Slow food isn’t just about the most obvious things—fresh food and healthy eating. The slow food movement has many parts. Among them are school lunch reform; the campaign for animal rights and welfare; the campaign against genetically modified crops; the increasing economic importance of organic and locally produced food; efforts to combat obesity and type 2 diabetes; farm bill reform; food safety reform and regulation; farmland preservation; the protection of the environment; the promotion of urban agriculture; the creation of gardens and cooking classes in communities and schools; farm worker rights…all that and more. But does any of this really have anything to do with art?
Well, yes. There are more and more places in the world now where the production of food is, plain and simple, an art. Both the Vermont and California countrysides—and I’m sure most of the countrysides I don’t know—are full of inventive cheese makers, maple syrup producers, wine makers and brewers of beer. Gardeners and truck farmers grow vegetables they’re proud of: nature may have done the bulk of the work, but the seeds were planted by them; they made the compost, tilled the soil and weeded the plot.
And obviously, yes. Cooking is, or at least can be, an art. On the table and in books, food preparation is an art. Some of the best books of recent years have been about food—books by authors like Elizabeth David, Alice Waters, MFK Fisher. And, of course taste, smell and touch are important senses, basic to our experience of life:
When from a long distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised for a long time, like souls, ready to remind us…
—Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past
The appearance of food can be inspiring, and not only because it stimulates the appetite. It just looks wonderful. Think of all the still lifes in oil by painters over the centuries.
I’ve never been especially addicted to candy but oh, it can be beautiful to look at—as much as a new loaf of bread or a home-baked pie, every fruit and every vegetable, every herb and spice. One of the glories of cheese is how it looks. And I could probably make a case for hearing and the crunch of a good, fresh apple….
I know I’m blurring some important distinctions here, those between a Verdi opera and the apple pie my grandmother baked, for example. Nevertheless….
Above all, slow food is important to art because it changes the way we value and understand the world, and therefore the art that interprets and celebrates it.
Writes Michael Pollan in his New York Review of Books review of Janet A. Flammang’s book, The Taste for Civilization: Food, Politics and Civil Society:
In a challenge to second-wave feminists who urged women to get out of the kitchen, Flammang suggests that by denigrating “foodwork—everything involved in putting meals on the family table—we have unthinkingly wrecked one of the nurseries of democracy: the family meal. It is at “the temporary democracy of the table” that children learn the art of conversation and acquire the habits of civiliity—sharing, listening, taking turns, navigating differences, arguing without offending—and it is these habits that are lost when we ear alone and on the run. ‘Civility is not needed when one is by oneself.’
Slow food signals a world where the arts of painting, music making, and writing can be savored.