SAN FRANCISCO — No doubt you've heard the saying that some people eat to live. Carlo Petrini lives to eat.
To this Italian Renaissance man of haute cuisine, food and wine are more than mere sustenance. They are a way of life, and a philosophical statement. Not to mention the focal point of a budding society.
Petrini, visiting the United States recently, spoke more of sociology than food and wine when explaining his current fascination with what he calls Slow Food.
Slow Food is capitalized to show that it is, in fact, an international movement, not mere counterpoint to the fast food craze that has millions of Americans eating on the run.
As a formal idea for the last decade of the century, Slow Food (cucina lenta, in Italian) has as its mascot the snail.
"Escargot," said the bearded Petrini with a wink.
Petrini is a wine and food writer and founder of Arcigola, an association formed in Italy to promote good dining and drinking. It is the progenitor of Slow Food, but Arcigola will be abandoned by the end of the year as Slow Food takes its place.
The idea, he says, is to focus on the historical and cultural impact of food on society, and to explore such topics as why fast food has become popular and why it leads to a destruction of our cultural heritage. And what can be done about it. In the midst of this discussion, Petrini uses terms like gastrophobia.
"We oppose the creation of a standardized type of food," said Petrini, referring specifically to the ubiquitous American hamburger that has swept Europe in the last decade.
"We want people to respect the gastronomic culture of an area, the regional cuisine. The real danger is that standardization will eventually kill local cooking. And wine, of course, is an integral part of regional cuisine."
But there are other reasons Slow Food exists. Petrini is eager to elucidate:
"Philosophically, we are against the culture of fastness. We should eat slowly. We should strive to attain the pleasures that can be found in eating over a longer period of time, savoring our food, instead of eating a sandwich in 10 minutes.
"Think of the psychological damage, the managerial damage, the damage to our interpersonal relationships."
Petrini also is worried about how standardization of food could lead to a homogeneity of cultures, and he says this struck him most forcefully in 1987 when a McDonald's first opened in the Piazza Navona in Rome.
"There was a lot of public opinion that this was an invasion of a historical region, in one of the most beautiful sections of the city." He led a public protest against McDonald's, he said. "Some people saw (his protest) as a joke, but we argued against it with Slow Food."
He said the pace of life is getting too fast worldwide, and this demand for fast food is actually causing problems ecologically as well as psychologically.
He said, for instance, that in Morocco the demand for hamburgers has hurt the mutton industry. Also, he said, great demand for burgers has caused destruction of the Brazilian rain forest as fast food chains seek cheaper sources of beef. Rain forest land is cleared for ranchland to graze cattle.
"When these deforested places are worked out, we will see even more ecological dis-equilibrium," he said.
"We are not Don Quixotes, tilting at windmills," said Petrini. "We are just trying to act as a counterbalance to the concept of fast food that ignores people."
He said the Slow Food movement sounds serious, but it's really all about conviviality, and, "frankly, the Slow Food movement has taken hold faster than I like."
Within the last few weeks, word-of-mouth about the organization has spread rapidly and in Italy alone there are 165 chapters--though the United States head of Slow Food, Flavio Accornero, dislikes the term chapter. He prefers to call each local group a convivium, a word denoting the joy of the gatherings.
Accornero, a wine merchant from Deer Park, N.Y., said that in addition to Slow Food conviviums in 27 countries, six have already been established in New York and others in San Francisco and Sacramento.
Accornero said the U.S. branch of Slow Food, which recently acquired nonprofit status, will "respect the synchronization of the different cultures we have here," and at the same time give recognition "to restaurants that maintain the philosophy of Slow Food--of doing their own cooking of their own regional dishes and respecting their traditions."
He said this could even mean recognizing a great U.S.-based French restaurant if it is true to the ideals of Slow Food.
"We have international goals, of course, but in the United States we have national goals, and one of the primary things we want to do is work on the image of American cuisine and wine," he said. "For us wine and food are an inseparable thing. And we know that American food is not just Coke and McDonald's, the way so many people think, and we have to educate people to what dining is.