Life In the Slow Lane

Published on: 07:44AM Sep 17, 2008

Forty-one years after the Summer of Love put Hippies and Haight-Asbury in the national vocabulary, many of the spiritual kin of the flower children – and probably a handful of the very same people who were there in `67 – returned to San Francisco this summer for a celebration of something much more essential than sex, drugs and rock n roll. 


Food was what got them to turn out and turn on.


This story from earlier this month in the Food section of the Washington Post is a good description of what’s become a major trend in the alt-food movement:  the support for so-called Slow Food.  My posting today is another riff on these movements in the food and agriculture business that really define themselves by what they are not, or what they’re opposed to.  Last week, I blogged about how Farm Aid today is all about Good Food, and isn’t interested in helping mainstream agriculture.  The raw milk movement is all about challenging the evils of pasteurization.  The organic and rBST-free movements are a response to the evils of modern technology being applied to agriculture.


And drawing threads from all of these, Slow Food is a European trend that has migrated across the pond (as many of these trends seem to do) to challenge the Fast Food leviathan where it started (well, Ray Kroc started out in southern California, but San Fran is close enough).  Ultimately, it’s a reaction to the commodity-style mindset that breeds conformity in our approach to feeding ourselves.


Read this quote from the movement’s founder:

"For food to be good, it must be good, clean and fair," said Carlo Petrini, who founded Slow Food International in 1986 in response to the opening of a McDonald's near the Spanish Steps in Rome. "If any one of these conditions is missing, it isn't good food."


There’s some appeal in this iconoclastic, counter-culture approach.  After all, that’s what the 60’s brought us as a society:  the opportunity to ask serious questions about whether mainstream society was collectively making good choices.  Not that many of the fashion choices that ensued in the 1970s were sound, but at least they represented a unique response to grey flannel suits.


But it seems that most people, at least in this country, like fast food precisely because it’s predictable and comfortable.  Not to mention convenient and affordable.  There are some who will pay a premium for esoteric foods that are novel or offbeat, especially when it becomes fashionable to look for exotic truffles and heirloom tomatoes.  And precisely because food today is abundant and cheap, it frees up more disposable income for some to experiment with these alt-foods. 


But it seems like the Slow Food aficionados have a tough road to hoe in convincing people that familiar types of food and popular brands of food marketers, with their cheeseburgers and fries, are bad for the soul.  They’re going about it using the same tactics as the other alt-food fanatics use, and I doubt the outcome will be much different.  In the end, most consumers tend to like predictability when they eat.  I know my kids do, and I doubt that most adults change their habits a whole lot in ensuing decades.  Slow Food is akin to so many trends of the 1960s and later that couldn’t make themselves enduring alternatives to the mainstream precisely because once any movement becomes popular, it joins the mainstream being rebelled against in the first place.  That’s already happening with organic food, which has become big business.   For some, food is first and foremost political, and it's clear that's what's at the heart of the Slow Food movement. Others just want dinner, and no politics with their fries. Who can blame them?