For the second time in three days, I drove back and forth, about 4 hours each way, from my home in upstate New York to Manhattan to see and spend time with a person whom I admire. The first time was to see Chef Rene Redzepi at Williams-Sonoma, buy the new Noma book and have him sign it for me. I had told him in Copenhagen that I would make it if I could. Happily, I did. That time was after I got out of work. This time, Saturday morning, I left my home first thing to make it down to see Carlo Petrini, the founder and leader of the International Slow Food movement.
I had met him before, in Naples, Italy during the 3rd International Slow Food Congress in 2003. The Congress happened to coincide with a trip I was taking to the area with my then twelve year old son, Andrew. I had become acquainted with Slow Food only a year earlier when I had taken my eldest son, L.J., then 12, on a culinary trip to my paternal homeland of Sicily. The leader of that trip, Peggy Markel, introduced us t the concept of Slow Food. When I discovered the overlap of our itineraries in Naples it seemed only natural to become a part of it. Meeting people like Pamela Sheldon Johns, Alice Waters, Corby Kummer, Jose Iturriaga de la Fuente, Winona laDuke, Myrtle and Darina Allen and Carlo Petrini amongst many others and hearing their stories was quite inspirational. When we got home, we kept Slow Food as part of a lifestyle and became members, though there was no chapter local to us. When L.J. was a junior in High School , he undertook the significant legwork necessary to start a local chapter. Since he was a minor, an adult was necessary to co-sign the papers with him, so I stepped in. The two of us along with Rocco Verrigni, Pat Sheldon and Kim Feeney as founding members, were then able to get our Slow Food Saratoga Region chapter off the ground.
Earlier this week, I received an email from Ed Yowell, Slow Food USA's Regional Governor for the northeast, saying that Carlo Petrini would be in town and would like to meet with members at Eataly. Attendance would be limited to 25 and complimentary tickets were available on Brown paper Tickets. My timing was good and I managed to pick a couple up. I knew Carlo and Eataly would make a very interesting combination.
We met at 1PM in the back of the store in the kitchen classroom. Petrini was accompanied by Marion Nestle and a translator.The group took seats around the classroom and the meeting started with Petrini asking us to say something about ourselves. As might be expected, the group was full of interesting people, including Nestle, Cesare Casella and others.
Once Petrini heard our stories, he started talking about why he was there, explaining that "America is constantly undergoing great change." Continuing with a quote from Edgar Moran, Petrini stated that
“Every thing needs to start again, but it has all already started.”
Saying that this was absolutely true in the USA, he noted that the movement is continuing to grow and transform. Transformation, according to Petrini, "comes from the grass roots and is much more important than revolution." Change from transformation may be as radical as revolution, but "transformation respects life, tradition & memory"… a kind of metamorphosis as in nature similar to when an ugly chrysalis becomes a lovely butterfly. "I feel this growing energy whenever I come back to the USA."
"As a movement," he continued in an animated fashion speaking of the value of Slow Food's Terra Madre gatherings, "we have to reconcile science with traditional knowledge… and to establish a dialogue between the two… because the level of knowledge in science is high and that of traditional knowledge is low… so there is no dialogue… dialogue must be between equals." According to Petrini, this realization borne from Terra Madre changed Slow Food, so that it was no longer just an association of gourmets, an elitist movement. "Terra Madre has brought everything back to earth." Petrini noted that Terra Madre is everywhere, 163 countries, rich & poor countries alike. According to Petrini, "all those who attended Terra Madre are back in their home countries working". As an example, he cited the story of a cook from Rio De Janeiro who went home from Terra Madre and built a school for the children of the favelas (slums) to teach them how to cook manioc root. To date, over 17000 children have gone through that school and now have some sense as to how to cook a staple meal. He asked, "So what is the impact?" and answered, "Self esteem is the best thing people can get from Terra Madre." This "can really push people… a simple African farmer can come to Terra Madre and realize that he is not alone, he can realize that there are much bigger things… now with renewed self-esteem goes back & works even harder – the realpolitik…not that from professional politicians, but that from the grass-roots. Like a snail that goes on and on and keeps growing."
Continuing to discuss Terra Madre, but switching gears to describe the approach to the upcoming summit, Petrini, stated, "We deal with agriculture and food, but not in a specialist way, because food is life." The first Terra Madre was designed only for farmers, the 2nd also included chefs and then the third added musicians and youth. The upcoming Terra madre will be focusing on indigenous peoples and the over 2000 languages that are at risk of disappearing, a significant part of culture. To safeguard biodiversity, Petrini opined with great conviction, "we must safeguard all biodiversity including cultures and languages." For example, the tools used to describe traditional farming practices all over the world are described in indigenous, local languages. If the languages are lost, so will be much of the knowledge held within them. This year at Terra Madre "there will be no politicians, only indigenous peoples speaking in their ancestral languages." He added, "The message must be clear… we will draw up a document to deliver to governments all over the world." He outlined this year’s goal to be "the construction of 1000 gardens in Africa in 1 year’s time with all the communities involved. . no missionaries…. The Africans will create the gardens." Petrini noted, "African Terra Madre communities will be in charge of the gardens," adding "we will just need to give them a hand." He described the plan as "A message of the real fraternity of Terra Madre…. Just a small thing, but many small things can actually bring change."
Petrini, moving on with the audience in rapt attention, listening to every word of this charismatic man,, stated, "Another important idea is to build a seed-bank of memories. All 1700 Slow Food chapters around the world shall fill the bank with memories and experiences of old farmers and artisans to create a common heritage for everyone to safeguard the memory of traditional knowledge…even farmers & old cooks are wise and intellectual… take the camera & film them… we need to gather this traditional knowledge all over the world… in different languages and contexts." With many heads nodding in agreement, Petrini smiled and continued to his next agenda item.
Surprising most, if not all of the people in the room, Petrini, announced his intention to hold the next International Slow Food Congress next year NYC, noting "We need a big hand to accomplish this. NYC is a very big city… our message must be conveyed in the cities as well as the countryside." It was clear that while the intent is there, this will be a tall order to fill in just over a year's time. Can it actually happen in that time frame? Exciting if it can. Petrini added, "The time has come to have Terra Madre … now is the right time in the US to seize the opportunity… a message from the USA is a message to the whole world. Right now the Slow Food movement is very strong in the US and there is much interest at the world level at what happens here. NYC would be the right choice."
He apologized for not speaking English, blaming his old teacher, who he said, "didn’t do a good job."
Shifting gears yet again, Petrini, discussed what he feels to be the pillars of the Sloe Food Movement, stating, "The first of two strong bases of the movement is 'affective intelligence'." Claiming that the world is "overwhelmed by rational intelligence, but lacking the intelligence of the heart," Petrini said, "Slow Food's’s intelligence is the intelligence of the heart, affective intelligence," adding, "this can convince a lot of people to volunteer." For Petrini, "The second base is 'austere anarchy.'" He described this by saying, "Each chapter (of Slow Food) can do what it likes. (The organization) is not based on a hierarchy." This is true "all over the world," but is a difficult concept to explain to Americans." For Petrini, the word "austere" makes the difference and makes the concept palatable and workable. For him the chapters grow in their own communities and reap their own rewards.
Speaking of the day's hosts, Eataly NYC, Petrini provided some background and history behind the concept, which started in Italy as the brainchild of Oscar Farinetti, an Italian Industrialist and old friend of Petrini. Brought to the US by Mario Batali, and the mother son pair of Lidia and Joe Bastianich, Eataly NYC is managed by Farinetti's son, Nicola. According to Petrini, "The idea behind Eataly is food quality that is fair for everyone…pay producers and farmers, but keep prices reasonable for all, a very difficult thing to do." Whether they can successfully manage that for the long haul remains to be determined. Petrini was excited by the fact that the staff of Eataly is young. The staff(400) has an average age of 30.
With Petrini's meeting come to a close, the group was lead up stairs to a balcony overlooking the store, where we were treated to a lovely, simple meal of mozzarella, salad, pasta and pizza, a satisfying end to a fascinating afternoon. I'm glad I went.