Thursday, August 7, 2008

Slow Food Rising?

Last week, I attended a lecture on the slow food movement (motto: good, clean, fair food) at Sophia University in Tokyo. The speaker was Stephanie Assmann of Tohoku University in Japan. It was organized and moderated by my friend James Farrer, who directs Sophia's Institute of Comparative Culture. Here are Assmann's introductory remarks on the issue from a conference last year in Boston:

The Slow Food Movement originated in Italy in 1986 and became a non-profit organization in 1989 which is presently active in 45 countries. Its members meet in so-called convivia to cook and enjoy culinary specialties together. The aims of the movement are to preserve local foods and wines, to ensure a high quality of food, and to rediscover a refined sense of taste. Slow Food Japan was founded in 1998, and articles about slow food are featured in the magazine Sotokoto, the Japanese version of the Italian Slow Food magazine.

As a backlash against the homogenization of food, slow food is not merely the opposite of fast food. Moreover, slow food has been associated with slow life: The movement articulates a need to reduce the pace of life, and to improve the quality of
life through an increased awareness of food.

But one of the points she emphasized at her talk in Tokyo was that she found the slow food movement to be explicitly against globalization, bringing about some serious paradoxes, that seemed to leave Assmann critical of the movement. First, the movement is a global initiative with chapters around the world, using the Internet and branding to connect various communities--the essence of a globalized entity. In other words the movement is at the same time against and reliant upon globalization.

Moreover, it is not clear whether the movement is only against imports or against exports, too. But both imports and exports would help its cause of preserving diversity of food, which is a good goal in itself. But let's remember that many of the famous dishes that are familiar today are combinations of products and influences from many places. As for exports, one could argue that if these local products that the movement seeks to protect were viable exports, the market could ensure their survival.

Finally, it is unclear that the average person benefits from these rarefied and usually expensive products. Which brings about a curious question: Given that the movement in Japan has been supported and initiated by restaurants and purveyors of food, is there an ulterior motive for the movement? As one professor said during the conference, is the slow food movement just a clever marketing scheme?

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