Raisin farmers meet yak herders? Must be the Slow Food fête.
BRA, ITALY — Sometimes even the most deeply held principles yield to the needs of the moment.
For nearly two decades, disciples of the Slow Food movement have preached the virtues of taking reflective pleasure in authentic, wholesome food and drink prepared with integrity and environmental sensitivity.
But this week, as they scrambled in this sleepy northern Italian town to pull off their most ambitious week of events ever, Slow Food organizers scarfed down take-out pizza with all the abandon of late-night campaign staffers.
To blame for this alimentary blasphemy is the pressure of hosting both the movement's biennial foodie festival, the Taste Fair, which opens its doors Thursday in nearby Turin to an expected 150,000 visitors, and another gathering of 4,000 small food producers that will run concurrently.
Slow Food welcomed the first students this month to the world's only University of Gastronomy. And movement founder Carlo Petrini is featured in Time magazine's new "European Heroes" edition, which sparked a fresh wave of curious phone calls.
With 80,000 members in 80 countries, Slow Food has hit the international big time.
Not bad for a bunch of Epicurean Italians who initially rallied to protest the opening of a McDonald's at the foot of Rome's Spanish Steps.
Mr. Petrini, who exudes an engaging zeal, "has changed the way we think about food," wrote top French chef Alain Ducasse in the citation for Time magazine's award.
The key to that change, says Petrini, has been his bid to rescue the concept of gastronomy from the gluttonous ghetto of self-indulgence, marry it with environmental responsibility, and put "eco-gastronomy" at the heart of the food chain.
"Television, magazines, and newspapers in the West are full of gastronomy, recipes and chefs. It is almost pornographic," Petrini snorts. "Being a gastronome in a classical way is stupid. You cannot develop food culture without respecting the environment."
Not that Petrini has become a tofu and bean-sprout ascetic. The old hedonism shows through when he insists that "pleasure is a physiological need, not the quasi-sin that Catholics and Puritans have made of it."
But the agro-industrial logic of multinational food companies homogenizes taste and crowds out unusual, interesting, and traditional foods, he argues.
True gastronomes have to stand up in the defense of biodiversity and small farmers if they want to go on finding good things to eat.
Slow Food has taken up that battle, saving traditional skills from extinction with projects to protect rare food and wine breeds, from raw milk farmstead cheeses and Cape May oysters in America to pistachio nuts in Sicily and a threatened variety of rice in Malaysia.
"Terra Madre," a meeting that begins Wednesday of over 4,000 small, traditional food producers, takes this movement in a new direction, putting farmers in touch with each other to exchange ideas and experiences.
Afghan raisin farmers will mingle with American maple syrup producers, and yak herders from Kyrgyzstan will have the chance to bump into Ghanaian fish smokers. "These are people on the front line in the defense of biodiversity" says Petrini. "They will go home saying to themselves 'I may live in a village lost in the forest, but I am part of a planet-wide community.' That will be good for their self-esteem and their pride."
Holistic education is also the goal of Slow Food's most ambitious project: the University of Gastronomic Sciences.
Housed in the neo-Gothic splendor of a former royal palace outside Bra, the University opened two weeks ago to 72 students who will learn about food and drink from every possible angle, subjecting them to intellectual rigor normally associated with traditional academic subjects.
"Food is one of the few things we cannot do without, and it is truly incredible that such an important feature of our lives ... has never acquired academic recognition," says Petrini.
"Using the raw materials, and visiting the places they come from, the university will teach all the stages things go through before they reach the table," explains Vittorio Manganelli, the Chancellor.
The curriculum, approved by the Italian ministry of education, is varied. Students will study subjects ranging from food sanitation to gastronomic tourism; from sensory evaluation to the sociology of consumption; from the semiotics of food iconography to chemistry.
They will also conduct fieldwork, visiting food and wine producers all over the world. Their first trip, for example, which is part of the "cured meats" module, will be to the Italian city of Parma, where students will examine the production of the region's famed ham.
Courses will be taught largely by visiting professors. Among the staff will be Alice Waters, founder of the legendary restaurant Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., and Eric Schlosser, author of the best selling "Fast Food Nation."
Mr. Manganelli expects that graduating students will be in wide demand in the food industry as critics, and in government departments setting food policy.
The students, half from Italy and half from the rest of the world, have a broad range of reasons for wanting to spend $23,000 a year to become the world's first professional gastronomes.
Sam Santomauro, from Brooklyn, has a very simple motive: for generations his family has owned a store selling fine Italian produce in Manhattan's Little Italy. He says he intends "to absorb as much information as possible to take my family business to the next level.
"We definitely share the Slow Food way of thinking, and to apply this knowledge to our business is more than I could have hoped for," he adds.
Sarah Clark, who has just finished her first degree in Italian, has a broader goal in mind. "The food situation in America is a little grim right now," she says. "Lots of people have lost contact with food and where it comes from. I want to change the way people look at food, and play an active part in bringing it down to a human scale."
Former philosophy student Michael Opalenski says he is impressed by the philosophical approach to food that his coursework takes (as well as by the four-course lunches the students enjoy each day). "We are all becoming this new profession, the gastronomer," he says. "Quite what that is, we will discover, because we are the first to embark on it."
Whatever a "professional gastronomer" turns out to be, the Petrini model is bound raise students' gazes well beyond the cheese board. "You cannot stand up to the arrogance of multinational power without a broad vision," the Slow Food founder insists. "I'm for concrete utopias: he who harvests utopia reaps reality. But slowly."