Alice Waters and Carlo Petrini Muse on the Past, Present and Future of Slow Food at Roberta’s

On a recent Friday, the leaders of the Slow Food movement united at Roberta’s for conversation and celebration of the organization’s 25th anniversary.

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Waters and Petrini share panetonne at Park Slope’s L’albero dei gelati during a recent visit to Brooklyn. Credit: Instagram/alicelouisewaters

The backyard of Bushwick’s favorite pizza spot, Roberta’s, was a sea of pizza boxes and checkered picnic blankets on Friday, October 3. Whatever total capacity was for the outdoor space, it had been reached. This was the food movement’s version of a Fleetwood Mac concert — a question and answer session with Slow Food’s founder Carlo Petrini and it’s international vice president, Alice Waters of Berkeley’s Chez Panisse.

They’d come from warmer coasts — Italy and California — in honor of Slow Food’s 25th anniversary with Heritage Radio Network and Heritage Foods USA. Most of the audience were in that twenties-to-thirties age group who had never really lived in a world without the influence of Alice Waters or Slow Food (Chez Panisse was founded in 1971 and Slow Food in 1989). Petrini planted the seeds of what would become the international Slow Food movement when he stopped a McDonald’s from opening on the Spanish Steps in Rome. For Alice Waters, it was taste and a trip to France that led her to a lifetime of championing fresh, local foods. Although in different countries and at different times, they were on the same page. Since 2002, Waters has served as vice president of Slow Food International, solidifying the ideological connection between her work and Petrini’s.

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Petrini chats with Joan Gussow and Adam Gopnik during the event at Roberta’s. Credit: Facebook/Heritage Radio Network

An interesting twist in the event moderated by Heritage Radio executive director Erin Fairbanks was that Carlo Petrini spoke in Italian throughout. “Not speaking English is also an example of biodiversity,” he said getting a laugh from the audience. Though Petrini had a translator on hand, Patrick Martins of Heritage Foods USA did the official translation for the event (there was considerable surprise that Martins spoke Italian so well).

If Petrini’s answers to Fairbanks’s questions felt like speeches, it may have had something to do with the audience hearing his appeals in Italian first. In a particularly evocative moment, he spoke of what it would be like to describe our current food system (“a criminal food system”) to his grandparents: “Do you know we live in a society where people spend more to get thin than to be fat, to nourish ourselves?”

That’s just the first of many problems Petrini and Waters hope to attack in our food system. The difficulties seem endless — dwindling biodiversity, water scarcity looming on the horizon, land grabs — and though groups work tirelessly to combat them, it’s an uphill battle. Instilling Slow Food values, a phrase both Waters and Petrini mentioned multiple times, is central to this work. “When you edibly educate kids,” Waters says, “they have a different set of values when they grow up.”

In a perfect world, Waters would love to see this form of education in every public school, which makes the October 8 announcement of Slow Food USA’s partnership with Chipotle less of a surprise. The alliance will help fund school garden initiatives in 10 cities over the next 15 months with a donation of almost $500,000 from Chipotle. It’s a bold move for an organization founded on the prevention of fast food expansion (McDonald’s was actually an early Chipotle investor, but divested in 2006) and time will tell how well these funds will help bolster Slow Food USA’s pre-existing network of volunteers working on school gardens across the nation. In any case, this scaling is evidence of Slow Food’s expanding popularity and educational relevance.

It unclear if Waters’s well-known Edible Schoolyard Project will directly benefit from the Chipotle partnership, but at the event, she acknowledged that “middle school kids, when they’re in the garden, don’t feel like they’re in school.” Her vision is that children would get credit for eating well and lesson plans would teach them how to cook with the seasons, and ideally with locally and sustainably produced food. Nowadays though, students lucky enough to have a garden or cooking program have classes slotted in as extracurricular enrichment. But food, Waters believes, is central to a real education. “They aren’t kitchen or garden classes; they’re courses in the lab of the garden and in the lab of the kitchen,” she says.

Though Petrini’s vision of educating new generations focuses more on the family — traditions and knowledge passed down from grandparents to grandchildren — he stands firmly beside Waters’ convictions. “Alice seems all passive and tranquil but she is a force of nature,” he says. Farmers markets did not exist on the scale that they do now when he met her. Today a resurgence of markets in the United States and Europe has led to these events being known not in their native tongues but under the Americanized label of “farmers markets.”

It’s fascinating that the United States has become such a mecca for the food movement — and maybe it’s because we only had room to improve after exporting fast food culture. In the last 20 years, Petrini had seen “unbelievably good things” coming from this country. He recalled there being only two kinds of beer when he first came to the United States. Now microbreweries spring up faster than a litter of rabbits. Organics and school gardens are proliferating. Where once generic cheddar, Kraft singles or Velveeta were the norm, domestic artisanal cheeses have come into their own. “You were eating all these delicious microbes out of Europe and killing the same microbes here in the States,” Petrini says. Not any longer.

Because one of the most important changes is that events like the Carlo Petrini and Alice Waters talk exist at all. Though Slow Food certainly paved the way for creating a community around food, there are now scores of events and organizations devoted to eating carefully sprinkled throughout the United States. Even in New York City, people are doing their best to connect to their food. When Petrini asked how many attendees had gardens, roughly half the audience at Roberta’s raised their hands.

“I wasn’t looking for food, I was looking for taste,” Waters said of her own journey into the food movement. “I was looking for taste and then I found the farmers.” Her reflection goes to show that not everyone falls into food advocacy for the same reasons or knows how far it will take us. Yet, all eaters, there we were — ready to learn, ready for change. And largely thanks to Petrini and Waters’ leadership, it’s happening.

You can listen to the entire event here thanks to Heritage Radio Network.

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Tove Danovich is a food and agriculture journalist based in Brooklyn, NY. She is a contributor to Modern Farmer, Miracle of Feeding Cities, Civil Eats, and others. Follow her on Twitter or visit her website.