Esquire: how slow can we go

John Lanchester on how one angry Italian’s crusade against McDonald’s started a food revolution.

People who change the conversation are rare in any field, and particularly rare in the world of food. Daily eating is dominated by comfort food (ideally, convenient comfort food); fancy eating is dominated by fashion. It’s difficult to change that picture, and the many tens of thousands of people professionally involved in the world of food for the most part don’t try.

There are exceptions, though, and Carlo Petrini is one of them. He is an Italian journalist who in 1986, appalled by a proposal to open a branch of McDonald’s next to the Spanish Steps in Rome, started a movement to oppose it. At an early point, the movement acquired a name, Slow Food. This was in itself a masterpiece, providing both an ideological focus for the new group and simultaneously making the project’s goals clear.

Even when used in Italian, the words stay in

English, which makes the point that this is an international idea. Slow Food’s aim is: “to counteract fast food and fast life, the disappearance of local food traditions and people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from, how it tastes and how our food choices affect the rest of the world”. The movement is against food’s globalization.

Nimbyism is not new and not interesting. What was new about Petrini and Slow Food was the way they expanded the argument, beginning with the starting point of saying “No” to McDonald’s and gradually opening up the critique. Slow Food began with a manifesto and evolved through meetings and congresses. It started to publish guidebooks, opened brunches in other countries, created a prize to celebrate work in biodiversity, founded a University Of Gastronomic Sciences, set up an international meeting of producers called Terra Madre, started festivals of cheese, wine, fish and beer, and began an event in Turin called the Salone Del Gusto.

I was a speaker at the first Salone Del Gusto in 1996, talking about BSE. The event took place in an industrial space in Turin. From humble beginnings, the Salone now attracts 180,000 visitors a time.

You might expect the man behind Slow Food to be a chilled-out, roguish sensualist with a keen sense of how to manufacture publicity. But Carlo Petrini isn’t like that. The only time I saw him speak in public, at a conference in San Sebastian, he radiated anger, and it was clear that politics is the motivating force for his views, about food. He is a former Marxist, and the anti-globalisation, anti-capitalist emphasis of Small Food is clearly leftist in its inspiration. It is a very Italian paradox that a movement emanating from the left should have at its heart such a conservative (small “c”) message. This movement is all about resisting some types of change.

Slow Food has had a big impact worldwide, but that doesn’t mean everyone agrees with it. A lot of chefs don’t. Ferran Adria, the most influential person in the restaurant world today, is committed to a cuisine which is rootless and experimental and draws as heavily as it can on new techniques and new ways of thinking about food. That is pretty much the opposite of Slow Food. You can agree on a dislike of McDonald’s, and yet still disagree about everything else. Many chefs are bored and depressed by the thought that culinary conservatism is the future for food.

There is another, more serious problem with the movement. With a global population of 6.

Esquire: how slow can we go