A relatively common theme that comes up in discussions of Slow Food (at least when you’re a member of a Chapter board) is pleasure. People often don’t understand why Slow Food members spend as much time focusing on it as we do, and some suggest that we do so at the expense of other activities (most of which, in one way or another, are instrumental, in the speaker’s or writer’s mind, to Making the World a Better Place.)
The distinction, however appealing on the surface (especially to a nation with Puritanical roots), is illusory. Pleasure for the sake of pleasure is not part of our mission and never has been. Slow Food chose to focus on pleasure for very strategic reasons—precisely because doing so held forth the promise of making the world a better place. Taste education would enhance consumers’ valuation of quality products. The Ark of Taste would put more diverse and delicious foods on our plate, thereby increasing demand for them. These are, appropriately, slow changes to the fundamentals of the market basics that determine how our food system works, and they rely for their success on the mechanism of pleasure.
As it happens, this point has come up in a few conversations recently, and I was debating whether, and how, to articulate a discussion of the strategy of pleasure that I could point people toward, when I was reminded of Michael Pollan’s article in Mother Jones, “Cruising on the Ark of Taste,” and realized that Pollan had already done my work for me. When he was first exposed to Slow Food, Pollan writes,
I thought the whole idea sounded cute. … Slow Foodies were antiquarian connoisseurs, I figured, with about as much to contribute to the debate over the food system as a colloquium of buggy whip fanciers might have to add to the debate over SUVs.
But after tracing the history of the movement and reflecting on the role of pleasure in it, Pollan muses that
Slow Food is mounting a provocative challenge to some stale lefty assumptions about consumption, free trade, and the place (if any) of pleasure in our politics.
In securing a heritage turkey from his local presidium and cooking it for his guests, he illustrates the intimate connection between pleasure and culinary activism:
The leg and thigh meat in particular was delicious: rich, moist, and tender, with a flavor more reminiscent of duck than turkey. Indeed, simply by virtue of having a flavor, this represented a completely different order of turkey. Now I understood what turkey was like before the triumph of the Broad Breasted White, and why eating turkey had once been considered a great treat—heretofore one of the mysteries of life, as far as I could tell. It never occurred to my guests that by enjoying this Narragansett they were in some small way contributing to its survival, but of course they were: The Slow Food presidium in which I was taking part has already succeeded in nearly doubling the world population of heritage turkeys.
It all seemed too good to be true: that eating something this delicious could be a strategy for preserving biodiversity and that the pleasure we took in doing so could itself constitute a small but meaningful political act. For pleasure itself is all but extinct in American environmentalism (not to mention American eating), and pleasure is part of what Slow Food aims to redeem, by demonstrating that, at least when it comes to the politics of food, the best choice is often the tastiest.
So, I thought I’d post the link to the article above as food for thought, and as a reminder: As Thanksgiving approaches—or on any day of the week, any week of the year, for that matter—, remember that, if Carlo Petrini is correct that eating is a political act, every citizen’s duty is to eat well.