pan-US rights to Ray Krok who went on to market billions of the homogenised white buns and processed meat patties world-wide, while James McLamore, founder of Burger King, and Glen Bell, founder of Taco Bell, snuck off and copied the idea.
The “golden” arches of McDonald’s first appeared in Europe in 1971, with a store near Amsterdam in the Netherlands, and another later that year in Munich, Germany. They appeared in other European countries in ensuing years, but it was the opening in 1986 of a McDonald’s store in Rome’s historic Piazza di Spagna that caused an eruption of opposition on the streets. A crowd of protesters gathered outside the store, led by Carlo Patrini, the president of Arcigola, Italy’s movement for local food.
Circumstances in Italy then were unusual. Faced with the prevalent wave of neo-con politics, Italy’s leftists were discombobulated by a string of bloody incidents in which ostensible leftists fired guns and threw bombs, thereby adroitly alienating progressive opinion. The outrages were largely instigated by the then-secret right-wing Gladio organisation, and had the desired effect of marginalising the intelligentsia into such activities as fostering gastronomy. Hence the demo by bearded professors and bespectacled Communists outside McDonalds in central Rome. Carlo Petrini’s book Slow Food Nation: Why Our Food Should Be Good, Clean, And Fair was published in 2007.
A year later, the Slow Food Manifesto, written by a respected Italian poet called Folco Portinari, appeared in Gambero Rosso, the movement’s journal. Slow Food stood for everything that was the opposite of Fast Food: careful preparation instead of an assembly line, local instead of global, particular instead of homogenised, and various instead of uniform; in other words, the family farm as opposed to the feed-lot, the local high street as opposed to the mall, and the home dinner-table instead of deliveries to the sofa. This was the acceptable face of Bakunin’s teachings.
The Slow Food organisation swelled into a component of the resistance to globalisation when José Bové addressed a crowd at the 1999 construction site of a McDonalds in Millau, south-west France, smack in the middle of the production area of Roquefort, the legendary blue cheese. Enraged by the US forcing Europe to accept hormone-treated American beef, and by the stabbing of a McDonalds into the gastronomic heart of their nation, the Roquefort farmers assembled in numbers at the construction site for a feast and teach-in, led by Bové with his signature Nietzscheian moustache and Meerschaum pipe. For the assembled media, Bové symbolically trod on a piece of timber, and was condemned to three months in jail for it. Later came the collective US revenge, when outgoing President George W. Bush vindictively trebled the US import tax on Roquefort cheese to three hundred per cent, threatening many of Bové’s supporters with ruin. That issue is still unfolding. (See José Bové, The World Is Not for Sale: Farmers Against Junk Food)
In Italy, the redirected leftists of Arcigola busily organised, not industrial workers, but highbrow gourmets. They rediscovered unique foods in Italy, such as San Marzano tomatoes and true Genovese foccacia. Many were the kind that swilled wine around in their mouths and said things like “pretentious, but amusing.” But the contrarian idea embodied in the meme Slow Food caught on and took them mainstream, gathering them a membership of more than 30,000 in Italy and as many again in 42 different countries. Slow Food members support small farmers and purveyors of traditional fare, attend lectures, tastings, and dinners through some 500 local groups, called convivia, a reference to the conviviality of the dinner table. Slow Food is co-ordinated through a clever web-site (http://slowfood.com) and publishes cookbooks and guides to food, restaurants and wine. The organisation has a lobbying office in Brussels, headquarters of the European Union, to fight bureaucratic food madness such as straight bananas and square oranges as well as the crushing of small, artisan producers. Their Cittaslow brand is intended to attract visitors and spread the word.
Besides becoming a component of the anti-globalisation movement, Slow Food slots into the emerging Transition Town movement, which aims to prepare communities for the end of the age of fossil-fuel plenty and the onset of climate-change controls. The two movements are complementary, and Slow Food enthusiasts are probably, or soon will be, Transition Townies. In a new documentary called Food Inc., filmmaker Robert Kenner exposes how the US food industry’s ” highly mechanized underbelly… has been hidden from the American consumer with the consent of our government’s regulatory agencies, USDA and FDA.” According to Kenner, the US food supply “is now controlled by a handful of corporations that often put profit ahead of consumer health, the livelihood of the American farmer, the safety of workers and our own environment.” (3)
Cowichan Bay cittaslow co-founder Mara Jernigan, a chef who ran slow-food exponent Fairburn Farm until 2008 and now teaches cooking in Victoria, has put it more immediately: “Like most chefs, I consider garlic a kitchen staple. But I hate to have to buy it,” she says. “Nowadays, most restaurants use big plastic jars of pre-peeled, sulfited garlic, or worse yet, pureed garlic. Like so many tasks in the restaurant industry, it is not worth the labour to pay someone to peel garlic. Even most of the garlic in the grocery store is imported from as far away as China and it is often chemically treated so that it will not sprout. So I try to grow enough garlic to last the whole year.” (4) Anyone who saw the alternative hit documentaries Fast Food Nation, or Supersize Me!, will be on her wavelength. (5)
Slow Food and transition towns come together in the face of a drastic deceleration of carbon consumption required to combat climate change, because our daily eating has become dependent to an alarming degree on carbon wastage. Members of the intelligensia are reaching the conclusion expressed by a green blogger: “We have to dismantle things that have no future and rebuild things that will allow daily life to function. We have to say goodbye to big box shopping and rebuild Main Street. More people will be needed to work in farming and fewer in tourism, public relations, gambling, and party planning.” (6) A new film from Greenpeace (7) graphically reminds us that genetically modified organisms are out of control in North America, and free to spread into so-called organic crops. Apart from farming and wildlife concerns, the long-term effect of GMOs on humans is completely unknown. Those concerned about these issues could consider joining the Slow Food movement and applying for Cittaslow status. Cowichan Bay, pop. 2,000, perched on the end of Vancouver Island, is showing the way. (8)
[Berkshire residents can look here for information about our local Slow Food Chapter, Slow Food Western Mass.—ed.]
(1) Interested in starting a convivium? (http://tinyurl.com/kpoehr).
(2) See www.slowfoodbologna.it
(3) View trailer here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QqQVll-MP3I
(4) Mara’s blog here: http://farmchefblog.com/
(8) See this article in the Cowichan Times Leader Pictorial, August 06, 2011 http://www.bclocalnews.com/vancouver_island_central/cowichannewsleader/news/126800968.html
© 2011 Rowland Morgan. All Rights Reserved.