U.S. Intellectual History Blog

From Rome with Love III

by Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn

In the battle merely to survive physically, food and shelter are essential, clothing (except as shelter) optional. That seems relatively simple, especially since these basic needs have been with us since our infancy at the so-called dawn of civilization.

Each of us tries for survival now with the means available in the postmodern economy. But what is remarkable, in these individualized times, is when one of us tries for the survival of someone else as well. So when a whole group tries, even better, not only for other people’s survival but for their flourishing, it is doubly, triply, quadruply remarkable. This is one of those rare times, with manipulation and murkiness abundant, when a distinctly un-fuzzy math can actually prevail. Just multiply by the number of people and you get the degree of remarkability.

By this measure, Italy deserves perhaps not to be romanticized, exactly, as we can allocate its rather substantial flaws. But I think it should be considered a prime candidate for re-romanticization. It stands for food–good food. And now many are trying to describe a particular definition of good in a conversation that has ramifications well beyond food itself.

A few days ago I had the opportunity to travel to a small town in northern Italy named Pollenzo, near the city of Turin. The occasion was a half-day conference on food and sustainability put on by the Fulbright Commission. What I saw there was truly inspiring.

The conference took place at the University of Gastronomic Sciences (UNISG), a new university just founded in 2004. (See its website or this brief New York Times article.) The audience for the conference was largely comprised of students in the graduate programs there.

Housed in a rectangular layout of renovated farm buildings in the Piedmont region, with castle-like turrets at the corners and a central square, the university is one of the most pleasant places I have ever been. Even with its students congregating for the conference in clusters here and there, as well as the occasional tourist (there are two hotels, a restaurant, a wine bank, a chapel, gardens, a tiny orchard of indigenous trees, and preserved ruins, along with the classrooms and library), the atmosphere was one of bucolic serenity. Its silence, in this noisy age, was a balm.

Those intrigued by all aspects of food, from its problems to its pleasures, might recognize or be interested to learn about this location in northeast Italy. The University of Gastronomic Sciences was started by Carlo Petrini, who also founded the Slow Food Movement in 1986, and the international headquarters for the movement is in nearby Bra. The movement was spurred by the plan to erect a McDonalds at the Spanish Steps in Rome. With some 100,000 members in over 150 nations, the Slow Food Movement’s stated aim is to promote “good, clean, and fair food for all”:

“GOOD a fresh and flavorsome seasonal diet that satisfies the senses and is part of our local culture;
CLEAN food production and consumption that does not harm the environment, animal welfare or our health;
FAIR accessible prices for consumers and fair conditions and pay for small-scale producers.”

The movement is dedicated to protecting and celebrating local culinary knowledge and practices, heirloom seeds and other precious products, small-scale farming and processing, and a slowed down process of food preparation and ingestion, for maximum health benefits and enjoyment. It is against agribusiness, factory farms, genetic engineering, the use of pesticides, and fast food. As such, it is a movement of resistance and radicalism, on the one hand, and preservation and conservation, on the other. It resists easy division along standard political lines of liberal versus conservative.

The university’s name belies one of the most exciting things about it and the movement that produced it: both of them combine concern for the right way of doing things-morally, socially, culinarily–with the best way, in terms of our ultimate pleasure and contentment. It is that rare blend–all but nonexistent in the U.S., with its legendary focus on change, innovation, and “creative destruction,” all in the name of progress–of the motivation to change deeply disturbing practices and conditions and the desire to protect treasured traditions. This is all about taste. In the deepest and most resonant senses of the word.

Like the conference’s subject, which sounds as though it might have centered narrowly on future policy, the “gastronomic sciences” could sound off-putting to everyone except those interested in applied horticulture, biology, or perhaps cooking. But these initiatives have everything to do with ideas more broadly, and with history. This was evident throughout the presentations. For instance, Daniel J. Philippon, who teaches in the Department of English at the University of Minnesota, spoke on his current book project, an intriguing study of the shift from environmentalism to the sustainability movement through writings in key genres on land, food, and culture. As he laid out his approach and chapter organization, this work promises to be essentially an intellectual history of the sustainable food movement. Currently a Fulbright Professor at UNIGS and the University of Turin, he is the author of Conserving Words: How American Nature Writers Shaped the Environmental Movement and writes about many of the authors that are our stock in trade in U.S. Intellectual History, from Whitman to Berry. And Maria Grazia Quieti, Executive Director of the U.S.-Italy Fulbright Commission, delivered a talk entitled “Discourses on Food and Sustainability in Trade Negotiations,” in essence a recent intellectual history of sustainability, with the Seattle WTO protests rendered as a pivotal point at which the official “technical forum” was called into question and competing discourses on issues formerly the preserve of policy experts and academics became apparent. Her discussion of how ideas become institutionalized, powerfully shape “intersubjective reality,” and can be challenged was helpful theoretically, and hints of her portrait of her experiences while at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization–a project on which she is currently at work–were fascinating. Her humble, clarion call for a method of paying detailed attention to conversations seems akin to what we do.

My intent in this brief sketch is only to tell you enough to pique your interest if not in this particular subject or region, then in some of the intellectual vibrancy I see here–here as in Italy and in fields differing quite a bit in name from ours yet part of a common pursuit. If we really care about the history of ideas in cultural context, we can benefit from important projects underway seemingly far afield from our own specialties. We can possibly learn from them and savor them, both.