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February 24, 2003

Free Reads -- Corby Kummer on Slow Food

Friedrich --

As long as I'm crashing around The Atlantic's site...

Here's a good long q&a with The Atlantic's tiptop food writer Corby Kummer, who recently published a lavish book about the Slow Food movement (buyable here). Have you heard of Slow Food? Begun in Italy, it's a worldwide network of people devoted to artisanal food -- home-made cheeses, by-the-case wines, "heritage" poultry, etc. Slow down, take your time, sink into things, recover the good old qualities, savor life ... That's the general idea. Kind of the equivalent in the field of food to what the New Urbanism is in architecture, and just as admirably entrepreneurial.

Sample passage:

Europeans are pretty much converted already. In Europe almost everyone has memories going back over generations of food with actual flavor, food that's carefully raised. So Slow Food has appealed not just to rich people who like better things but to pretty much everybody who knows that there was once actually good food...

There's a real problem with Slow Food in America, and it's this: we don't have that memory bred into us, so it's still a movement of the elite...Generally, once people taste eggs, cheese, barbecue, beer, bread, that has real flavor, they understand that this is something they'd like to have again, and that might be better than what they're having every day. But you have to organize events that will reach a wide range of people and give them something for a really reasonable cost. Or else they're not going to try it, and they're not going to know it, and it's going to seem like an elitist movement.

I'm all for Slow Food even if, like the New Urbanism, it sometimes shades into yuppie-Volvo do-goodism. It's a little like the old Arts and Crafts movement, organizing and promoting, and helping a decent number of people take note of what's around them and start to appreciate quality of life issues.

The q&a with Kummer reminds me of a blog posting I may never get around to writing, which is on this topic: that of all the high-end art forms these days in this country, the one that's in the best shape is cooking. I'm not much of a foodie myself, but The Wife is. So I've tagged along to an amazing number of amazing meals and have this to report: there are a lot of brilliant high-end cooks and kitchens at work these days. It wasn't all that many decades ago that good eating was in very short supply in this country. Today, you can do pretty well for yourself in many places, and superlatively well in quite a few. That's quite a change.

How has this happened? Heaven praise Julia Child and Alice Waters, of course. But other elements have fallen into place too: look at the good craft-and-trade-oriented schools, for instance. Places like the French Culinary Institute and the CIA turn out class after class of well-trained grads. Look at the quality of the journalism about the topic, and the quality of the books published about it; there are lots of smart, appreciative, knowledgeable writers (such as Corby Kummer), editors, photographers and designers pitching in. The Food Network is entertaining and alluring, and does more than its part; even its most basic shows are good enough to help middle-of-the-road cooks class up their meals a little. Look at the way cooking has become a hobby and pleasure for so many people, and at how much greater a range of material and ingredients is available these days. Even in my native Western New York, a true culinary wasteland where the restaurants and cooking are as lousy as ever, the grocery chains are pretty impressive. A cook can do well for himself at a Wegman's.

But what really drives the field, I'm convinced, is two things. First, the customers. People like food, and many seem willing to try to broaden their palates. There are real, undeniable, and immediate sensual and aesthetic payoffs to be had for those willing to go to a little extra trouble. (Compare and contrast with much contempo art-world gallery art, which is remarkably short on immediate sensual pleasure.) The second thing is the feedback. It's a great thing for the field that you can't force people to eat what they don't like -- this helps keep the chefs and kitchens in line. (Compare and contrast with the contempo architecture world, where the top people seem offended by the idea that they should serve our needs and pleasures. Instead, they seem determined that we should live up to their buildings.) In a very conservative city, this can be a drag on the chefs, who complain that customers simply won't try new things. But in an adventurous and lively city, the combination of an interested and appreciative clientele, an informed press, and the basic fact that if-they-really-don't-like-it-the-restaurant-will-fail can make for a rewarding scene. A scene, in fact, just like what I wish the poetry and architecture and lit and gallery-art scenes were like...

But I'm getting carried away, which I swore to myself I wouldn't let happen tonight.

The q&a with Kummer is readable here.



posted by Michael at February 24, 2003


You know what? There's a perception that American cuisine has a tradition of blandness going back to time immemorial, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Every early report from Europeans in America praises our intensely flavorful cooking; fruit grown in our virgin soil, for instance, was said to be so full-bodied that even the aroma wouold make European visitors take a step back and reexamine their premises.

Read American cookbooks from the 19th century - Eliza Leslie, Aemilia Simmons, Hannah Glasse ("The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy: Excelling Any Thing of the Kind Ever Yet Published", what a title) - and you'll find that they were slow food before slow food was cool. It was only in the age of refined flours and sugars, industrial canning, and Mr. Birdseye's frozen foods that American food became so damned dull. Other countries didn't industrialize so quickly, so their indiginous cuisines managed to live on into the 20th century.

Check out the book The Taste of America by John and Karen Hess for a fighting manifesto on this subject. "How can we tell our fellow Americans that our palates have been ravaged, that our food is awful, and that our most respected authorities on cookery are poseurs?" they asked in 1977, and it's still a good question today. "The Founding Fathers were as far superior to our present political leaders in the quality of their food as they were in the quality of their prose and of their intelligance." You'll be horrified at some of the stuff James Beard and others were peddling back in the "gourmet" fifties.

Posted by: Brian on February 24, 2003 8:46 AM

Put food in mouth;
Swallow, if not disgusted;
Repeat as desired;
Speed of process can be variable;

Posted by: Jim Eikner on February 24, 2003 9:22 AM

Hi Brian -- Wow, a scholar! Many thanks for the info and tips, fascinating stuff. I'm a fan and a camp follower and have almost no independent expertise myself. But I suspect my foodie friends would make this argument, which I don't think contradicts anything you're saying -- that there came a break with the old traditions, and it lasted for decades, and that all direct connection with the old traditions was lost. So what's needed is to re-forge (or maybe even re-create) the old knowledge and taste, as well as develop and extend new ones. I know this is the argument the new traditionalists in architecture would make, in any case. We once had marvelous architecture and buildings and towns; that modernism destroyed all those traditions of building; and that the time has come to re-create that body of knowledge and practice. Do you buy this argument where food is concerned?

Hey Jim, Those were pretty much my attitudes when I met my wife. But she's a hardcore (and relentless) foodie, and by gosh if she hasn't knocked a little foodie pickiness (or at least food-awareness) into me. But then, she's won so many such battles ....

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 24, 2003 1:31 PM

Oh, a lot of this, like any interest in anything that's expensive, is pearls before swine.

I've known foodies who couldn't tell, by taste or texture, the difference between real veal and eggplant.

Posted by: j.c. on February 24, 2003 1:51 PM

Hey J.C. -- Do you think? We may disagree, but while I'm happy to allow that such factors as "snob appeal" and "the fun of throwing money away" can play substantial roles in this kind of market, as in any art market, I'd find it hard to believe that the entire high-end food business is built on make-believe. As an art market, high-end food is interesting. With conceptual art, for instance, critics and dealers and fads are perfectly capable of intimidating audiences into thinking there's something there. (And, in a few cases, perhaps there is something there.) But food? I really don't think you can force people to eat what they really don't like. At least, not a second time.

I think it's more likely that a fair number of people find that they're getting sufficient value (in terms of pleasure) for the extra money. To me it's something like cars. A Camry's a fine and sufficient car. But a Lexus really is somewhat better, and if I have enough spare dough around, well, why not? And if part of what I'm buying is prestige, sure, but even so, does that mean that the Lexus is nothing but a Camry with snob appeal?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 24, 2003 2:33 PM

Glad you took the idea of snob appeal to the road. Oh, the things I've seen (heard?) white boys do the sensitive transmissions of well-built automobiles.

I think people, in general, like food, and many many people enjoy food. But I can't believe someone who can't tell shit from Shinola is having a meaningful experience buying shoe polish.

Posted by: j.c. on February 24, 2003 5:32 PM

Good point, and vividly put!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 24, 2003 6:26 PM

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