Universal Right to Pleasure

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We enjoy our grub here in Manchester. And so does Slow Food Nation which came together over Labor Day in San Francisco to celebrate an inclusive food movement to create a better American food system.

The slow food movement originated in Italy over 30 years ago, founded by Carlo Petrini. He was annoyed by a badly cooked pasta dish at a political meeting and wrote to the organizers to tell them so — who responsed that the comrades didn’t bother with such trivialities. Petrini retorted that the working class had every right to good food. And so the ‘universal right to pleasure was born’.

So, food quality shouldn’t be just a middle-class foodie concern – the way it is often presented. The link between poverty and bad nutrition remains an urgent issue in the UK (check out the Food Access Network). And then there are the 400 million-plus people in chronic poverty whose food – when they can get it – is often appalling: anyone for mud-cakes? (see this story from Haiti).

The BBC food programme covered the San Francisco event and includes a speech by Carlo Petrini himself, as well Raj Patel of Stuffed & Starved (one of our favourite books this year).

The Slow Food Story: Politics and Pleasure by Geoff Andrews traces the origins of the movement. In the UK it is still early days. The industrial revolution, rapid urbanization, and the second world war did much to destroy English food culture, and it has only really started to recover over the last 20 years.

Kate Colquhoun’s The Story of Britain’s Cooking tells a dismal tale. Ian Jack in the New York Times asks why we developed such a poor cuisine despite so many excellent ingredients (‘the roast beef of old England’) and finds it in “… the triad of the Industrial Revolution, empire and free trade. The first drove people from the fields to the factories; the colonies of the second grew what Sidney Mintz has called the tropical ‘drug foods’ (including sugar and tea); the cheap imports encouraged by the third drove out the homegrown”. By 1800 according to Colquhoun:

“… the poor in Britain were now subsisting not on a diet that had remained broadly unchanged for centuries of ale, grain and vegetables and a modicum of fatty meat, but on a vastly less nutritious mix of often adulterated white bread, cheese, tea and sugar”.

The slow food movement in the UK has so far focused largely on quality. It is only now taking on the ethical and political issues that Petrini championed, according to the BBC food programme. “What’s good, clean, and fair” are the watchwords, and Petrini urges us to be curious about food: because it tells us much about the culture of the people who produce and eat it.

To that end, to maintain the ‘Ark of Taste’, the movement has supplied vacumn packing machines to India to market more widely a rare variety of basmati rice. Globalization has made us aware of other food cultures but it has also endangered local food cultures as well. And as Petrini emphasizes, when a food culture is threatened, a whole life style is endangered.

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