Eating After the Revolution

sf victory garden

Slow Food Nation will hit San Francisco this weekend. The City’s already fluttering with SFN posters, and the Victory Garden, planted on the land outside City Hall, looks very handsome indeed. To prepare for the jamboree, I thought I’d go back to Carlo Petrini’s book of the same name, and to Geoff Andrews’ new book, The Slow Food Story. Together, these writers offer a corrective to the hoity toity food culture that has become synonymous with the organization. Although it’s often forgotten, Slow Food’s roots are radical.

Slow Food was created by a group of hard-core activists in Piedmont, Italy. They believed the Italian Communist Party had betrayed the working class so systematically that they resorted to ‘extra parliamentary politics’, creating the Democratic Party of Proletarian Unity to pull the left further to the left. They were popular too. Petrini was elected to local government in Bra, Piedmont. When they fell afoul of mainstream politicians, actor Roberto Benigni and playwright Dario Fo were among those who rushed to their side.

Through a number of fights with the leftist establishment in the 1970s and 1980s, Petrini and his comrades found their flaw in Italian socialism. Eurocommunists couldn’t care less if the proletariat were eating cardboard – as long as it was good for them; the young Piedmontese had other ideas. They developed a concept that would propel them to form a movement. The axiom behind Slow Food is this: everyone deserves the right to pleasure.

Slow Food was, very consciously, an anarchic finger in the eye of capitalism. It was a collective sticking out of tongues at the acceleration and isolation of modern life, of which the opening of a McDonalds in Rome was both cause and consequence. But it was also a rejection of Soviet-style conformity. The foundation of Slow Food echoes Emma Goldman’s line ‘I don’t want to join your revolution if I can’t dance’. Petrini and his supporters didn’t want to join the revolution if they couldn’t be sensuous, and if their food couldn’t be good, clean and fair.

This, I like.

But not every foodie wants to take the right to pleasure seriously. Or, worse, they’ll take it seriously for themselves, but not for others. Too often, inside and outside Slow Food, I’ve heard the tastebuds of low income families disparaged, as if a generation had been irretrievably lost to junk-food. It’s why I’ve been particularly taken by an organization working in some of the poorest parts of Oakland, which offers the perfect antidote to this kind of thinking.

Bay Area Community Services runs, among other things, a meals-on-wheels program that weaves through some of the poorest areas of Oakland, serving over 30,000 meals per month. Most clients earn less than $10,000 dollars per year, and most aren’t able to cook for themselves. For years, BACS served mass-produced food, bought from Sysco. Recently, they switched to a farm-to-table approach, sourcing ever-increasing amounts of produce from within 150 miles of the Bay Area, by partnering with the Community Alliance with Family Farmers.

Switching to fresh fruit and vegetables costs more, but not much. The price of microwaveable slop, per meal, was $1.65. With fresh local food, the ingredients cost 5 cents more. Of course, there’s a higher labor cost per plate in putting the meal together, but that’s to be expected – preparing fresh food takes more time and skill than does the reheating of mush.

But the kicker is this. With every meal comes a little envelope, into which people are gently encouraged to place a donation if they can, to help cover costs. In the three months since the farm to table service started, donations have gone up by $20,000 – a 23% increase. This, from the poorest people in the Bay Area, in the middle of the credit crisis.

It’s a fairly straightforward reminder about the necessity of making good, clean and fair food available to everyone. But there’s a deeper lesson too: the reason everyone should enjoy the right to pleasure is because everyone has the capacity for it.