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Book Reviews

The Slow Food Story: Politics and Pleasure, Geoff Andrews, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2008, 196 pagesWest: The Cookbook, Warren Geraghty, Douglas and McIntyre, 2008, 240 pages

  • Emily Jansons

Corps de l’article

To the many of us who occasionally feel overwhelmed by the demanding pace of the modern world, the notion of “slowing down” may seem romantic and abstract. Geoff Andrews and Warren Geraghty, however, illustrate that there is a growing number of people around the world who in recent years have started to make conscious choices to slow down their lives, using food as a vehicle. Andrews’ The Slow Food Story explores Slow Food as a political movement, while Geraghty’s West: The Cookbook provides an example of a restaurant that has embraced the Slow Food philosophy. Although these works prompt many questions about the nature and future of Slow Food, they also call attention to the fact that in a time of political disengagement in western countries, many people are asserting themselves through food.

Fascinated by the way Slow Food moved from the periphery of leftist Italian politics in the 1970s to gain global appeal across nations of different histories and cultures, Andrews explores the figure of the modern gastronome and the idea of virtuous globalization, as well as outlining the structure and function of the Slow Food movement as a response to a contemporary obsession with speed, global inequalities, and environmentally unsustainable practices. Slow Food’s principles, laid out in 2005 by its leader Carlo Petrini, are “good, clean and fair” food (56), with support for traditional food knowledge and special emphasis on eating with pleasure. Andrews argues that Slow Food is unique in going beyond consumerism by reaching out to producers and engaging consumers in all aspects of food. To Andrews, Slow Food is synonymous with slow lifestyle.

For anyone interested in the socio-cultural implications of our modern, global food system, The Slow Food Story is a pleasant read. It is full of anecdotal information and optimistic about the direction and growth of Slow Food. Andrews is very much present throughout his book, and his admiration and support for the people and philosophy of Slow Food is evident. For those too busy to read a whole book on slowing down, Andrews’ final chapter, “Slow Food, Gastronomy and Cultural Politics,” is his strongest, nicely summarizing Slow Food politics.

It is always difficult to write transnational stories, and The Slow Food Story is somewhat weak in addressing the concept of globalization. Andrews first proposes that globalization—which he associates with neo-liberal free market policies (148)—is a destructive force that standardizes, threatens biodiversity, and degrades small producers; thus Slow Food is portrayed as critical of globalization (152). Later, however, the author actually credits globalization with the movement’s success, thereby suggesting that globalization is a positive force. Although Andrews dedicates a chapter to “Virtuous Globalization,” he uses the term loosely to refer to a wide and seemingly conflicting set of notions. Considering Andrews’ emphasis on Slow Food as a global movement, moreover, there is a distinct geographic imbalance in the nations explored. The only “developing country” from which substantial illustrations are drawn is Romania. Largely a study of western Slow Food, the book misses a truly interesting and unexplored story—the form that Slow Food has taken in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Andrews fails to explore the degree to which Slow Food’s western cultural origins dictate its parameters, leaving the question of how Slow Food can be a global organization while maintaining local culture and terroir unanswered.

While Andrews has chosen to focus on Slow Food’s growth from its Italian counter-cultural origins, a greater exploration of anti-urban and anti-industrial movements dating back a century or more would have provided interesting context, shown threads of public sentiment, and strengthened his argument that Slow Food is a unique movement. Further, Andrews’ unmeasured suggestion that Slow Food is “one of the most significant global political movements of modern times” (5) is perhaps an optimistic overstatement.

One of the questions The Slow Food Story does consider is how much profiteering can occur while still maintaining the essence of Slow Food. This is where Geraghty’s West comes in, telling the story of a thriving fine-dining restaurant in Vancouver that pursues Slow Food ideals. Although Andrews rejects accusations that Slow Food is an elitist movement, the ability to embrace “slow” in all spheres of life may seem luxurious and unrealistic for many. West, with its elaborate contemporary regional recipes, artistic presentation, and perfectly paired wines, indicates it will meet Slow Food expectations—for those who can afford it.

West opened in 2000 as a French restaurant under the name Ouest, later shifting its focus to connecting with the people, neighbourhood, city, and region of Vancouver. Renaming the restaurant West reflected this transformation. With a mandate to provide the “best possible dining experience, night in and night out” (175), West places great emphasis on quality local and seasonal dishes. This is mirrored in the cookbook’s seasonal organization, which includes one-page inserts educating the reader on the character of specific seasonal foods, from rhubarb to spot prawns. Food writer Jim Tobler captures the dynamic life of West through brief biographies and interviews with Michelin-starred executive chef Warren Geraghty (who joined West in 2008), mixologist David Wolowidnyk, and pastry chef Rhonda Viani, among others. As with Slow Food itself, West owes its success to the cooperation of all involved parties. The photos in the cookbook are a true feast for the eyes; unfortunately, though, the general population will probably find the ingredients and skill level required by the actual recipes inaccessible. The wine pairings can also be overly specific. Although West provides a good overview of the restaurant, moreover, more history on the context and motives behind the shift from Ouest to West, and details of how West has evolved over the years, would deepen the book’s description of the establishment and its developing role and philosophy.

It seems that the less time we spend at the dinner table, the less healthy our lives have become. The Slow Food Story explores one movement’s attempt to reverse the tendency to speed everything up, a conscious process not to be confused with nostalgia for the past; West illustrates the beauty and pleasure of quality local food enjoyed among people with a passion for what they eat. The assumption driving both books is that going slow and local is a healthier way to live. If you are looking for a how-to book on slowing down, however, these will not satisfy. Andrews investigates and contributes to rather than challenging existing Slow Food literature; Geraghty excites the palate. In the end, in spite of the recent optimism surrounding the Slow Food movement, there are still many practical questions that must be addressed if Slow Food is to guide contemporary society towards an alternative future.

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