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Dinnerology

It's the revenge of the anti-Big Macs. The Slow Food movement will save your palate, and may just save your soul.

Dinnerology
Dinnerology
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+0553
Grow your own, eat your own

In which the gastronome forges a brave new world

  • Founded in Italy in 1986, Slow Food has 86,000 members with offices in Italy, Switzerland, the US, Germany, France, Japan and Britain. The movement now has supporters in 130 countries.
  • A University of Gastronomic Sciences was set up in Italy in 2004, with a three-year degree course and also a one-year post-graduation course. Its aim: create the gastronome who can work with food production, distribution and promotion of Slow Food.
  • Slow Food has trained about 9,000 schoolteachers since 1998. A textbook has been produced for schoolchildren: In What Sense. Founder Carlo Petrini wrote Slow Food Nation to promote the cause.
  • Slow Food USA has launched a School Gardens project where children grow their own food, and learn to cook and eat it. Thirty such gardens have come up in two years, about 100 such gardens are coming up in Italy.
  • The Slow Food Master of Food course covers 23 subjects over 90 lessons. Last year, 9,500 people attended the 400 courses offered in Italy through the year.
  • Slow Food is being introduced into hotel management courses. Over the past five years, 1,500 hotel management students have taken these courses, mostly in Italy.
  • In 2006, a new project was launched called Mercati della Terra, meaning 'markets tied to the land'. The idea is to build a system of national farmers' markets. New projects have been launched in Lebanon and Mali.
  • Slow Food is being introduced this year on a large scale in school and college canteens across Italy.
  • It's also in hospitals under the Charter of the Right to Pleasure, Conviviality and Food Quality for the Ill. The aim is to turn meal times into a time of healing, as also rehabilitation, enrichment and enjoyment.

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In one of the more domestic manifestations of globalisation invited in by liberalisation, middle-class India has seen an alarming spread in the population of young dolts who think a burger is cool and a biriyani elderly. Which should mean that it's the young who need most to pull back from this free fall into fast food—if they can be convinced they should. Out to do that convincing is the Slow Food movement whose leaders stepped into India a couple of weeks ago after launching their movement in Rome in 1986.

As an answer to fast food, Slow Food started as a bit of a joke really. "It was born when McDonald's opened at the Spanish Steps in Rome," says Cinzia Scaffidi, director of Slow Food, who visited India at the end of last month with founder and president Carlo Petrini. "That was like flying a burger flag in the heart of Italianity." And so India must now seem an excellent case for reconversion to the way it ate, and the way so much of it thankfully still does.

It's hardly surprising, knowing us, that to so much of middle-class India progress has come to mean McDonald's in a mall. And don't you know, we have also Domino's and Pizza Hut to get our teeth into the dream lifestyle that was once our western cousins', a taste of our just discovered purchasing power.

But why should it matter to anyone that growing hordes of brats simply eat what they like? "Because it's not only about food, because food is not only about food," Scaffidi tells Outlook. Slow food, meaning really local, traditional food, "is about attention, it is about considering many things at one time. If you take food slowly, you will be able to consider complexities in everything you do and everything you produce."

Sounds heavy all this, and perhaps not enough to stop a 14-year-old setting out for the nearest big M. That civil war between eating home food and eating outside is eternal, fought on as many battlegrounds as there are homes, perhaps even days in a calendar. And the nutrition argument is not likely to work either, it's too worn. Nor is a frequency in parental exercise of blocking powers effective enough. If Slow Food is at all going to inch its way back against the force of fast food giants, the young will have to see its argument.

And they are, in the hundreds of thousands and growing; and not that slowly either. Ten thousand teachers in Italy have taken Slow Food courses to teach very many more youngsters. Hundreds of school gardens have come up where children learn to grow, cook and eat, and see the slowness of the whole process, and recognise the complexities of that whole process of growth and preparation leading up to the dining table. And incredibly, that movement is spreading from the small offices of Slow Food in a north Italian town named Bra (for no fault of its own).

At the heart of the Slow Food movement lies a call to recognise a oneness between the way we eat and a way to live. The idea goes beyond the obvious actualities. Slow Food is after all not about retarding jaw movement on its way through a hamburger. And Slow Food doesn't in India have to mean dum pukht, though there has to be room for that too. But the movement would slow down to a quick stop if it was about starting to cook tomorrow's gosht today. Why waste courage taking on the evergreen boast that she can put together what you call Slow Food really fast. No, this is not an argument against a pressure cooker.

And so Petrini and Scaffidi spent their time in Bombay, Trivandrum, Delhi and around advancing the cause of Slow Food not just in gastronomic engagements, but in what Petrini calls eco-gastronomy. That meant meeting farmer groups alongside social activist Vandana Shiva to support their local produce, local knowledge and tradition.


Good earth: Carlo Petrini with farmers at a Navdanya farm in Dehradun

Slow food begins with developing a taste for complexity and variety. To develop taste is to develop our senses. "I found that Indian food considers so many different flavours at the same time," says Scaffidi. "It is such a telling representation of what India is." That truth does not just have to be statistically observed; it can be accessed through the senses. It's the senses that "give us a deeper, more varied and more authentic knowledge of the world around us," the Slow Food movement says. The senses link us to memories, to the sense of a dish grandmother made.

Much of this it does through developing something for which Slow Food found an unusual and telling word—conviviality. That brings a coming together over time over the slow meal; it binds and it bonds. It starts off stories, it rescues interaction from the chains of the strictly necessary. It relieves relationships of functionalities. It makes possible a being around, beyond some moving towards. It makes possible living, not just doing.

Slow food has so much to do with all this. "We should learn to enjoy the vast range of flavours and recipes available, and recognise the variety of places and people involved in growing and producing the food we eat," the movement says in its campaign literature. "We should also respect the natural rhythms of the seasons, and conviviality, the enjoyment of dining and sharing that enjoyment with others." And, it supports "a slower, more aware pace of life".

It is in denying all this that fast food becomes a betrayal of the senses, of tradition—and of political justice. Slow Food is about a paced out progress through a certain kind of menu, as a decision about a way of life, a way of living, a way of looking at the world. Traditional food is always based on the knowledge and knowhow of local communities. And it is sourced from the land, from the farmers around, and varied through the seasons as nature determines. Fast food is a multiplication of sameness yanked away from the rhythm of time, land and the seasons.


Indian Slow Food: Dum Pukht binds the flavours?

"When you decide where your money will go, and to whom, you decide what kind of agriculture you support, what kind of development you help," says Scaffidi. "What kind of justice you will help, what kind of democracy you want for the world." The big challenge is to communicate that idea to the young. "I can understand that the first reaction can be that all this is too complicated, too huge, that my action cannot make a difference, so I can't deal with this because I am not enough. But paying attention to our food, and to our way of eating can be an incredible source of pleasure; it can be fun, and tasty, and delightful, and also can be such a great source of health that everything really becomes easier and easier."

The tens, or even hundreds of thousands that Slow Food has won back are a tiny fraction of the hundreds of millions absorbed by fast food everywhere, not just India. "It's an idea of modernity that has been communicated so strongly that we cannot imagine a place now without all that," says Scaffidi. But Slow Food is imagining it, and building one, nevertheless. The middle-class Indian must by now have a crick in the neck from looking continually westward. But for more reasons than one, it might be a better idea to sit down to a proper dinner, and in more ways than one, look no further than Italy. It is actually much nearer India.

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