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Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini at the Terra Madre Salone del Gusto 2016 with (from right to left) Sergio Valentim (Mozambico), Djoko Prakoso Soedarman (Indonesia), Samuel Tipa Padan (Indonesia), Awa Thiandoume (Senegal) (Photo by Alessandro Vargiu)

A Q&A with Carlo Petrini, the Founder of Slow Food

With Slow Food Nations taking place in Denver next weekend, we sat down with Carlo Petrini to learn more about the movement and the man behind it.

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Slow Food is an agricultural and culinary movement that has shown the world that—in the face of encroaching multinational corporations and the expansion of fast, processed foods—there is still space for what is intentional and unique. Since its founding in 1986 by Italian writer Carlo Petrini and other local activists, the Slow Food organization has grown to over 1,500 global chapters, 150 of which are part of Slow Food USA, the organizer of next week’s three-day extravaganza of a food festival, Slow Food Nations (July 19 – 21), which takes place across downtown Denver.

Petrini created Slow Food in response to the opening of a McDonald’s in Rome’s Piazza di Spagna. This event, he and his colleagues surmised, revealed a shift in priorities around food: quantity at any cost and a push for cheap, industrialized fare that was anathema to Italian culture. They took a stand on the Spanish Steps, passing out steaming bowls of pasta as symbols of protest, proclaiming, “We don’t want fast food. We want slow food!”

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Journalist and author Simran Sethi recently sat down with Petrini in his sunlit office in Pollenzo, Italy, to reflect on the 33-year-old organization’s tenet of fostering food that is “good, clean, and fair” for all.

Simran Sethi: Do you have to cook or grow food to participate in Slow Food—or to help build a just food system?
Carlo Petrini: No. What is important is understanding food. Even if I don’t cultivate, grow food, or cook, in choosing what I eat, I influence this system. According to what I choose, I can help a community—or a corporation.

SS: After all these years, what fuels your commitment to food?
CP: My relationship with food has changed a lot. In the past, it was something related with pleasure—with conviviality and sharing. Later on, I grew more interested in the connection between food, policy, and the cultural vision surrounding food. This changed my relationship with food completely: from conviviality to awareness of food as a social tool.

SS: Do you cook?
CP: Not regularly, and I make a lot of chaos when I do! But I pay a lot of attention to who produces my food.

SS: It’s refreshing to hear someone like you say that there are many ways to engage.
CP: There is space for all. It is a right for all to be a part of this movement.

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SS: Do you think that the principles on which Slow Food was founded—“good, clean, and fair”—should have equal weight within the organization, or should there should be some hierarchy?
CP: All three [tenets] are important. They keep together the pleasure of eating, plus the responsibility. This is the strength of the philosophy of “good, clean, fair.”

SS: What about conviviality? Pleasure and joy are part of the Slow Food Manifesto. Do you still feel these ideals should be a central part of Slow Food moving forward?
CP: Yes. It is the principal mission, but now we are linked with people who don’t have access to these kinds of pleasure. People who don’t have access to food and water. They are a huge part of the population. This is also our concern.

SS: You often speak and write about inclusion. How can we not only bring more people to the table, but ensure their voices are heard, respected, and acted upon?
CP: Every one of us can be a protagonist of change. But if we each start to put into practice the idea [of inclusion], we will create awareness and see that the collective power is stronger than our individual one.
This is why we are giving a lot of importance to communities now: communities of producers, educators, and young people who want change.

SS: I’ve asked Slow Food leaders on four continents, “What would people be surprised to know about Carlo Petrini?” The response from Richard McCarthy, the former director of Slow Food USA, stood out: He said your culinary needs are quite simple, and conversations around your table aren’t actually about food.
CP: I am like this. I love simple food, simple things. In the conversation, there is an obesity. Everyone speaks about food—on television, in media—they speak about food for food. But if it’s only functional food—food as only an object—then it’s food pornography. We in Slow Food speak about food for humanity. Food should be a loving act.

If you go: Slow Food Nations (July 19–21) is a three-day festival in downtown Denver during which tens of thousands of chefs, farmers, ranchers, activists, educators, and regular old foodies convene to celebrate and learn more about the Slow Food mission. There are a multitude of free and ticketed parties, seminars, workshops, and tastings throughout the weekend; check out the full schedule here.

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