In the 1980s Italy gave the world the slow food movement. Born in 1986 from its predecessor organization, Agricola, it started out as a protest against the opening of a McDonald’s restaurant in Rome’s iconic tourist destination, the Spanish Steps. Carlo Petrini, its founder, had no idea that this limited local protest would explode after only a few years into a global movement, encompassing not only a new awareness of the damaging impacts of fast food, but to a worldview that acknowledged the corrosive nature of modern life. Fast food became a symbol of the chaotic life that we live in our post-globalized world, from the moment we gulp down that first cup of coffee, to the lunch we wolf down at our desks between meetings, to the soul destroying commute on the way home, to the frozen meal heated and popped out of our microwaves.
The founding principles of Petrini’s slow food movement were modest: it aimed to preserve traditional and regional cuisine and encouraged the farming of plants, seeds, and livestock characteristic of the local ecosystem. However, it’s probably not a stretch to say that its birth was not due solely to an idealistic view of life or a new philosophy. More than likely it had to do with maintaining the tourist appeal of one of Rome’s principal attractions. We can easily surmise that Via dei Condotti, the posh shopping haven that leads to the Spanish Steps, is not really “McDonald’s country” and it is doubtful that McDonald’s customers would add to the revenue of the glitzy shops in the area. But let’s not be too cynical, perhaps Petrini did have more noble ideals at heart when he organized that protest.
The fact of the matter is that this modest dissent soon became emblematic of a nostalgia that suggested that at least in the West, we were reaching a point of no return. Civilization and quality of life as we had known them—or at least liked to believe we had known them—was over. Petrini’s slow food movement led to all other kinds of “slow.” We now have slow travel, for example. That is, travel that seeks the opportunity to become part of local life and to connect to a place, its people and its culture. Slow education, whose guiding philosophy is a curriculum whose goals are to connect the student to “knowledge, tradition, moral purpose and all that is important in life”. The wildly successful slow food movement eventually expanded into the Slow Cities, defined as those “that stand up against the fast-lane, homogenised world so often seen in other cities throughout the world. Slow cities have less traffic, less noise, fewer crowds.” Slow money, on the other hand, organizes investors and donors to channel new sources of capital to small food enterprises, organic farms, and local food systems. In short, Petrini’s brainchild today has grown into a hydra-like crusade encompassed by the umbrella term “slow life”. Just as in previous decades the beats and hippies turned their lifestyle of choice into a philosophy of life, the same can be said for the slow food movement.
Of course, to say that Petrini’s protest magically drove the Slow movement is a vast over-simplification. Already in the late 1950s there was a burgeoning movement that promoted a back-to-nature philosophy of life. At first a fringe movement that principally introduced Americans to a macrobiotic diet, it soon grew to incorporate Zen philosophy, and then took off as the counterculture embodied in the hippie movement and the 1968 rebellions. The beatniks of the 1950s and the hippies of the 1960s exhorted the materialistic aspirants to give up the chase after mainstream comfort. In 1966 Timothy Leary encapsulated this rejection of the 1960s rat race in the infamous phrase, “turn on, tune in and drop out.” So, rather than seeing the current anxiety over the frenetic pace of the life we live as being an unprecedented panic, perhaps we should see it as a permanent condition. I seriously doubt that there has ever been an era when people congratulated themselves on the leisurely pace of their lives.
Today the rhetoric continues. Pundits warn us that, “We are not savouring our life and are starving of the real connection to our life.” That stress is literally killing us. “The biological costs of ignoring stress are staggering, manifesting in cardiovascular and other systemic diseases and even, new research shows, in accelerated aging. The psychological costs are equally large with anxiety, depression, eating disorders and other emotional illnesses associated with unmanaged stress.”
The solution that is suggested for our overwrought condition is to live in a “mindful manner”. To be “present,” to live “in the moment,” to pay attention to our bodies, to be aware as our minds experience every moment of life. In short to adopt some of the very principles of that Zen philosophy that became so popular in the 1950s and the famed counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s. Indeed, the macrobiotic diet that started it all is as popular today as it ever has been.
Much advice is given on how to live a slower life. Make the conscious choice to do less, disconnect from your technological devices, spend more time with family and friends, spend more time in nature, and so on. Even more interestingly, learn to eat slow-cooked foods and take more time doing it, appreciating every bite. I have no doubt that as individuals we can change our habits to some small degree, but how many people are willing to take giant steps such as changing their jobs, reducing their income and limiting their children’s opportunities in exchange for more leisure time? Some are willing, of course. But when we consider society as a whole I would venture to guess that the percentage is tiny. It may be merely an illusion, but it seems that in every era thus far we human beings have complained that life has become more and more hectic and uncontrollable.
Rejecting fast food in favor of slow food may be one of the easiest and most significant ways that we can change our lives. Today the movement counts millions of members from more than 1,500 “convivia” (local chapters) in more than 150 countries. The pleasure of cooking a “real meal” and then sharing it with those you love has given rise to dozens of meal-kit companies such as Hello Fresh, and while one of its selling points may be its convenience and the time saved as compared to shopping in a supermarket, at least cooking from a kit beats calling in for a pizza or stopping at McDonald’s. Petrini would be proud.