Industry spotlight – Interview
Name: Carlo Petrini
Some: Bra, Italy
Occupation: Founder and President of Slow Food
Must vivid food and mine memory: I’m lucky, I’ve had many wonderful experiences sitting around a table: beautiful wines, top chefs. But, I suppose that it’s not only what you eat or drink, it’s also when, where, and who you are with. I remember fascinating places, kind people, good friends, and amusing situations while eating and drinking. It’s hard to answer this question; I can’t really choose one.
Mottoes by which J work: I want to start a revolution from my table–slowly.
Some people are born with an appreciation for the symbolism in the world around them while others remain unaware, seeing merely the world for its literal value. Mr. Carlo Petrini believes this sense of awareness can be taught. It is his mission as Slow Food founder and president, to prove high regard for food culture is a learned skill: learned at the table, at the market, and in the field. He, along with fellow Slow Food members, consider the assembly line attitude of “fast food” to be their greatest nemesis. “We don’t state that people shouldn’t go to McDonald’s and we don’t say that there s no place for fast food establishments in our society,” Mr. Petrini emphasizes. “We only try to help people have a new concept of taste and to be aware of the importance of quality. We are against ‘fast food’ when it means the homogenization of taste.”
Ironically, the history of Slow Food counters the evolution of fast food; both concepts a response to the changing pace of life. In 1941, husband and wife team, Richard and Maurice McDonald opened a small drive-in movie theatre and hamburger stand in Pasadena, California. By 1948 the hamburger stand blossomed into a popular franchise bearing the family’s name “McDonald’s.” Enticed by a large order placed by the franchises, local milkshake machine salesman Ray Kroc purchased rights to open McDonald’s outlets in Illinois and California (Trager 550). In practically that same year, thousands of miles away in one of Italy’s most refined culinary regions, Mr. and Mrs. Petrini were blessed with a baby boy, Carlo. Amidst white truffles, porcini mushrooms, gorgonzola cheese, chestnuts, and other treasures of the Piedmont region, Carlo Petrini grew up with a savory spoon in his mouth. Back in the United States, Kroc’s success continued. In 1961 he procured exclusive rights to the McDonald’s orporation and in the span of four years, 700 new sites were built. Meanwhile in Italy, a maturing Carlo Petrini studied history, human sciences, and food culture at the University in Trento, honing his writing skills. In the early 1970s the first European McDonald’s outlets opened in Germany and Sweden; at the same time, 25 year old Petrini began his literary career writing columns in local newspapers and magazines, including a restaurant guide for the weekly magazine L ‘Espresso. In 1983, with the help of a few business associates who shared his convictions about food culture, Petrini laid the groundwork for Arcigola in his hometown of Bra. Several years passed before the first McDonald’s arrived in Italy in 1985. By now, Petrini had already formed his opinions about the fast food invasion and put into motion an intellectual revolution of his own. In 1987 Petrini co-founded Gambero Rosso, a publishing company dedicated to promoting writers and photographers whose works encompassed the anthropology, ecology, economics, tradition, and geography of food and wine culture. Over the next six years Arcigola gained momentum, culminating in 1989, with the international signing of the Slow Food manifesto. The signatures of twenty international delegations marked a global commitment to ‘slow eating’ and ‘slow living’ whereby the principles of sound agriculture and cuisine are up-held. In 1993 and 1995 the first additions of Slow and Sb wine magazines were published, further promoting the Slow Food message. Today both publications as well as the Snail continue to reach new audiences and raise member awareness by featuring poignant themes, which stretch far beyond the dinner table. Today, Slow Food extends itself through regional, national and international conferences, work-study programs, museum exhibits, festivals, the Internet, and word of mouth to reach every corner of the world. Though Italy is home to some 200 McDonald’s outlets today, it is also home to over 35,000 Slow Food members. Worldwide, the Slow Food movement includes over 60,000 memb ers. In 2000, Petrini was honored by the International Wine and Spirit Competition as the Communicator of the Year for his message: “Reverse the damage caused by the fast food mentality; damage which erodes our culinary heritage in the guise of efficiency.”
Q: Why did you choose a snail as your symbol and not a turtle or an hourglass?
A: The snail is the emblem of slowness. It is a small, cosmopolitan, and prudent animal: a sort of amulet against the speed and hectic lives we live–that includes our attitude towards food.
Q: What makes you so passionate about food and culture?
A: Bra is in the southern part of the Cuneo province of Piedmont, a region where food and wine are very important. We have lots of typical products and the traditional cooking is still very strong. I’ve always related to food and wine because I was born in this special place.
Q: What is your educational background?
A: I studied Sociology at Trento University, but I never graduated. I started writing as a food and wine critic for a few Italian magazines and newspapers including L ‘Espresso, La Stampa, and Il Manifesto. At the same time I was involved with the ARCI (Associazione Ricreativa e Culturale Italiana), a nonprofit recreational association, as the event organizer. From the ARCI experience I started Arcigola.
Q: Can you explain Arcigola?
A: With a few friends I started to think about an association based on the concept of pleasure and taste, and on the importance of good food and wine in life. We were very passionate on the matter and wanted to join as many people possible to share the pleasure. I traveled a lot and met a lot of people with the same passion. In the beginning, it started to grow as a net of Italian gourmets. The next step was the formation of Arcigola, which in 1989 became Slow Food with a much broader vision. The rest is the history of our development.
Q: Did Gambero Rosso come about at the same time that Slow Food evolved?
A: Gambero Rosso is a publishing house that produces books, guides, magazines, and TV programs and was founded after Slow Food. The name came from a weekly supplement of the newspaper II Manifesto, where Slow Food was a contributor. For a certain period of time, Gambero Rosso and Slow Food shared some activities; in fact we co-published the Guida ai Vini d’Italia [a comprehensive guide to Italian wines]. But Slow Food and Gambero Rosso have no other direct connection at the moment.
Q: Aside from the Slowfood and Slowine publications, Slow Food seems to be reaching out through: newspapers, magazines, the Internet, film…are these “slow” methods of communication?
A: These forms of media are the way to spread the Slow Food philosophy. That’s the way we use them: to reach our goals. In an age of globalization, we are global but strictly in our own way. We want to demonstrate that there exist other ways, a “slow way” to promote the diversity and the richness of every single culture in the world. Word of mouth is definitely important, for instance many of the artisanal traditions we want to preserve were handed down in this way. We are aware of that, that’s why we want to maintain these traditions
Q: How did you attain such a large, international delegation in such a short period of time?
A: I guess that it is due to the strength of our ideas: simple but joyous. It’s hard to refuse attention to the pleasure and defense of our environment, as well as the richness of our gastronomic culture! Isn’t it?
Q: Of course hut, isn’t pleasure for the privileged?
A: Food pleasure is for everyone. We are not only talking about haute cuisine. Pleasure is a right for everybody and there’s pleasure even in a simple and healthy dish. Slow Food now has a wide scope: it still has its traditional roots as an ecogastronomic association, but at the same time is becoming an international movement with important projects in developing countries. To ensure development and food in those places it is important to support local people and their activities. The Slow Food Award is an example of moving in this direction. Last year the winners came from Mauritania, Mexico, and Turkey; they were people who spent all their life defending biodiversity by doing their job. For instance, the beekeeper in Anatolia, Turkey or the lady producing camel milk cheese with the Tuareg peoples of the Sahara desert, and so on. This year I can’t tell you more about the candidates because the jurors have to choose the winners. But, I can assure you that there are extraordinary stories of people from Africa to Latin America.
Q: You mentioned the term ecogastronomic, what does it mean?
A: Ecogastronomy means that we cannot be gourmets without caring for environmental issues and vice versa. Slow Food is an ecogastronomic movement because it is fighting for the preservation of animals, vegetables, and fruits that are in danger of extinction.
Q: How do you catalogue the foods, flavors: pleasures of the past?
A: The Ark of Taste is a concept and a project. The concept is metaphorical: Slow Food intends to preserve gastronomic products threatened by industrial standardization, hyper hygienist legislation, the rules of the large-scale retail trade, which will result in the deterioration of the environment. The aim of the Ark of Taste is to rediscover, catalogue, describe, and promote almost forgotten flavors. That is to say, all products in danger of extinction but still alive, and with real productive and commercial potential; products like violino di capra from Valchiavenna (a delicious cured goat’s leg), plum tomatoes of Corbara, Caciocavallo podolico cheese of Campania, and bottarga di muggine (dried mullet roe) of Liguria, Sicily, and Sardinia, and many others still.
Q: How does Slow Food promote this goal?
A: A presidium is a model of an ecogastronomic intervention. Our solidarity project, like the Fraternal Tables in the Third World represent an ecogastronomic attitude. The future will see presidia in developing countries, where biodiversity is more threatened and where there’s a need for an eco-compatible model of agriculture. Globalization reduces our biodiversity and increases the problems for the little traditional producers who cannot compete in a market with low prices and low quality. For example, in Italy, we have hundreds of excellent regional foods that offer a high level of quality and taste diversity. The presidia, supports small local economies, trying to help artisans, farmers, and producers by finding the funds needed to purchase and supply equipment, promote new experiments, provide production incentives, and identify new channels for the marketing of quality products. We simply start an economical intervention. I have to say, now that the presidia has an outstanding success rate with the media , the political world, and marketplace, consumers are giving these products the attention they deserve. We are now working to activate presidia abroad, mostly in the southern regions of the world, where biodiversity is most endangered, and people need new chances of development.
Q: In many ways you are part food anthropologist and part food conservationist. Tell me a little about your term “civilization of taste.”
A: Civilization of taste is one of the fundamental notions of the Slow Food philosophy. Civilization of taste is strictly connected with our culture and I strongly affirm that we cannot think about food as separate from the word culture. Culture is not only literature, painting, and architecture-but any artistic or intellectual activity. Food is connected with our history and tradition, with economy, with art and creativity. So, civilization of taste is our heritage, and we have to work hard to develop it, spread it, promote it, keep it.
Q: Is the understanding of taste subjective?
A: Yes it is. But, we can’t forget that there exists an objective criteria to consider; that is, there is a scientific way to prove pleasure is not subjective.
Q: How can you teach the pleasure of taste?
A: One of the goals of Slow Food is the education of taste. We actually organize educational lessons for youngsters and adults where producers and experts introduce and explain the story of food or drink through the use of senses. We also started the first University of Taste. The three year curriculum is comprised of twenty-one subjects, from wine and cheeses to beer, cereals, bread, fruit, vegetables, sweets, and cakes, spices, herbs, ethnic cooking, and so on. The courses take place all over Italy with the help of our Italian convivium leaders; it is probably the biggest taste education project ever started.
Q: Where is the University of Taste?
A: The University of Taste is located in Pollenzo, Italy a small hamlet of Bra. Pollenzo was an ancient Roman town, just at the foot of the Langhe Mountains and the most important wine valley of Piedmont. The University resides in a 19th century Savoy king’s country house; restoration work in the main building is now in progress. The school will start its activity by the end of 2003. In the same building there will be a Relais & Chateaux hotel, a Wine Bank for the aging of great wines, and a high class restaurant. The University of Taste will be the first academy of ecogastronomic sciences dedicated to training future managers of the agro-industrial sector, food or wine consortia directors, and food and wine journalists. The University will also provide stages and training courses for graduates.
Q: How do you reach your many international delegates who cannot participate in your Italian projects but want to learn and teach?
A: The Hall of Taste, better known as the Salone del Gusto, is organized every two years in Turin, Italy. Not only is it our main event, but it is the biggest international food and wine exhibition. The last Hall of Taste was composed of a large market with more than 500 exhibitors, 130,000 visitors, and 2000 journalists from all over the world. There were hundreds of taste workshops, a Green Garden with vegetarian specialties, Dinner Dates in the best restaurants of Piedmont, events, conferences, and more. It is a cultural opportunity to approach the world of quality food, oenological rarities, cooks from every part of the globe, and above all, there are many moments dedicated to social events and education.
Q: It sounds like there are so many projects; what is the ultimate goal?
A: Slow Food is gradually becoming a sort of a virtuous lobby that wants to save and protect biodiversity and food culture all over the world, while promoting a new model of agriculture: eco-compatible and sustainable, producing high quality instead of great quantity.
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