Q&A: Tom Philpott, Slow Food Fighter

Sprawling over the Labor Day weekend, the four-day Slow Food Nation festival attracted more than just the usual suspects to San Francisco. Sure, lovers of food and restaurants showed up, paying up to $65 apiece to stroll through the Taste Pavilion at Fort Mason to sample Tuscan-style lardo and artisanal rye whiskey. But organizers also reached out to environmental and social justice activists—everyone from those passionate about urban food security (such as Oakland’s City Slicker Farm) to critics like Stuffed and Starved author Raj Patel (a panelist for the festival’s Food for Thought speaker series) who believe that, in the United States anyway, Slow Food has mostly ignored eaters without the means to buy organic or live the locavore lifestyle.

Tom Philpott is another such critic. Founder of Maverick Farms, an educational nonprofit farm in North Carolina, and food editor and blogger at the environmental Web site Grist (Grist.org), Philpott believes the US version of Slow Food has largely failed to adopt the social justice mandate of its founding credo—a credo born in the Italian communist movement of three decades ago. Recognized as Slow Food’s founder, former Italian labor activist Carlo Petrini helped articulate the movement’s principles of “good, clean, and fair.” Food must be good (authentic and delicious, a source of pleasure), clean (grown or produced in an environmentally sustainable way), and fair (adequately compensating those who grow or produce it, as well as working for access to good food across socioeconomic lines).

It’s that fair part of the equation that those like Philpott think have eluded the US movement, which is more explicitly consumerist than Slow Food in other parts of the world. Though Slow Food USA has worked nationally to support school garden education initiatives similar to Berkeley’s fourteen-year-old Edible Schoolyard program, critics charge it’s been a movement more interested in talking about pricey artisanal goodies than supporting public policy solutions to problems like food security in low-income neighborhoods.

In June 2007, Philpott posted a piece on Grist.org called “Slow Food Fight: Ruminations on Food, Class, and Carlo Petrini.” Like some other Slow Food critics, Philpott is passionate about the movement’s ideals, even as he feels it hasn’t always lived up to its ideals. “For all its good work,” Philpott wrote, “and despite its roots within the Italian labor movement—Slow Food has itself been hounded by charges of elitism. The critique goes like this: Who but a rich few can spend time wringing their hands over whether, say, a cheese that’s been made in some Tuscan village for hundreds of years goes extinct—a cheese that only the well-off can afford anyway? Yet Slow Food’s class problem really applies to the sustainable food movement in all industrialized nations, including the US. In short, our economy runs on cheap food; many people rely on it to feed themselves; and advocates of farmers’ markets, CSAs, and organic food are asking people to pay more for food without giving them a strategy for raising wages.”

I spoke with Philpott earlier this year, just as organizing for the Slow Food Nation festival was gearing up.

What’s behind your critique of Slow Food and class?

I should say that I’ve got a lot of respect for Slow Food and Carlo Petrini, also the leaders of the movement in Northern California. Alice [Waters] and Michael [Pollan] are wonderful.

I do think class is a blind spot. I’m a food lover. I got interested in Slow Food maybe nine years ago when I was living in New York, got really into the idea of protecting endangered products. I think they’ve done incredible work internationally, probably most especially in places like Europe and Mexico. Here in America, we don’t have as many traditions to save—that’s one of the reasons it comes off as elitist here. Rather than preserving something indigenous here, they tend to celebrate traditions from Europe.

But they could do that and still have an economic critique of the political economy that creates inequalities, that makes two different food systems. I mean, we’ve seen a renaissance of wonderful farmers’ market foods in this country; a lot of the population has at least some access to them. I do know some places where these traditions are extremely vital—like there’s a place down in Arizona, a Native American reservation. I know some people down there, and they’re in crisis: Obesity rates are off the charts because people have given up their traditional diet. An organization there is working very hard to revive an indigenous, heirloom variety of bean that’s really delicious, and supposedly has fantastic nutritional qualities and helps regulate blood sugar. I don’t know if Slow Food is involved or not, but that’s an example of one place where Slow Food could be extremely useful. Sometimes Slow Food can be a really vital part of people’s lives, and I do think it has a role to play in the United States. But we’ve destroyed so much in the US; we’ve wiped out so many food and farming traditions. In this country—unlike other places in the world—it’s not really a matter of endangered subcultures hanging onto those traditions for survival.

Michael Pollan has defended the American Slow Food movement by pointing to the endangered foods it’s saved from commercial extinction. Do you think the whole notion of saving something that sounds as esoteric as, say, Iroquois white corn itself smacks of elitism?

I think the answer is yes. If they’re going to focus on projects like that then they are going to open themselves up to charges of elitism. I mean, if you’re living in New York, or Brooklyn, you’re not going to care about some variety of corn that’s going extinct in the Southwest. We’re not going to have a sustainable food system that respects biodiversity and respects flavor and quality unless we do broaden it and make it accessible to a much wider part of society.

What is the dominant trend these days? The dominant trend is more corn than ever, more soybeans grown than ever before in the US, grown at an extraordinary level. Fertilizer prices are skyrocketing—fertilizer companies are basically printing money these days! The way things are going now it’s pretty dire. With all that going on, all those challenges to a sane food system, a really key challenge to the sustainable food movement is to broaden its access.

The social justice mission of Slow Food goes back to the roots of the organization. The original message I found to be extremely exhilarating, this energy of the left, the idea that, before Slow Food, the left dismissed pleasure as a bourgeois concern. The whole idea of turning flavor into this political act, the idea that I’m going to refuse McDonalds and stop at an artisanal shop instead, I think all that was really powerful and a great message. The organization should remember its roots in the old Italian left. I do think Slow Food is sincerely trying—of course they’ve heard these criticisms about access before, they’re nothing new. I think they’re really stung by them. But I think that tension that this kind of criticism creates can productively exist in the organization. In the end, I think it can only be good for the movement.

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