The Slow Food Story: Politics and Pleasure

The Slow Food Story: Politics and Pleasure

by Geoff Andrews


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The Slow Food movement was established in Italy as a response to the dominance of fast food chains, supermarkets, and large-scale agribusiness. Defending "the universal right to pleasure," it promotes food production and consumption based on "good, clean, and fair" local products. In twenty years Slow Food has grown into an international organisation with more than 80,000 members in over 100 countries. With roots in the 1960s and 1970s counter-culture, Slow Food's distinctive politics link gastronomic pleasure and environmental responsibility. The movement crosses the left-right divide to embrace both the conservative desire to preserve traditional rural communities and an alternative "virtuous" idea of globalisation. In the first in-depth study of the fascinating politics of Slow Food, Geoff Andrews shows that the alternative future it offers can be extended to all aspects of modern life. The Slow Food Story is an extensive critique of the fast-moving, work-obsessed contemporary capitalist culture.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780745327440
Publisher: Pluto Press
Publication date: 09/20/2008
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 1.25(h) x 9.00(d)

About the Author

Geoff Andrews, the author of several books including Not a Normal Country: Italy After Berlusconi and Endgames and New Times: The Final Years of British Communism, writes for a range of newspapers and journals - including The Financial Times and Open Demo

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Politics in Search of Pleasure

In raucous scenes in the Senate, Italy's upper house of parliament, an opposition member of Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia party is stuffing himself with mortadella, the spicy, fatty sausage from Bologna. Another colleague bursts open a bottle of champagne. 'Please, gentlemen', pleaded Franco Marini, the speaker of the Senate, as he attempts to restore order. 'This is not an osteria'.

The occasion is the defeat of Romano Prodi's government in January 2008 and the allusion is to Prodi's nickname, 'mortadella', derived from his affinity to his home city and his 'cheeky chops'. The scene is indicative of the kind of spectacle that has come to characterise what passes for politics in modern Italy. In fact, the defeat of this government threw Italy into its worst crisis since the Tangentopoli ('Bribesville') scandal of the early 1990s when the Christian Democrats, who had governed Italy for most of the post-war years, virtually collapsed overnight.

It confirmed moreover that Italy had once again shown itself incapable of reform and that the gap between its political class and its citizens had reached unprecedented and dangerous levels. In the weeks leading up to the government's defeat, a rubbish dispute in Naples had left the city paralysed, with dangerous litter and waste strewn over the streets, the citizens in uproar at the incompetence and corruption of its rulers (the camorra – the local mafia – had control of refuse contracts), and Italy's EU allies looking on with bemusement. In Sicily during the same period, the island's governor, Salvatore 'Toto' Cuffaro, had been found guilty of 'helping the mafia', was sentenced to five years imprisonment and banned from public office. 'I'll be at my desk as usual tomorrow', an exultant Cuffaro announced, as if he had been exonerated, and mindful that the length of the appeals process will make it unlikely he will go to prison. No wonder. Italy's political leaders, according to Sergio Rizzo and Gian Antonio Stella, are a 'caste', untouchable, too easily given to corruption and contemptuous of their critics. It is not without irony that one of the outspoken critics of a farcical political system should be the blogger Beppe Grillo, one of the country's best loved comedians.

These events in 2008 proved that the 'clean hands' investigations led by the magistrate Antonio Di Pietro in the 1990s, and the anti-mafia reforms of the same period, had not succeeded. The historical context, always important in Italian political identity, was evident again with the biggest divisions between left and right seen in Italy since the fascist years. The main beneficiary of the long-term crisis in Italian politics was Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's richest man, whose populism since the mid 1990s turned Italy into the most degenerate body politic in Western Europe, raising fears and uncertainty not seen since the 1970s. In that period, Italy was a country in turmoil, with the anni di piombo, the 'years of lead', reflected in the terrorist violence of right and left which questioned the legitimacy of the state.

Yet the 1970s, where this story begins, was also a time of great idealism and creativity, when young people were being drawn to movements rather than parties, and culture increasingly became a site of political protest. In the wake of the events of 1968 in Paris, and the 'hot autumn' of student unrest and workers' struggles in Italy in 1969, many on the Italian Left had sought different political avenues, including the Il Manifesto group which split from the Italian Communist Party and set up the newspaper of the same name. As the 1970s got underway, social movements started to challenge the hegemony of political parties, their more autonomous grassroots structures and more direct forms of action inspiring a new generation of young people. It is in this cultural and political moment that we find the origins of Slow Food, one of the most significant global political movements of modern times. A group of young leftwing activists, including Carlo Petrini, Azio Citi and Giovanni Ravinale, from the small Piedmont town of Bra, near the hills of the Langhe, renowned for its Barolo, Barbera and Dolcetto red wines, as well as its white truffles, shared similar ideals to the radical generation. In 1974 they launched a monthly leftwing newspaper In Campo Rosso (In Red Domain), which ran until 1985. More ambitious initiatives followed.

On 17 June 1975, in a building on Piazza XX Settembre, in the centre of Bra, Italy's first independent political radio station transmitted its first programme. Radio Bra Onde Rosse (Radio Bra Red Waves) was launched from the top of what is now the Hotel Giardini. The group wanted to change the world, and broadcasting on 'red waves' would be the way to reach their fellow citizens. They needed a bigger space for their ideas and in order to counter the mainstream news coverage emanating from Bra's only newspaper. As a pirate radio station with communist affiliations (they refused to accept advertising), Radio Bra was a very controversial experiment in Italy; within a month of opening it was closed down by the police, who confiscated equipment. After a wide public campaign which brought Dario Fo and Roberto Benigni to the town in support of a huge protest, Radio Bra was back on air, helped ultimately due to a constitutional court ruling which led to a liberalisation of radio laws in Italy (the same laws, ironically, which allowed Silvio Berlusconi's rise as a media entrepreneur a decade later). In addition to Radio Bra, the trio maintained their growing public voice and kept their politics local; in 1975 they opened both a bookstore, the Cooperativa Libraria La Torre (Tower Book Co-op) in nearby Alba, and a grocery store selling local products, the Spaccio di unità popolare (or Store of Popular Unity).

The group had also joined the PDUP (the Democratic Party of Proletarian Unity), an 'extra-parliamentary' Marxist group which had become disillusioned with the strategy of Italy's main communist party (PCI), the largest in Western Europe, at the time locked into a 'historic compromise' with the Christian Democrats. In 1975 they even managed to get one of their number, Carlo Petrini, elected to the Bra town council, which helped raise their profile further. Petrini was the only member of the council opposed to the historic compromise, but council representation was not enough to satisfy the aspirations of the Bra radicals, who wanted to change the world.

The politics of Petrini and his friends remained rooted in cultural modes of expression, with a very strong regional identity. In 1978, the trio participated in the Club Tenco – a group of socialist musicians whose president was the singer Paolo Conte – at Italy's well-known popular music festival of San Remo. They performed as a group, nicknamed the 'short, the tall and the fat', and produced a cabaret of songs and jokes. In 1979 they held the first Cantè i'euv international festival. This was derived from a Piedmontese folk music tradition which involved visiting farmhouses in the Langhe at night and literally 'singing for eggs'. Traditionally those who took part included a small band playing violin, trombone and accordion. The farmers, including those who were awoken from their beds, invariably came out, provided something to eat, danced and joined in the fun. The Cantè i'euv was a tradition that was dying out, and Petrini and his friends helped to revive it.

The participants at the Cantè i'euv festival included international musicians from Russia, Sweden, Ireland, Britain and France, and the involvement of the Piedmont region in the organisation and funding of the event (which ran for three years) was a sign of things to come in the later organisational structure of Slow Food (as was the attempt to rescue important local traditions – in this case folk music – at risk of extinction). More important was the celebration of music for its sheer enjoyment and pleasure. Stefano Sardo, the son of Piero Sardo, one of the Cante' i'euv organisers, remembers from his childhood the exciting atmosphere, and casual drug use, of the Russian pianist and other musicians who stayed overnight at his house. They were carefree idealists. These were the early signs of the politics of pleasure which was to shape the origin and development of Slow Food.

Petrini and his comrades from Bra, who called themselves the 'philoridiculous' group, were also members of Arci, the cultural and recreational federation of the Italian Left, which had been formed in 1957. Arci had different sections on football, trekking and film amongst other things, and its Langhe federation became increasingly focused on local culture, driven by a growing desire to reconnect with the traditions of the area. Initially, Petrini was stirred by the need to preserve and develop local wine. There was concern that Piedmont had declined as a wine-producing region and the wine producers in Barolo and other areas were facing big difficulties in producing and selling wine. These concerns were aired in regular discussions at the home of one of the Barolo producers, Bartolo Mascarello, who was a left sympathiser and regularly hosted intellectuals, journalists and left-wing political figures at his cantina. In October 1981, Petrini and some of his friends founded the 'Free and Meritorious Association of the Friends of Barolo', in the Castello dei Falletti, a castle in Barolo. The slogan of the association was 'Barolo è democratico, o quanto meno puo diventarlo' ('Barolo is democratic or at least it can become so').

In 1982, Petrini and a group of fellow Arci Langhe members set off to visit Montalcino in Tuscany to celebrate the Sagra del Tordo, the festival of the thrush. Taking lunch in the local Casa del Popolo, the workers' social club, Petrini and his friends were horrified by the meal they were served: the pasta was cold, the salad was dirty, and it was declared inedible. On their return to Bra, Petrini wrote a strong letter of complaint to the Casa del Popolo and the secretary of the Tuscany Arci group. He argued that the meal was 'not worthy of the most beautiful Casa del Popolo and the place which produces the most prestigious wine'. This provoked a stiff response from Andrea Rabissi, President of the local Arci branch, who accused Petrini of 'ugly' and 'senseless' allegations. He replied that there were more important things that deserved the attention of the left than eating in a certain style.

In the ensuing debate in the pages of L'Unità, the newspaper of the PCI, and in a public meeting the following April which centred on the relationship between the Case del Popolo and the gastronomic tradition, views became polarised between eating well – in this context, the symbol of pleasure – and the left's immediate political priorities. It became a debate over the nature of politics itself. The Casa del Popolo in Montalcino, according to the town's then communist mayor, Mario Bindi, was in 'turmoil' and the local branch of Arci was divided. There was, however, one long-term benefit of Petrini's intervention for Montalcino: in later years the town held a gastronomic fair at the Casa del Popolo as well as competitions between restaurants of communist branches. It seemed that he had won over some of the party faithful.

The divisions at the Casa del Popolo mirrored a wider crisis on the left at this time. Petrini later recalled that the PCI's attitude towards pleasure and good food was to treat it as one of the 'seven capitalist sins'. The parliamentary left was focused on day-to-day battles and electioneering, and constrained by the entrenched nature of Italy's partitocrazia, the post-war state run by the dominant political parties in their own interests. Its view of politics was narrowing. On the other hand, the new generation of activists in the social movements took a more expansive view of politics. 'The personal is political' was one of the themes of the 1960s and 1970s, and the 'personal' was bound up with questions of freedom, leisure, artistic appreciation and quality of life. The quality of cultural life, including access to, and appreciation of, food and wine, was a democratic question. The pursuit of pleasure was everybody's concern, and was not to be left to hedonists and elitists.

An important step had been taken in the development of gastronomic associations on the left. Indeed this shift now started to resonate with other developments outside the Langhe. The osteria movement is an important example. Left activists started to open co-operatives, osterias and trattorias, the traditional eating establishments of ordinary people. In the Langhe, the Cooperative I Tarocchi provided the framework for the birth of new osterias and brought together left-wing wine enthusiasts including Gigi Piumatti, Firmino Buttignol and Marcello Marengo, who would begin a long association with Slow Food. This movement went beyond the Langhe however. Near the Arci offices in the centre of Rome, activists had long been meeting in a wine bar in Via Cavour, a milieu which included not only Petrini, but Valentino Parlato of Il Manifesto and Massimo Cacciari, a philosophy professor and later Mayor of Venice. In this bar Petrini introduced his comrades in Arci and Il Manifesto to the neglected wines of Piedmont. The osteria movement in Bra included the setting up of the Osteria Boccondivino, opened in 1984 in Via Mendicita Istruita 12, an address it was later to share with the Slow Food office, with Carlo Petrini amongst the waiters for the inaugural dinner.

The year 1986 was a key moment in the development of Slow Food. The formation of Arci Gola ('gola' meaning appetite) in Barolo in July, with Petrini unanimously elected as its first President, was the culmination of the critical dialogue within the Italian Left at this time. Arci Gola (later Arcigola) was supported by Il Manifesto and other left papers and grew to be one of the biggest sections in Arci. In many ways this marked the formation of Slow Food with an organisational structure evolving across the regions of Italy. In December Il Manifesto published the first issue of Gambero Rosso (Red Prawn) as a wine supplement. Gambero Rosso was to grow into one of Italy's leading wine guides, accompanying Slow Food's own Osterie d'Italia guide. Indeed Arcigola's main partners at this time were wine producers.

The most renowned Italian wines of the period were mainly from Chianti and elsewhere. Piedmont wine was still recovering from its lost years. Another event in the Piedmont region in 1986 was to prove a watershed in the development of Slow Food for quite different reasons. In the Langhe 19 people died from contaminated wine, after cheap wine produced in the small town of Narzole had been spiked with methanol to increase the alcohol content. The tragedy had a devastating effect on the reputation of Piedmontese wine and was regarded as a serious betrayal of consumers (1986, of course, was also the year of the Chernobyl disaster and the fears of pollution and contamination were felt at a more global level). In the face of this tragedy, wine consumption dipped by half and there was a real need to recover the reputation of local wine as well as the trust of consumers. The recognition of quality became a major concern for Arcigola activists, alongside their wider goal of educating people about the pleasures of wine.

The 1980s saw a departure from the idealism of the previous two decades. Italy was being shaped by a moment of economic and social change, and unashamed individualism, described by some as 'Milano da bere', 'the Milan you can drink'. This was the equivalent of Thatcherism in the UK, or Reaganomics in the US, and was associated in Italy with the rise of Silvio Berlusconi, who accumulated most of his media industries during this period, and began his long ascent to power with glossy TV programmes and the first reality shows. It was characterised by the value of superficiality, of getting rich quick, and the celebration of wealth. Pleasure itself was reduced to superficiality to many critics. According to Cinzia Scaffidi – now head of Slow Food's study centre and who first became involved in politics at this time – this was a new 'individualism' which 'opened many dangerous doors'. The superficiality of the period extended to food, with the first fast food stores arriving in Italy and the rejection of traditional recipes and food knowledge.


Excerpted from "The Slow Food Story"
by .
Copyright © 2008 Geoff Andrews.
Excerpted by permission of Pluto Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

1: Politics in Search of Pleasure
2: The Critique of 'Fast Life'
3: Terra Madre
4: Gastronome! The Arrival of a New Political Subject
5: The Return of the Producer…and the Death of the Consumer?
6: The Movement
7: Rediscovering the Local
8: Virtuous Globalisation.
9: Slow Food, Gastronomy and Cultural Politics

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