By John Irving, Slow Food Editore
The New Oxford American Dictionary defines “gastronomy” as “the practice or art of choosing, cooking, and eating good food.”
Carlo Petrini reckons that, in its thirty-year history, Slow Food has—at first unwittingly, then consciously—reformulated the meaning not only of the word
but also of its practical and theoretical implications. He explains how in his impassioned new bookCibo e libertà, to be published this fall in English as Food and Freedom.
“I have tried to reconstruct a journey,” he writes in the prologue, “based on my experience, on experiences acquired and on the encounters and meetings I
have had along the way.” Hence a series of sketches of people and places round the world—from Kenya to Turkey, from Brazil to Indonesia, from Germany to
the USA—that have somehow helped to shape the Slow Food world view.
Petrini sees his journey as one of liberation and labels its end as “gastronomia liberate”. To the educated Italian ear the term conjures up Gerusalemme liberate, Torquato Tasso’s epic poem, first published in 1528, about the taking of Jerusalem during the First Crusade, generally
translated into English as Jerusalem Delivered. The cultural resonance of all this will be lost on readers of Food and Freedom, but the
thinking behind it is clear enough.
Petrini’s metaphorical and real journey runs from local to global, in parallel with the various stages of evolution of Slow Food past, present and future.
It sets out from the early “eno” and “gastro” days—in the author’s words, a time of “insane folly”—when a group of friends in the small northern Italian
town of Bra contrived a variety of schemes to defend quality food, the right to pleasure and conviviality that culminated in the mega Salone del Gusto
event in Turin in 1998.
Then comes the “eco” phase in which Slow Food discovered “agrobiodiversity” and pledged to protect traditional foods and primary ingredients, conserving
tried-and-tested cultivation and processing methods domestic and wild plant species and animal breeds, most notably by launching the Ark of Taste and its
logical offshoot, the Presidia project.
There followed “neo”-gastronomy—its manifesto Petrini’s book Slow Food Nation, its banner the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, its
mantra “good, clean and fair”—and the theorization of a new role for the gastronome, no longer a mere arbiter of flavor, trapped in “a very
self-referential, elitist, unscholarly reality,” but now an informed “co-producer,” and also, in homage to Jean-Barthelme Brillat-Savarin and his Physiologie du goût, for gastronomy itself as a science, “holistic, interdisciplinary, capable of embracing all the learning but also the ‘being’
behind every food.” Viewed through Petrini’s lens, gastronomy had nothing to lose but its chains and Slow Food has set it free.
Not that the story ends here. In the second part of the book, Petrini moves on from “gastronomia liberate” to posit “ gastronomia per la liberazione,” gastronomy for freedom. It is his contention that the unbinding of gastronomy has released new, previously
unimaginable human, biological and cultural energies—in other words, diversity—and that it is now Slow Food’s job to harness them to liberate the world
food system and its attendant woes (“inequality, oppression, the damage it wreaks on the environment and people, the scandal of hunger and malnutrition”)
once and for all. Hence the movement’s ongoing “socio-political” activism, entrenched in the Terra Madre network of local food communities, its lobbying
work with national and national institutions, and its involvement with farming and food organizations round the world.
Petrini’s resounding conclusion is that “Food will free us if it becomes our food once again, in every way extant and imaginable, according to
culture and inclination. Because food is freedom.”
Anyone who has heard Carlo Petrini deliver a public speech will recognize the peremptory, oratorial tone of the new book. He doesn’t beat about the bush,
he cajoles the reader into submission; he also makes us work hard with his countless references to the minutiae of the Slow Food apparatus (congresses and
conferences, boards and commissions). Slow Food insiders—or people who have already read Petrini’s previous books, Slow Food Nation and Terra Madre—will certainly be at an advantage over laypeople with no prior knowledge of the movement when it comes to penetrating and appreciating
his arguments to the full. American readers in general may also find the many pages dedicated to the obscure inner workings of the European Union hard to
fathom, but all will find memorable those in which Petrini connects his personal escapades—the search for a Piedmontese priest “lost” in the Amazon jungle,
a firsthand account of the demonstrations in Taksim Square in Istanbul last year, a day spent picking cabbages on a farm near Berlin—to the development of
his “food liberation” project.