In the movie Kate and Leopold, the dashing Duke of Albany (played by Hugh Jackman), a product of the late nineteenth century English aristocracy, gets quite a shock. He unexpectedly finds himself transported 100 years into the future to Manhattan, and once there, is invited to dinner at his neighbour’s apartment. Kate McKay (played by Meg Ryan) is the neighbour. I suppose stranger things have happened, though for the moment I cannot think of any.
After suffering through a disastrous main course, and being told that there are no further courses on offer, the Duke offers this withering comment:
Kate’s brother shoots back to the Duke
The battle lines are thus drawn. On the one side are moderns who care only marginally about what they eat. A schnitzel that could pass as a door stop, slathered in ketchup is just fine as long as a few frozen vegetables are plopped on the plate as well. On the other side are traditionalists like the Duke, who find poor dining to be barbaric, and people who live with the affliction to be pitied.
We might ask ourselves where we stand in this debate. Are we with the Duke, dedicated to relieving the crudeness of reality by dining properly? Or like Kate McKay, are we too busy to care? Most likely, we would answer yes to both questions. After all, who wants to eat poorly? But modern life bears down hard on us, and we often simply don’t have the time or the inspiration to eat as well as we could or should. Some of us (for God’s sake) even think nothing of dining at MacDonald’s! Heaven knows what the Duke would think of that.
But we might pause to think of other possibilities. For example, what if it were easy and fun to plan and execute recipes that are timed to perfection? What if we could do that as part of our daily routine while still working, and without busting our budgets? What if we could tread fearlessly into the mysterious kitchen in the early evening knowing that wondrous and satisfying creations would flow from our touch? What if we were connected with people from our neighbourhood and from around the world who produce beautiful and exotic foods and flavours? What if we were friends with the owners and chefs of our neighbourhood restaurants so that we could help them develop more fun places to get together? Now that would be something!
The funny thing is that we could live this way, and some of us already do. It just means being part of a community.
Back in 1986 MacDonald’s was about to open a new restaurant near the Spanish Steps in Rome. A group of locals didn’t like it. They weren’t thrilled about the idea of a MacDonald’s at that location, but the problem was deeper than that. It seemed that people were losing touch with the pleasures of enjoying a slow, well prepared meal. Dinner was becoming something to do before or after something, but it was not necessarily an event in itself. Fast food was gaining status as something normal. The group wanted to do something about that. They wanted to start a trend that would re-introduce the idea that sharing food was a significant social event in itself — especially if the food was delicious. And sharing food should be done slowly and gracefully. Instead of wolfing down fast food, the slower the dining was, the better. They formed an NGO called Arcigola to make their point. Some thought it was just Italian crankiness. But in 1989 Arcigola morphed into the Slow Food Movement. The slow food movement started to get publicity. Today, Slow Food is an international body that has over 100,000 members and chapters in 132 countries. Something has happened.
Sure something has happened! One doesn’t need to go to the trouble of joining the Slow Food Movement to realize that these folks are onto something very big. Modern living does tend to push us into the fast lane and in the fast lane. We do have a problem slowing down to appreciate little things, like enjoying a slow cooked meal with family and friends. But isn’t it true that the sum of those little things makes life work living? Wasn’t the Duke of Albany right? Without pleasures like this, the crudeness of reality may become unbearable.
We come to the first major realization — slow food is about finding and treasuring the good life.
In the bad old days, the good life was something that only the rich and famous could aspire to. The good life might be found on great estates in the country that were maintained by small armies of craftsmen. The great chefs were a part of these armies and they tended to work in the great homes of aristocratic families. Quality and recipes timed to perfection suited a style of life where dressing for dinner was a daily event. Cooking was a highly specialized craft, done by those persons who toiled to make the good life possible. Oddly, in those days, no one would have thought that being a chef could offer the good life as well. Cooking was something that someone else did for you. What a pity for them!
This started to change in the last century. The 20th Century democratized the idea of the good life and a vibrant cafe society sprung up. To get a sense of how radical this was, you might watch the classic film Grand Hotel about the era just after the First Great War. In the film, the rich and famous congregate (of course) at the Grand Hotel. Among them is an impostor, played by Lionel Barrymore. Barrymore plays a middle class older gent who pretends to be rich, so that he might spend his last few nickels before he dies just to experience the good life. It was the classic idea. Average people were not supposed to indulge this way. It was scandalous that he would even try.
By the time Hemingway came around, standards were already changing. Among the smart set in his crowd, the good life was something that could be found by anyone who had the courage to try something out of the ordinary, and some knowledge of what was good. Many were cooking as well, like Alice B. Toklas who among other things, made some rather interesting brownies. But notice — you still had to go looking for the good life. It was still an exclusive rather than inclusive sort of thing.
To see this more clearly, consider this description of the good life that Root found in Provence in France (from an article in France Today, by Frank Prial, July 27, 2009)
Notice how you find these magical things somewhere else? And even if you go to the trouble to go there, you also need some knowledge of French to know what they are.
A.J. Liebling offered the same sort of vision of the good life when he wrote about Parisian restaurants of the 1920′s in this classic book Between Meals (published in 1959). Liebling’s good life in Parisian restaurants was out of reach not only because of distance and language. According to Liebling, by the 1950′s it was already too late to find it. He notes sadly that after the 1920′s Parisian restaurants started a long and slow decline. The best years were already behind us. How is that for exclusivity?
Well, even if Parisian restaurants are not what they were, we still nurture hopes to learn how to live the good life. And the idea that knowledge and expertise are critical to living the good life has been with us ever since. From Julia Child and Elizabeth David to the more modern great writers of cook books, we are taught that we have to do special and magical things in the kitchen. It is rather high risk type of warfare that might produce praise if we create something worth eating or scorn if we fail. We are rewarded for our effort only if we are clever enough and rich enough to pay for expensive ingredients. And this is the current state of affairs, with a flood of food blogs all claiming that they can teach you how to do something new — if only you follow the recipe exactly and buy the right ingredients. The same is true for celebrity chefs who explain to us on television how to make this or that dish.
Don’t get me wrong, this is all valuable information. At the same time, there is something missing here. When I buy a cookbook, I am buying a generic product. The writer might live in Paris or Rome or New York. But that writer knows nothing about me or where I am. He or she is not inviting me into a community of friends where we learn together. To the contrary, there is no community.
This idea, that the good life, including eating well is a matter of community has come to us much more recently.
One of the first things slow food advocates started to realize is how gigantic the food business actually is. Food products are made, bought and sold over a huge international network. This is nice in a way. In northern climates, we can get veggies and fruits from the south all year round. At the same time there is a down side. In this system we are just faceless consumers rather than participants. As consumers, we have to fight just to know where the food comes from in our food markets and what is in it. This loss of control has bothered foodies for several reasons.
First are matters of quality. The less I know about how foods are produced, the less I know whether the item I have in my hand is what it should be. No one is around in the store to tell us the difference between farmed salmon and wild salmon. No one explains why Parma ham is may be more expensive than local ham, or what is good about it. And on and on. The business of selling food is about making it look good in the shop —- not necessarily about educating buyers about what they are buying. Some people thought it was time to assert more control over quality.
There is also a matter of ethics. BTW, if ethics doesn’t interest you, no problem, skip on to the next paragraph. When we are cut off from all information about food production, we have no way to know how food is actually produced. As a result, food processing business can cut corners in numerous ways — ways that may be unethical. They may not pay much care about how animals are raised and slaughtered. They may not share with us what types of pesticides are used in growing vegetables and fruits. They may wish to keep quiet what types of unhealthy preservative agents are used in prepared foods so that those products look better and can sit longer on the shelf. Over time (for example after the spread of mad cow disease) we have learned that the food industry has its own interests at heart, and ours only secondarily at best. This will only change if we assert more control over what we buy.
There is also the matter of pleasure. Even setting aside quality and ethics issues, it is not much fun to walk around a supermarket without knowing very much about the food you are buying. Who made it? Why did they make it that way? What is the best way to use it? It seems like a supermarket offers a huge selection of items. But in fact, we end up buying the same things over and over again for lack of knowledge and inspiration. We are not on an even level to know what is going on, and this is just not that much fun.
In response to the above concerns, a second movement sprouted up that is connected to the Slow Food Movement. It is called the Locavore Movement. Locavores are people who prefer, to the extent possible, to eat things that are produced locally. If you eat local, you have a better chance to break out of the consumer mould, and get to know more about the people who make the food that you eat and how they make it. You get to be part of a community. You are moving out of the exclusive good life model and into the inclusive model.
The locavore movement wants to re-establish the link between food buyers and farmers. By the way, this is good for both buyers and farmers. Farming is a high risk business. Farmers have to pay out a lot of money to get their crops in the ground. They have no control over the weather, or price fluctuations when harvest comes. If they can get buyers to pay a subscription for a share of the harvest, there is a more equitable sharing of risks, and we get more sustainable farms operating around us.
Buyers gain by knowing who is producing what they eat and how they do it. They also join a larger community, giving everyone a chance to share knowledge, skills, and fun.
So far we have brought up the idea of having more fun, and getting better quality foods. But we should not leave out how important it is for our health to eat well. Some people, like Alice Waters and Jamie Oliver (to name just two stars here) began complaining that schools are not teaching kids enough about what it means to eat well. As a result, children have no idea of the difference between fresh food and processed food. Why do we allow this? It is strange isn’t it. But it is not that strange when we consider that a long time ago we gave up control over our diets to the food industry. Was that wise?
From the slow food movement to the locavore movement attitudes towards food are changing in Europe and in the US. There is a greater sense that eating well is a key part of living the good life, and that the good life is something we all can and should share. The Duke of Albany would have approved, and perhaps pleasantly surprised that the finer things of life were available to all. Perhaps even Kate McKay would be buying through a local food cooperative, partying with local chefs and getting rid of that frozen goop.
But what can we do here in Estonia? That is an interesting question. First, we would have to take into account that Estonian cuisine is changing. The Soviet diet is a distant memory, thank the Lord. There are more and more options. At the same time, most of the produce is sold through rather large firms. By and large, we are consumers here (rather than participants): And we do not always get the quality that we should at the food store and when we dine out. There are some things that could help us break out of our consumer role. Here are a few ideas that we can work on.
First, it would be really great to develop a local community that is dedicated to eating well. This community need not be political (some people in the slow movement are). But it should be dedicated to promoting and sharing great food and great food ideas.
Second, we need more information about and access to great food products. Sure, accessing an avalanche of recipes via the net great. But what good are they if we cannot get the ingredients? And even more important, we need to know who is producing great stuff here in Estonia.
Third, we need regular food events we can come together for fun and sharing ideas. We need to come together as a community in order to be one.
Fourth, we need a learning space where we can step by step take over new ideas about food. Not just about quality wine and scotch, and so on. But how to make great things for day-to-day cooking. And the learning has to connect to how we really live (not just Julia Child warmed over).
Fifth, we need a way to connect with chefs and owners of restaurants so that they understand the need to upgrade their products and services for us.
We have a new tool at our disposal that can change everything. It is the internet. I am writing this at my home, expecting that you will read it on the net as part of the divedivedive platform. That means even though we may not have met, we are part of a virtual community already — through the platform.
Here is a new idea. We could use this platform to build a ‘virtual food market’. Instead of having to rely on experts from who knows where to tell us what to buy and eat, we can chat here about great local producers and suppliers. We can find out who are local experts — and get their ideas on the platform here. We can build a data base of great local foods. We can update information here about what we can buy, and what we are making. We can plan events. We can become experts within our group on any food related topic we want to dive into.
This sounds very cool. If you want to be a part of this, subscribe to divedivedive.org/. This will put you on a list where you will get notices of cool events, and more information about people and ideas. It’s your membership card to the good life. Also, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject ‘great food’. I will then include you in the food community. You will get one email per week from the list — and the opportunity (should you want to use it) to share your ideas and build content with us.
Slow Food believes in recognizing the importance of the pleasure of food. We should learn to enjoy the vast range of flavours and recipes available, and recognize the variety of places and people involved in growing and producing the food we eat. We should also respect the natural rhythms of the seasons and conviviality, the enjoyment of dining and sharing that enjoyment with others. But the recipe developed by Carlo Petrini and other Slow Food members adds another ingredient to the pursuit of pleasure; namely, responsibility. This philosophy is called eco-gastronomy and combines a respect for and interest in agricultural biodiversity around the world.
Get Flash to see this player.
Michael Gallagher is an Estonian/American lawyer who came to Tartu in 1994 and has been living and working in Tartu since then. From 1994 to 2007 he was primarily involved in developing professional legal education systems with the Estonian Law Centre, and interdisciplinary education within Tartu University. Since then he has been teaching, consulting, and developing projects in law and business.