The Food Consciousness Evolution
The Slow Food movement was born in 1986 in direct opposition to fast food, the mostly American style of preparing, serving, and consuming food that was rapidly spreading all over the world, and overtaking local traditions and food cultures. Slow Food was born in a small town in northwestern Italy, but with global ideals, encouraging people around the world to look at their own local food traditions, and to approach food mindfully.
The name “Slow Food” may be interpreted as long food preparation times, or taking time in the kitchen to prepare an elaborate meal for a large group of people. This name may be mentally associated with the image of the mother or grandmother slaving away for a day’s entirety to set a large spread on the table, and then of the family spending hours at the table eating course after course after course. Yet it doesn’t have to be complicated and lengthy. Especially when it comes to Italian cuisine, simple and quick Slow Food recipes are a big part of day-to-day life. As a matter of fact, the Slow Food philosophy is based in food that is defined by three principles: Good, Clean, and Fair, meaning it must be flavorful and healthy, not harm the environment, and accessible in price for consumers while providing fair conditions and pay for producers. You can have Slow Food and a 30-minute lunch if you apply mindfulness to the whole process from purchase to preparation to consumption (especially! How many of us eat while doing something else?).
So now these ideas have expanded all over the world, with the Slow Food movement counting over a hundred thousand members and one million supporters worldwide. In the almost 30 years since its founding, people as a whole have become much more attentive to what they eat, where their food comes from, and how it is prepared. This is evident from the boom in organic and fair trade products, specialty labels, locally-sourcing restaurants, food and wine websites, eno-gastronomic tours, gourmet stores and brands, and cooking shows with their attendant celebrities. Many people have been introduced to small-scale (urban) farming or gardening and the pleasure that comes from growing our own food. Many more have discovered the pleasure of eating food that is organic and locally-sourced, as it often tastes better, and it makes us feel good to do (and eat) good.
Chicago Ideas Week: “Food: The Path to Your Plate”
In my thirteen years in the US, I have seen our consciousness about food and connection to it evolve, and many of these things have paralleled happenings in Italy. So much more organic food is now available, and many restaurants now promote foods and ideas that reject industrial farming and a food industry that values bigger, more, and cheaper above all else. We have seen the rise in popularity of champions of Slow Food such as Mario Batali, Alice Waters, Michael Pollan, stores such as Whole Foods, and farmers’ markets that have sprung up all over. We have seen food trends shift from no-carb diets to vegan and gluten free. The farm-to-table movement is definitely a dominant presence nowadays, and it even scored a prime spot at Chicago Ideas Week this year, with the talk “Food: The Path to Your Plate.” Much focus was put on how important it is to take action, and how we all can make a difference.
The premise of the talk was that many things are changing in the world of food. This included innovations in food technology (some of them troubling, like the rise of GMOs), how people and companies are increasingly choosing ethically and sustainably sourced food, and learning to value flavor over quantity and speed. The debate was led by Louisa Chu from WBEZ’s food show “Chewing the Fat,” and the all-star list of participants featured Mario Batali, famous chef and author; Mitchell Davis, EVP of the James Beard Foundation; Urvashi Rangan, Executive Director of the Food Safety & Sustainability Center at Consumer Reports; Gary Hirshberg, Chairman & Former CEO of Stonyfield Farm; Stephanie Izard, Executive Chef & Partner of the Girl & the Goat and Little Goat restaurants in Chicago; Marty Travis, farmer at Spence Farm and founder and co-director of a few farmer cooperatives; and Errol Schweizer, Executive Global Grocery Coordinator at Whole Foods Market.
Most of the speakers present in this discussion focused on sustainable agriculture as a way to a better life. Local food tastes better, fosters a connection with the place where you live, and creates less waste. Some food, of course, has to come from far-away places, especially when you live in colder climates. Nobody present was preaching that there is only one good way of doing things, but rather spoke to the fact that it is important to be mindful of the various ways of doing things, and that we should strive to find better ways, in terms of flavor, sustainability, and economic feasibility. Many spoke of the importance of fostering relationships between food producers and consumers, and particularly the importance of trust. After all, knowing the producers allows consumers to make special requests of them and communicate what it is that matters to us (not only in terms of taste and variety, but also regarding ethics, animal welfare, and the use of potentially toxic substances). Trust allows us to be sure that we are getting what we actually want.
In the big picture, one of today’s current hot-button issues has to do with labeling. Gary Hirshberg dedicated his whole talk to the importance of labeling products containing genetically modified crops (GMOs), so that at least consumers can have a choice when it comes to potentially putting their health at risk when ingesting food that has yet to be proven safe for human consumption, and that has potentially detrimental effects on the environment due to the farming practices connected to them. Urvashi Rangan (Executive Director of the Food Safety and Sustainability Center of Consumer Reports) spoke about how labeling can be confusing and at times downright deceptive. She mentioned the “Natural” labeling, which is pretty much empty of any meaning — people often confuse it with Organic or at least non-GMO, yet there basically are no standards at the USDA to define Natural, and there is no third-party verification to protect the claim.
As Gary Hirshberg was talking about the importance of labeling, one of the issues he touched on was the challenge posed by feeding an increasing world population. Much of the promise of GMOs was to be able to grow more food on the same amount of soil, and to reduce crop loss due to pests. But, while we have seen an increase in production, the gains made have come at a price: more pesticide- and herbicide-resistant destructive organisms have developed, calling for the use of more and newer products to fight them — and all the while, the safety of these modified plants and their related products is still largely unknown, as it would take at least a generation to see the effects on humans.
None of the speakers said their way was the best way, but they encouraged the audience to at least think about alternatives to simply increasing industrial production of food. Working with sustainable models can help increase production in other ways, for instance, making it easier to grow food near or inside urban areas, and reducing waste by fostering strong relationships between producers and consumers, so that they can grow the things that are in demand. Local agriculture and less use of pesticides and herbicides also leads to dramatic reductions in use of fossil fuels, as they are used to transport food, power machinery, and even as raw materials for herbicides and pesticides. So, it is possible that local agriculture and sustainable practices may in the end actually help feed everyone in the world, as has often been the promise of industrial/GMO-oriented farming. But, even if it might not “save the world,” it is definitely a choice that allows each individual to have better-tasting and more varied food.
Food & Culture
And it is this intersection of food and culture that was most interesting to Mitchell Davis, who spoke last at Ideas Week and who brought my thoughts back to Italy. He argued that the role that culture plays in taste is often downplayed, but it is indeed a huge part of it, something that is evident in Italy, where, in a sense, food is synonymous with culture. What is available, what we know how to prepare, what we have been fed since we were children — it all influences what we like and what we choose to eat. Individuals enter the food system when they like or dislike something, they make a decision about what to eat, and this is the point of interaction. So, of course, our tastes influence what is available, particularly as our personal tastes come together in the aggregate – as a trend. And some of these trends, as I mentioned, have influenced our culture deeply. Davis argues Farm-to-table represents a true change in our culture. In Italy the effect was perhaps less dramatic, as industrial food had not quite had the same explosion as here, but it is evident that agriturismo and generally food and wine tourism have been a huge boon for the country, and sustainability and the availability of organic products are important elements in the culture and the economy.
Davis also brought up something really important about this: that in order to be able to effect changes, having a way to speak about these things is really important. It is hard to talk about food and taste. Have you ever noticed the boom in wine connoisseurship after the UC Davis Flavor Wheel? It gave us a way to talk about wine in depth, to be able to articulate our tastes, show our competence, and share our experiences with others. This makes it easier to change our tastes, and changing them can then start trends, which affect our culture, and changes the way things are produced and how people behave. It would be great if we could have a Flavor Wheel-type instrument for food flavors and use it to even further shape our culture in a positive way.
The American Food 2.0 pavilion at Expo Milan
Davis will be one of the people participating the the American Food 2.0 pavilion at the Expo 2015 in Milan (with the theme Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life), where these changes in our food culture, moving away from the classic “burger and fries” perception of American cuisine is going to be a central point. It will be truly interesting to see how the Italian Slow Food movement has filtered through American culture and, in a sense, has now come full-circle, with many of the great minds and actors in the food world going to Italy to present our innovations and traditions, while at the same time learning from others.
I am personally very curious about what will happen there, and the influence this will have on us for years to come. In the past, we have seen how World Fairs brought scientific and technical innovation to great heights, and it is exciting to see what will happen at the Expo and the influence it will have on food culture around the world. Will we see solutions to scarcity, or problems with overabundance and over-consumption-related illnesses? Will we see interesting fusions and discoveries? Will we, perhaps, find better ways to describe food? Food touches all of our lives, and makes us who we are. I can’t wait to have a taste of what’s to come.
How about you? Are you planning to go to the Expo? Wishing you could? What are you hoping to see come out of the Expo? What issues do you think are most pressing? Where do you stand in the debate on GMOs or Organic food? Do you think the preoccupation with Organic food is elitist?
I look forward to a healthy discussion with all of you!