Does Slow Food know its audience and goals?


Melbourne is alive with the annual Melbourne Food and Wine Festival. A special event as part of the two-week festival is ‘A Taste of Slow’, held this weekend. There aren’t a lot of spoken word events at the Festival; there are a lot of interesting demonstrations, classes and dining experiences. By ‘spoken word’ I of course mean something more than ‘this is how you cook ingredient X’ — I’m looking for something more intellectually stimulating than that.

Three years ago, the Festival held a number of interesting panel discussions in conjunction with a trade fair (Fine Food) and the level of information and discussion was reasonably good. Since then, my memory tells me that the only spoken word affairs have been on the Slow Food side of things. Nothing wrong with that per se, but the topics for discussion are narrowed by the simple fact that Slow Food has specific things it wants to talk about and it attracts certain types of people.

That was a rather long preamble to a long comment about some of this year’s spoken word events. I attended two of yesterday’s sessions:

  • What is Slow Food?
  • Wellbeing and pleasure

I came away with a numb bum and the feeling that Slow Food is still failing to get its message across or perhaps even to know what its message is.

The events actually started on Friday evening, with a keynote by Greg Critser about his book ‘Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World’ and the reactions to it. I had to miss this due to a more important commitment, but in hindsight it’s a pity, because this talk seems to indicate a new direction for Slow Food.

The first Saturday session, ‘What is Slow Food?’ was billed as:

Did you know that Slow Food supports a gastronomic university and a foundation for saving rare and endangered foods? Speaking from personal experiences, members of the Australian Slow Food movement, Daniela Mollica, Bob MacLennan and Christine Bond explore the concepts and projects that ate at the heart of the Slow philosophy.

If it had started on time, my bum wouldn’t have got as numb on the attractive but really rather hard seats in the BMW Edge auditorium at Federation Square. Mistress of Ceremonies, radio personality Helen Razer, thought she was being funny when she hoped ‘that everyone had travelled here at snail’s pace’. The organisers certainly had.

Daniela Mollica gave us a bit of her resumé, talked about her rare-breed cattle (Chianina), and provided a brief history of Slow Food in Melbourne and the Convivium (local chapter) that she helped found. She’s aware of many of the issues which concern Slow Food and the misconceptions about what Slow Food is, and she covered many points in an attempt to make a few things clear.

Bob MacLennan (Brisbane) talked about the ‘Ark of Taste’ which acts as a sort of registry for endangered traditional foods. He told us a little about the four Australian foods in the Ark (bunyanuts, bullboar sausages, leatherwood honey, Kangaroo Island Honey), showed us a mini-documentary about the breeders of mangalica pigs in Hungary and the starting of ‘Presidia’ (quality control projects), and then some film of initiation rites in Papua New Guinea. The latter was ostensibly relevant to his mention of giant yams, but the focus drifted.

Christine Bond (Darwin/Top End) started off by talking about food and history in the Top End but rapidly moved to telling us all about her Convivium’s activities and the practicalities of setting up and running a Convivium. At times it verged on the irrelevant for a Festival audience. Finally, we heard that her Convivium runs basic cookery classes. A noble endeavour, but it begs the question whether 99% of cookery books and classes are therefore ‘slow’.

It’s difficult running a movement-profile session when much of your audience might already know what Slow Food is, but others may have come because they knew nothing. A diverse audience requires a bit more than this hodgepodge. ‘Convivium’ was defined eventually. ‘Ark of Taste’ wasn’t explained fully, if I recall correctly, and the mysterious ‘Presidia’ suffered grammatically and conceptually. I don’t know if the speakers were given a clear brief, but after Daniela’s fairly good start it became less and less clear what the session wanted to achieve. As it was running so late, there was no chance for audience participation either — it would have been interesting to see why people attended and what they really wanted to know.

The second Saturday session, ‘Wellbeing and pleasure’, was described as:

Author Sherry Strong explains how slow, local and organic were never fads in nature, but simply the most convenient way to eat. Jane Dixon discusses how the supermarkets have weighed in on the debate about healthy eating. Chef Tony Chiodo demonstrates how easy it is to savour the simple pleasures of fresh, seasonal and healthy food.

And then it ran off the rails a bit. I didn’t expect to hear clichés about obesity and culture, or endure junk science and scare-mongering. That’s what we got to listen to.


Jane Dixon’s well structured talk (an academic with a clear Powerpoint presentation) started interestingly, looking at the conundrum of supermarkets offering healthy convenience food and, more broadly, the oft-ignored fact that supermarkets have offered a lot of improvements for our health and diet. It was inevitable that these topics would be left underexplored in a fairly short presentation with a diverse audience, but I wished there was a little more information beyond the very general facts.

However, Dixon then wheeled out a few clichés which work well with a sympathetic audience but leave a bad taste if you think about them:

  • she placed interesting emphasis on ‘supermarket aisles full of fruit juices with their sugars’ and that set off an alarm because part of the obesity-crisis lobby is currently targeting fruit juice as a villain.
  • She then cited a study showing that time spent in one’s car is linked to obesity (and supermarkets cause us to sit in our cars).
  • Then we had the ‘Europeans value quality over quantity’ claptrap — that’s right, France has no burger chains full of adults and teens, French cheese isn’t heavy on fat, and the ever-popular ‘formules’ (set menus) aren’t too large and nutritionally unbalanced.

Somewhere close to the end we heard the wonderfully incongruous ‘food is fuel now’ (as opposed to in the good old times when women slaved at the stove churning out meals for their (presumably not always taste-interested) husbands and children to eat, or (heavens!) when people had access to barely any dietary variety and of course were stone-soup gourmets as they dined in their medieval huts). Food is just ‘fuel’ now, yet we spend so much time talking about it, dining out, trying new food fads, falling victim to gourmet-product markups… ??

Sherry Strong’s talk was passionate and well rehearsed, but in the way an evangelist spreads a message through motivating or scaring and choosing their rhetoric very carefully.

‘The further we deviate from nature, the sicker, bigger we’re getting.’ ‘In nature you’d never think to store an apple for twelve months or to cover it in chemicals.’

I’d love a definition of what ‘nature’ is in this sort of empty argumentation. Individual overweight humans have been observed for quite a large part of history. Preserving food using almost any technique and useful substance available isn’t exactly new. Burying food stuffs or storing them in caves to get through long cold (or hot) periods is simply the precursor to the cold cabinet.

Perhaps the absolute stunner for the day was the broad-stroke assertion that processing things with chemicals makes them dangerous to you. Let me paraphrase closely: No-one has an addiction to poppy seeds, but look what happens when you make heroin out of them. Now think about all that over-processed oil and refined sugar. Oh my god. I think I need one of those Jamie Oliver ‘Flavour Shakers’ — I’d fill it with powdered nuance and sprinkle it liberally.

On a lighter note, pleasant and likeable chef Tony Chiodo chatted about health and healthy eating and whipped up two soups.


I’m sure there are lots of people caught up in the ideology being spruiked in this session and who would have agreed wholeheartedly with what was being said. By its very nature, Slow Food must attract people concerned about issues, but it can also serve an educative role. So much of the public discourse about food and eating exploits fears, misconceptions and rose-tinted nostalgia to persuade people to believe. Was this what the organisers of A Taste of Slow wanted in this session?

Across these two sessions, there was interesting information provided and points for discussion raised, but I felt the weaknesses were embarrassing. Spoken word events could be used to inform, explain, elaborate and challenge, but instead the first session was poorly thought out and the second (and perhaps other parts of the program as a whole) seem to be a path of ideology. It worries me, particularly, that the obesity-crisis lobby is gaining a voice under the Slow Food banner. I don’t see what legitimate role obesity clichés have within a movement that is meant to focus positively on food and cultural tradition. Daniela Mollica ended her talk by saying that Slow Food was about being ‘inclusive and positive, not exclusive and negative’, but those values will be hard to maintain if people who spend their time obsessing about negatives (evil supermarkets, evil industry, evil scientists, evil processed food) are embraced without question by Slow Food.

18 thoughts on “Does Slow Food know its audience and goals?”

  1. Well, you’ve certainly informed/educated me, so that’s a start 🙂 (ignoramus alert: I thought slow food just meant, well, slow-cooking food… right) I suppose the marriage of slow food and the obesity crisis is just supposed to grab people’s attentions. I’ll have to read a lot more to form more opinions 🙂

    I hear, though, that Jamie Oliver’s Flavour Shaker doesn’t work as well as it’s supposed to, heh

  2. Duncan,

    You raise so many points in here that I don’t know where to start.

    Manggy’s comment above epitomises the issue though!

    As I have previously written, slow food is a misnomer.

    One of the key issues that you raise here, is whether the slow food movement wants to be a pseudo-intellectual group focused on the academic and field issues of bio-diversity, or whether the issues is about eating foods close to their natural origin whereby bio-diversity is a component of that.

    Unfortunately with many of these “progressive” groups – slow food, village groups etc,, their are people who think they are smarter than they are, and there are fundamentalists; the combination ostracises anyone prepared to think about the issues rather than jump on the bandwagon.

    I believe there are some changes afoot with their “marketing” but know no detail…


  3. The principle thrust of The Slow Food Movement is to preserve culinary traditions and to counter the rapid disappearance of native foodstuffs and certain animal breeds which are not considered commercially viable in terms of fast growth and consequently are rejected by farmers servicing supermarket chains. Hence the terms Heritage and Rare Breed when addressing the produce of smaller farms that continue to farm these items.

    The talk of countering obesity etc naturally falls out of this as we are witnessing and epidemic of unhealthy people in developed countries. Many attribute this to the rise of convenience foods and processed food produts. Slow Food is the antithesis of the modern trend, and from this came the name of the movement.

    I think it is very easy to criticise NGO’s who survive on the backs of volunteers and without the largesse of Government backing. Until more people with the skills to better frame these public forums and help educate the public, volunteer their services, you will find that these gatherings wil be an adhoc affair built on the best of intentions of fervent believers in the cause.

    I would invite anyone with the desire to educate future generations about healthy diet, preserving their culinary heritage, restoring sustainable practices to farming and see change within the marketplace, to put their weight behind the movement by volunteering to assist or sponsor Slow Food.

  4. @Sticky: I think it’s very easy for NGOs which have been in existence for a considerable period and have had time to hone their message to promote themselves more professionally, successfully and without letting themselves become part of other movements with dubious basis. Slow Food has many issues to discuss and I’m sure there are internal debates about policy issues, but if Slow Food acts as a forum for misleading information then its positive potential will easily be smudged.

    As Katie mentioned, it’s inevitable that all sorts of interest groups will align themselves with Slow Food. Slow Food is a large enough movement that it must either sort some of this out or perhaps become meaningless. If some adherents push it to become a religion (you need Slow or the Obesity will strike you down; the Industrial Complex is feeding you Toxins) then it would be very very sad.

  5. QUOTE
    Slow Food is a non-profit, eco-gastronomic member-supported organization that was founded in 1989 to counteract fast food and fast life, the disappearance of local food traditions and people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from, how it tastes and how our food choices affect the rest of the world

    bio-diversity and rare breeds are a part of this, but they are not the main focus. Fervent believers in MANY organisations lose the ability to grain traction because they disenfranchise the masses with the academics.

    I personally have tried to contact the slow food sydney branch via their contact details provided on the web site and with no response. So yes, I am critical, but I am also putting my money where my mouth is.

  6. @Katie: please don’t make the academics out to be the bad guys. Many academics contribute an enormous amount to understanding things like biodiversity, environmental issues, food and cultural history, etc etc etc and do nothing to ‘disenfranchise the masses’. Unfortunately, on the fringes of serious academia are people who lose objectivity or have personal motives and this clouds their work or their public profile. I don’t know if those are the ones who influence your seeming dislike of academics, but please keep an open mind about the broader academic community and what they give.

  7. I did not mean academic people, or academia.

    I refer to “academics” in parlence, meaning the fervent believers get so caught up in the debate of their principles they lose sight of the “movement” they have the potential to establish and progress.

    Here’s an example off the cuff…
    Before we start worrying about which breed of cow farmers are rearing (and i have nothing against this, it is important) we need to focus on getting people to understand that beef comes from cow (yes really) and convert people from highly processed bi products (frozen beef patties, crab sticks (yes they’re often beef bi product)) to simply eating a straight up steak.
    In other words, learn to crawl, then walk, then think about running.

    I hold nothing against intelligent people exploring and disseminating the bastions of knowledge. Praise be to them!

  8. Slow Food is a large global movement, with powerhouse programs in Europe & the USA, but Australia and in particular, Melbourne are small chapters known as Convivia, which are volunteer community groups with limited resources. The team is in need of help by opinionated people like yourself and Katie. I urge you to leave the sidelines and join the fray.

    Out of criticism of a volunteer group, one must ask the question of how you can assist. I myself am discussing with Slow Food Melbourne the prospect of a clearer brand strategy with better PR and Marketing. I have also put it to them that I can assist with sourcing targeted sponsorship with sympathetic and symbiotoc industry wishing to engage in ethical causes. I will be doing this pro-bono. I re-iterate, I urge others to also volunteer their skills.

    Back to the Festival, you may have been more satisfied by the talks on saturday afternoon where there was an interesting session on the trials of one visionary couple who over the last forty years have been returning farmland in Hamilton to a natural and sustainable structure. This was followed by an educational discussion on sustainable aquaculture and responsible consumption of seafood & fish. Both sessions were MC’d with aplomb by Richard Cornish.

  9. Ok this is one of those articles I mentioned previously that sometimes I don’t comment because I don’t understand the topic and the big words. So let me just say this, sounds like an absolutely terrible time had by all and painfull. Slow food to me is a gorgeous stew that has been slowly cooking in a low oven for four hours.

  10. P.S My comment above is for Duncan and not meant to insult anyone whatsoever. I remain completely nuetral in this debate as I do not understand the topic enough.

  11. @grocer: belated thanks for clarifying.

    @Amelita: you’re not alone! Even some of the Slow Food representatives last week were talking about cooking slowly as being what Slow Food meant (when interviewed on telly).

    @sticky: I feel you paint Slow Food’s Melbourne presence as far meeker and underpowered than it is. It has no lack of motivated, intelligent people who have been involved for an extended period. Having an opinion about a movement doesn’t require one to be involved in the movement — external commentary can sometimes be equally or more constructive. I am not a movement person and do not feel that an interest in the goals carries an implicit obligation to join up and carry the flag.

  12. No worries, Amelita:) As Manggy said at the beginning of these comments, it’s often unclear to people what Slow Food is meant to represent. (And belatedly to Manggy, thanks for his comment and for the dirt on those Flavour Shakers!)

    I’m sure most of the audience thought the talks were interesting, maybe even great. That worries me, as it wasn’t good, factually, emotionally, organisationally.

  13. I received an email last week from Sherry Strong (read my original posting, above) saying “I am surprised to find someone with such impressive credentials to have grossly misquoted my words during the talk”.

    My notes were pretty accurate, I thought, but hey, if someone has an audio transcript for comparison, I’d welcome it.

  14. yeah, everything need to be fun and positive nowadays to get somebodies attention. Maybe they are just right with the assertion that junk food causes obesity, and that the food industry has interest to make food as sweet, fat and salty as possible as long as children are not used to other food? Ofcourse everyone has “their own responsibility and choice”. But who educates? Yes we should not educate through quilt. But people need to know their responsibility as well…

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