May 13, 2008

The Weary Epicurean—May 13, 2008

Robin Peterson of the Chicago Weekly recently commented on the rather cool reception by American college students of the popular food movement commonly known as Slow Food. Apparently, many students at the University of Chicago find the idea of cooking one’s own meals from natural ingredients and eating them slowly in the company of friends and family “elitist.” One student at a recent Slow Food event complained that Slow Food dinners, in which like-minded lovers of best-quality produce lovingly crafted a meal according to the dictates of a beautiful, highly traditional cuisine, are “just a group of wealthy people who got together to eat dinner.” Right. And the Algonquin Round Table was just a group of wealthy people who got together to drink gin.

Slow Food is manifestly not elitist, despite its European pretension and unwavering commitment to excellence. Slow Food is about understanding food as living culture that must be nurtured. It sees fast food as an imperialistic, monolithic enterprise, seeking to standardize the food chain from cornfield to burger patty for the sake of profits—which it is. It encourages people actively to resist this process by preserving their cultural heritage in the form of family recipes, local vegetable varieties, and so on.

This cultural heritage, Slow Foodies believe, is valuable. Preserving this heritage is worth money, time and care—mostly time and care, by the way. It’s usually cheaper to cook at home than to eat fast, even if you buy higher quality ingredients.

Obviously. If the charge that Slow Food is elitist is based entirely on material costs, it hasn’t got a leg to stand on. As Michael Pollan points out in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, the average American spends only five percent of their income each year on food. So even a 50-percent increase in your food budget isn’t exactly Cristal and spinnin’ rims.

No, I think the elitism charge comes from a much deeper, darker place in the American psyche than mere wealth-hating populism. The truth is, by and large, we resent people with intact cultural traditions, including culinary ones. In Italy, Slow Food is a very easy, popular message to preach politically, since almost everyone has a family kitchen to return to and a grandmother with recipes. But in the United States, having an intact culinary tradition generally means you’re still a little foreign. Dwelling on the significance of your intact culinary tradition, well now—that’s just arrogant!

It is true, however, that asking Chicagoans to “buy local” is futile, and getting mad at them for not buying local is just plain mean. The vast majority of the “fresh” produce in this city is trucked for thousands of miles to get here; that’s just a fact. Also, asking college students to cook meals together for more than an hour a day is rather ambitious. My roommates and I do—when it’s not exams week, anyway—and we love it, but it’s obviously a little uncommon.

We’re just not at the Slow Food level, yet, I don’t think. If Maslow had made a hierarchy of food-needs, with Slow Food fulfillment at the top and malnutrition at the bottom, we’d be a lot closer to the bottom than the top. There’s no way we’re going to move all the way to the front of the line over night.

So what can we Midwestern college students learn from Slow Food? I call it the “buy better tuna fish” strategy. When I was growing up, either my dad or my mom would shop. Dad would buy whatever tuna fish was on sale, and mom would splurge the extra 30 cents to buy Bumble Bee Tuna packed in oil. Recently I’ve been entirely converted to Cento Tuna, which I like better because they pack it in olive oil—it’s also 10 or 20 cents cheaper a can. That’s a baby step.

Another baby step is to start examining every fruit and vegetable you buy. If you squeeze every avocado lightly before you buy it, by the twentieth avocado you buy, you know how to pick a good avocado. And if they don’t have good ones, you eventually just buy something else. If you find a store with consistently fresh, good quality produce, make a point of shopping there regularly: baby steps. It’s not a food revolution, but it does start to affect the economics of supermarket ownership, and it does start to educate your tongue. Refuse to be standardized, and the market will adapt to your tastes.