Slow Food Founder Carlo Petrini On Local Eating


A gastronome who is not an environmentalist is stupid. An environmentalist who is not a gastronome is boring.

Thus spake Carlo Petrini, the founder of the Slow Food movement. It was just one of his quotable bon mots of the evening discussion I attended. It was his first time in Toronto and there was a lot of buzz about his appearance. The programme was presented by Planet in Focus, an organization that uses film and video to "explore social and ecological focal points", and the Italian Cultural Institute. Billed as "An Evening of Conversation" with Petrini, it turned out to be more of a lecture than a conversation, but it was fascinating for anyone who is interested in food, culture and society.

Mr. Petrini's message is pretty simple: buy good locally grown ingredients, cook your own dinner and don't waste anything. We are just now, as a larger society, starting to seriously look at issues that he has been talking about for twenty years, but there is still a long way to go. He talks about food as a building block of family, of community, of culture. For nay sayers who think that we should always move with the times he says that a tradition that works well is always modern.


Photo credit: Lauren Wilson, Blog TO. Behind the scenes at the Slow Food Dinner, May 1, 2009.

In his book, in Defense of Food, Michael Pollan talked about the spending habits of Americans,where they traditionally spent more on food than health care and now the figures are almost completely reversed. Mr. Petrini points out that Italians used to spend 32% of their income on food. Now they spend 14% on food and 12% on their mobile phones. As he says, people complain about the cost of a tomato, but not about the cost of a mobile phone.


Photo credit: Lauren Wilson, Blog TO. Toronto chef Jamie Kennedy plating Ontario cheese.

He believes that we have to reappraise our values. We want things quickly, we want things we don't need and when we are bored with them, we throw them away. He advocates consuming less of everything, including food, but to choose wisely and to use everything you purchase. Lloyd pointed out in a Planet Green post that small refrigerators make good cities, because you buy what you can use for a day or two, and you shop in your own community more. Mr. Petrini agrees. He points out that people no long use their refrigerators for preserving food, they are "halls of death" because we let too much go to waste there.


Photo credit: Lauren Wilson, Blog TO. The Grand Dining Hall filled with Slow Food supporters.

Mr. Petrini also talks about other kinds of waste in our rush to make money and consume goods. He points out that people used to take their children to the country for a picnic, now they take them to the mall. Children used to play freely, now they have organized after school programmes and they have to book time to play with friends. As he says, "we are burning the time of our children". For those who say they don't have time to shop locally and cook (or spend time with their kids, for that matter), Michael Pollan points out that it wasn't so long ago that we didn't have email, but we've all managed to make plenty of time for that.

Mr. Petrini is all too aware that there are people who say it's too expensive or elitist to use local ingredients, but if we bought good local ingredients in the quantities we really require, then we can eat very well for less money. If we paid farmers a fair price then we would attract more young people to work in agriculture. In Ontario, where I live, we've paved over a lot of farm land over the last fifty years. When I was a child, Ontario produce was quite inexpensive in season, but you had to pay a lot for things like oranges and grapefruit and pineapple that don't grow here. Now the pricing is reversed, and imported vegetables from Mexico or Peru are often cheaper. Personally, if something grows in Ontario, than I buy the local produce only in season. If it doesn't grow in Ontario, than I buy it sparingly, or not at all.


Photo credit: Lauren Wilson, Blog TO. A beautiful dessert plate.

The night before the discussion I attended, Slow Food Canada hosted a multi-course dinner in honour of Mr. Petrini in the magnificent Grand Dining Hall of Hart House at the University of Toronto, and 20 local chefs participated, showcasing the bounty that Ontario produces. The photos here are of that evening taken by Lauren Wilson of Blog TO. Working in the kitchen, she had the opportunity to get some great behind the scenes shots.

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