Food. For some people, it’s just the body’s fuel. For others, it’s an event’s flair. People woof it down, lay it out, freeze it up and pile it on.
They drain its fat, count its calories, watch its servings and fret over its partially hydrogenated soybean oils. And at the end of the day, almost two-thirds of American adults will be classified as clinically overweight or obese by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
That statistic is just one of a smorgasbord of facts and figures about the stuff we put in our mouths. Food is so elemental to human life, any discussion of it seems anemic—but still important.
When a backlash against “eating on the run” calls for a return to sit-down meals, what’s a body to do? Even sounding the alarm about food’s supposed declining role in American culture seems premature to some.
“We want to promote stewardship of the land and local, regional foods,” Angela Wotton, assistant director of Slow Food USA, told EthicsDaily.com by phone from New York.
The Slow Food movement started in Italy in 1986 as a reaction to increasing “standardization” of food and taste. Slow Foodies (as followers call themselves) dedicated themselves to preserving gastronomic traditions. The movement has grown steadily.
“Our philosophy is that we’re an educational, international organization,” Wotton said. “We try to educate people about the traceability of food from source to table. We are promoters of sustainable agriculture. We’re defining ourselves now as an eco-gastronomic organization.”
The U.S. office of Slow Food has been open for more than three years. Slow Food USA began with about 2,000 members and now counts more than 10,000 followers. It has 110 convivia, or local chapters.
“The emphasis is on pleasure,” Wotton said. “It’s all about taste and taking the time to have dinner with family and friends.”
And having dinner with family and friends is more than just a nice thing to do every now and then. It’s also a form of artistic expression—folk art, if you will.
“Food is an artistic impulse that we overlook because of the mundaneness of it,” said Michael Ann Williams, professor of folk studies at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green.
Williams teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in foodways, in which students look at the intersection of food and culture. Part of this examination involves understanding how we use food to define ourselves.
When Williams bumped into one of her former students not long ago in the cafeteria, the student told her, “I’ve never been able to think of food the same way.”
“People think of food as a trivial thing to study in an academic context,” she said, “but food operates on a lot of different levels.”
So statistics about the “portable food industry”—which the St. Petersburg Times reported is a $1-trillion industry—don’t alarm Williams, at least not from a cultural point of view.
“It is important to recognize that tradition is not just in the old ways of doing food,” she told EthicsDaily.com. “We have newly constructed traditions. Fast food themselves have cultural meaning and have cultural traditions themselves.”
So, is Slow Food anti-fast food?
“Yes,” Wotton said. “But we try to stay away from that and not saying it’s good or it’s bad, but it’s another thought process.”
“Take the time and shop at the farmers market or join a CSA,” she said, referring to community supported agriculture, in which people can essentially buy “shares” of crops from local farmers.
“Get to know the people who produce the food,” she said. “It’s about tradition and culture.”
Williams is interested in tradition, food and culture too, though she was careful to say that “food is alive and thriving in various ways and traditions.”
“There’s a lot to be found in all types of food,” she said, suggesting that even McDonald’s can serve a social function similar to town groceries. People gather at both, meet at both, converse at both. Either can be a point for social engagement.
Of course, who profits from food service industries also weighs heavily on some.
“What’s so important, especially when most communities are run by big corporations and you don’t have a choice—I would really like people to stop and think about what they’re eating and where it comes from and who it’s benefiting,” said Wotton.
And as for those portable foods, Wotton said: “Personally, I think it’s gone about as far as it can possibly go. We live in this crazy, fast society that no one has time for anything.”
“I feel like the statistics just get worse and worse and worse,” she said. “Two-thirds of Americans are clinically obese. What does that say? What are we putting in our bodies?”
She thinks the pendulum is swinging back, though.
“I really feel like so many more people are being educated about the importance of what they eat and taking the time and wanting to know where their food comes from,” she said.
That’s what Slow Food—and supporting the local food community—is all about.
“I grew up in northern Maine,” Wotton said. “It’s very much a part of how I grew up. It’s just a natural extension for me. But for younger people today, most don’t grow up that way, which I think is really sad. We’re trying to bring that back.”
But folklorist Williams said: “I’m not sure—in certain contexts—that was ever lost.” She spoke of a recent picnic she attended: a Southern potluck.
“It was food operating in pretty much the same way it has operated for generations, probably,” she said. “I don’t think that the idea of getting together and socializing over a meal is in any danger of disappearing.”
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.