Slow Food: An Italian movement for relaxed eating finds a mixed reception on college campuses


On the evening of Monday, April 14, forty students crowded into the Resident Masters’ apartment at the University of Chicago’s Shoreland Hall dormitory. They were there for dinner and a discussion, both centered around the concept of Slow Food. Resident Masters Larry and Penelope Rothfield made sure to buy organic, whole-grain ingredients from Whole Foods, and Larry cooked, serving a menu that included asparagus and parmesan quiche and farro and wheatberry salad. After the dinner, three representatives from Slow Food Chicago had the chance to speak and field questions from students about the nature of their movement, which supports food it regards as “good, clean, and fair.”

Slow Food is the antithesis of fast food: whereas one is scarfed down on the go, the other is savored around a table of friends; while one is mass-produced using the cheapest suppliers, the other is prepared with care and a preference for high-quality, sustainable ingredients. According to its website, Slow Food seeks to “protect the heritage of food, tradition, and culture” that make the pleasure of good food possible. This principle is exemplified in the “Ark of Taste,” an effort to preserve local culinary traditions that are in danger of being forgotten or regulated out of existence.

The Slow Food movement can trace its roots to the Italian Communist Party. It was there that the culinary movement’s founder, Carlo Petrini, first became concerned about the loss of cultural cuisines while working as a food and wine journalist for communist newspapers in the late 1970s. This led him to form a group called ArciGola, a predecessor to Slow Food. By 1986, when McDonald’s opened its first location in Italy next to the Spanish Steps in Rome, Petrini was ready to launch a movement. The “Slow Food Manifesto” was signed three years later by delegates from twenty countries, and today the organization boasts 83,000 members.

Which brings us to Chicago, where the local convivium (their word for branch or chapter, derived from their principle of “conviviality”) is trying to raise interest amongst the college crowd. They found a willing accessory in Penelope Rothfield, who thinks a Slow Food group on campus might help improve dining options. “I hate the food in the dining halls,” she said, expressing a sentiment shared by a sizable number of UofC students. More than seventy people signed up to attend the dinner–far more than their apartment could hold–seeming to indicate a great deal of interest in a campus convivium. However, a student must be willing to lead the effort to start one, and, as Rothfield explains, “Students all love the idea, but nobody wants to take the first step.”

The reasons for their reluctance may be more complicated than laziness, however. Third-year undergraduate Caroline Ouwerkerk became interested in food after taking a course called “Anthropology of Food and Cuisine” during her first year. Since then, she has become very involved in Slow Food Chicago, to the point of recently joining their board. Nonetheless, she has serious reservations about the organization, particularly in regards to introducing it to the UofC. “Slow Food is dedicated to the pleasures of food,” she said. “I don’t think students would be receptive to something that is entirely hedonistic.” Other obstacles include the ever-present limitations of time and money. According to Ouwerkerk, the organization’s current demographic is a far cry from the average cash-strapped college student, and even further from many other residents of the South Side: “The vast majority are age 45 to 55, upper-middle class white people with money to burn.”

Indeed, the Slow Food movement constantly has to fend off criticisms of elitism. As Ouwerkerk states, “You need money in order to make these kind of decisions. If you have $5, and you can buy five hamburgers or one salad, you’re going to buy the hamburgers. If you’re a busy mom, you may not have the time or the luxury to buy organic ingredients and cook them.” Much of her ambivalence about the movement stems from its lack of “a social justice component,” which she sees as being necessary to make it relevant to students and to the greater Chicago community. As the coordinator of the University’s Community Service Leadership Training Corps, Ouwerkerk is probably more concerned with social justice than the average UofC student, but it goes hand in hand with the subject of food when the discussion takes place on the South Side. Here, many neighborhoods are so-called “food deserts”: the nearest grocery store can be miles away, making it difficult to access fresh fruits and vegetables, and local, organic produce is even harder to find and to afford.

Unfortunately for the Rothfields and their guests, the board members who came to the dinner were unable to address these issues or explain why they are “not just a group of wealthy people who get together to have dinner,” according to attendee Emma Boast. “A lot of people had a lot of interesting questions about the elitism perceived to go along with Slow Food, but they evaded them–they didn’t answer at all. It was a little disappointing.” Ms. Rothfield had the same impression of two of the speakers, whom she felt “really missed an opportunity” due to their lack of preparation for the students’ questioning. Still, many came away with a fairly good impression of Slow Food Chicago, its principles, and its initiatives, such as the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Italy. “I think a lot of people already knew what Slow Food is about, and students were able to overlook a lot of things,” says Ms. Rothfield.

Bob Pallotta, the president of Slow Food Chicago, believes that its programs and events live up to the organization’s stated commitment to inclusiveness. In addition to the Ark of Taste, it provides a farm intern program and has helped establish a farmer’s market in Bronzeville and an elementary school garden in Evanston (“Not exactly a needy population,” Ouwerkerk said of the latter.) Mostly, though, Pallotta emphasizes Slow Food’s status as “a movement, not a cause.” “If we can educate people–let them taste a pear picked ripe off the tree, rather than one grown in South America–we can get them concerned about where their food comes from. Our goal is to change food systems, but it will not happen overnight.”

In the service of this long-term mission, Slow Food Chicago raises money: it charges $60 membership dues and hosts dinners with similar prices per person. It also sponsors less expensive awareness-raising events, such as tours of ethnic food markets and mushroom hunts. “It’s easier for the average person to be involved than if we were to be cause-related,” Pallotta says of Slow Food’s status as a movement. “More people can become members and make contributions. They can vote with their money by coming to events, which we can then channel into broader improvements.” Those might include greater support for local farmers or, as his food consulting company Tonic offers, “better food strategies” for food managers, distributors, and growers.

Slow Food Chicago is currently encouraging colleges around the city to found their own convivia. The UofC’s response has been better than DePaul’s, Pallotta says, but he acknowledges that starting one here presents a unique challenge: “It’s got to have a purpose–a meaning outside the campus, in the neighboring community.” If Ouwerkerk had her way, the entire Slow Food movement would work toward this greater purpose; her new position on the board may help her to make this change. “It’s really important for it to become a more egalitarian concept,” she says. In the meantime, though, Chicago’s Slow Food movement is really just about eating good food. As Pallotta says, “We try to keep it on the pleasure level.”

Photo by Lisa Bang

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