Slow Food vs. Naked Lunch

On April 12, 2010, in Food and Drink, by peterb

I sort of dislike the way the Slow Food movement has developed in America.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against eating healthy, real food. I’m not against preferring local food sources over the industrial. I’m not against trying to appreciate sensuality instead of worshipping convenience and speed. To the contrary, these are principles I honor and, when I can, live by.

But I’ve gone to a few of these Slow Food events now, and although the food is almost always delicious, the politics leave a slightly bitter aftertaste in my mouth. The other Pete has written about this also, but I think my issue is subtly different from his.

I look around me at these events, and I notice a few things. The attendees are largely white. Largely older. And largely very, very wealthy. And I find it hard to reconcile the high flown and, at least in translation, condescending tone of the Slow Food Manifesto with the reality that this sort of lifestyle is only open to the wealthy. There are occasional programs, such as the various farm CSAs that are actually helpful, but my overall impression — which I acknowledge may be half-assed or simply wrong — is that the organization as it exists in this country is basically a social club for foodies with more money than friends. The other half of the equation is that it’s a great tool to market your restaurant or company to said foodies.

There’s nothing wrong with a social club for foodies per se, but it feels to me like this particular meal is larded with a generous helping of self-congratulation. And it seems to me that eating well when you’re wealthy isn’t a particularly difficult task.

Putting this into context, it’s clear to me that Jamie Oliver has done more in a month to spark a national conversation about how we, as a nation, eat than Slow Food has done in 20 years.

Watching Food Revolution, the most interesting aspect to me was that, in making a fairly healthy yet simple meal for some elementary school kids, Oliver still came in at over twice the school’s budget for that meal. I’d like you to think about that for a minute. Sure, maybe Oliver totally messed up and shouldn’t have included the foie gras as a side dish. But the truth is that the school district, even with all the State resources behind it, cannot afford a slow-foodish lunch for its students.

Now imagine how working single parents with little or no savings have to feed their kids. Their shopping and ability to prep meals is limited because they can’t fill a pantry in advance. They likely can’t prepare meals that take too much time. And for every meal they prepare they have to answer two burning questions: How much is this meal going to cost, and is it going to cost more than a $1 cheeseburger at McDonald’s? If you are in America and are in poverty, you have, at most, $7.87 to spend on food per day. And don’t forget that any time you spend preparing your food is time spent not earning money to hoist yourself out of poverty. If you think that’s easy, try doing it yourself. Let me know how long you last.

People are not eating crap just because they want to eat crap. Many, many people are eating crap because it’s the only thing they can afford. That cascades directly from our nation’s agricultural policies. It is not enough to lecture others about how to eat unless you also have an answer as to how they can afford it.

Maybe I’m expecting too much from Slow Food. Maybe its members are happy just being a part of a kaffee klatsch for the overprivileged. But I don’t think that I, personally, have time for something like that. Slow Food is all well and good, but at this point what we really need is Fast Change to our food politics.


7 Responses to “Slow Food vs. Naked Lunch”

  1. ErinK says:

    Slow Food lost me when the newspaper article I was reading on it diverged into a discussion of why some members thought you shouldn’t vaccinate your kids.

    But still, I don’t think price is really the main factor in whether people raise their families on crap food. Junk food is delicious! The main reason _I_ don’t eat it all the time is because that’s unacceptable in my upper-middle class white intellectual American subculture. If your peers don’t see anything wrong with it, and it’s what your parents did, you’re not going to be very motivated to change. It’s a lot of work to cook other foods, and it’s tough to make a salad that beats a bacon cheeseburger for instant gratification (even if you have been exposed to subtle flavors, which some people just haven’t).

    It will take more than making high-quality fresh food more accessible to get average Americans interested in this kind of food revolution.

  2. Ian says:

    I agree with what ErinK says above… If I weren’t concerned about my weight/physical fitness (in other words, if I were willing to be fat, or lucky enough to be one of those people who can eat anything and still be skinny) there’s pretty much never going to be a time when I’d choose a salad over a bacon cheeseburger. I even consider myself to be a lover of salads; I just love bacon cheeseburgers more.

    The thing that I’ve found is that even with money completely out of the equation, eating right is hard, and doesn’t come naturally to many Americans, myself included. Maybe I was brainwashed as a kid, but fatty foods taste good instantly. Many processed foods taste good instantly. (Oreos are my big processed food weakness.) Appreciating a good salad not only takes the time to create the good salad in the first place, but also the time and impetus to learn to enjoy it. As stupid as the concept of taxes on sugary drinks is to me, I see the logic in it — people aren’t intrinsically incentivized to seek out healthy foods. They generally find good food through peer pressure, or at the behest of their doctor.

    As I type that, I think of Scotch. If you gave a 10 year old a sip of Scotch, even the BEST Scotch, I bet 99.9% of them will react with a, “BLECH!” It’s something you “learn” to enjoy. Presumably you get introduced to alcohol for it’s primary side effect, but many folks go on to become aficionados. If you never have an impetus to learn to appreciate healthier foods, it seems unlikely that you’re going to spontaneously learn on your own.

  3. carrie says:

    well said. you are absolutely dead on about the impact of agricultural policies and the ways that poverty affects food choices.

    slow food is generally a lovely idea, and it is often effective as it is practiced elsewhere. i think partially we just suck at it.

    first, its emphasis on regional cuisine is just not possible everywhere. in areas with a variety of microclimates and/or long or double growing seasons (california, texas, florida, etc), where many things can grow and small growers can do well economically, it can work great. but in areas where growing seasons are short or only so many things grow well, it totally falls apart. there’s not enough arable land, not enough growers, and frequently not enough space in the market to support such growers. these growers can’t flourish without people willing and able to pay a premium, at least at first, for what they do.

    i’ve recently been part of several discussions in various online fora sparked by oliver’s rather dumbed-down and obnoxious US version of food revolution, and people from wealthy and/or fertile areas of the country, especially from the bay area, have consistently been shocked and appalled, appalled and shocked, i say, at the cost of produce in less wildly productive areas. they keep saying, but i can make a delicious, healthy meal full of fresh, local produce for like $5! and people in iowa or chicago are like, lucky you – i pay that much for one red bell pepper, an onion, an apple, and a bag of rice, all grown conventionally, and don’t even effing talk to me about what i pay for organics. what’s interesting is that the former folks often simply said they didn’t believe folks from the latter group – even when ten people were saying the same thing. they just couldn’t accept that the way things are where they live is not The Way Things Are.

    also, in the US, there’s not enough damn tradition! this is not italy or france, where one family has produced incredible hand-cured prosciutto for 25 generations or one cave has been used to age a very particular kind of cheese for 400 years. here, we killed off our continent’s traditional culture (and inhabitants) and replaced it with corporate culture intended to produce a lifestyle with which largely european immigrants were comfortable and familiar. a hundred years ago, it was the sears and roebuck catalog; now it’s wal-mart for the poor and whole foods for the rich.

    furthermore, that corporate culture has rarely been a good steward of regional resources. the most vivid example of this from my own life was a few years ago, when i traveled from texas to visit a friend in baltimore and we went out for blue crabs, a regional specialty – only to discover that the crabs had been shipped there from the texas gulf coast because the nearby chesapeake bay’s ecosystem was disrupted to the point that they weren’t crabbing that year. :/ so i traveled 1,600 miles to eat crabs pulled from the ocean less than 300 miles from my house.

    of course i think we could do better, but it would take a pretty significant political movement to do so. there are billions of dollars and the balance of power in congress at stake, and the folks holding both have shown that they are pretty determined to hang onto them.

  4. peterb says:

    I think we have to be careful to not buy into a false dichotomy here. “Crap” doesn’t mean “has flavor” or “high in fat” or the things you guys are inferring. “Crap” means “crap.” I think I’ve only been to maybe one Slow Food event where every other meal wasn’t constructed around bacon, for example.

    Some American eaters – NOT the Slow Food people, which may be the only nice thing I’ll say about them here – seem to believe the choices are “crappy bacon cheeseburger” or “flavorless vegan raw salad.” If those were the only choices, then I, too, would come down on the side of the crappy bacon cheeseburger every time. There are, however, many other choices, many of which are just as instantly delicious as the crappy bacon cheeseburger. To take just one example, you can get a really good bacon cheeseburger. Or a homemade lasagna. Or a dosa (note to Southern Indians: I know you won’t go for it, but a chorizo dosa would make the world a better place).

    I do agree with Erin’s point that a storebought cheeseburger provides gratification for less effort. I submit that “time to prepare” is part of the cost of the food, because for many p eople in a very real way it translates directly into dollars.

  5. ErinK says:

    So what makes food crap?

    Can’t you achieve some of the Slow Food “goals” of careful preparation and human interaction in a community even if you’re cooking factory-farmed chicken with processed cream of mushroom soup?

    By the way, every time I read that “Slow Food manifesto” I want to puke. It sounds so insufferably arrogant. Too bad I’ll be missing good food, but these people are obviously not my tribe.

  6. psu says:

    Obviously no one can definitively define “crap” for someone else, since ultimately all food experiences are at least somewhat subjective.

    I think the best I’ve done on this web site to talk abotu this issue is this post

    But, all that said, people can and do develop strong bonds to processed foods (mac and cheese!). There is no accounting for human psychology.

    Speaking of chicken and mushroom soup. One of my college staples was chicken cooked on top of rice soaked in cream of chicken, mushroom and some other soup. Not very much to be proud of.

    But once I was in a fancy Italian restaurant, and I swear to you that the risotto tasted exactly like this concoction. What does this mean? I have no idea.