A friend of mine returned last week from a two-week visit to Italy where he and his wife made some important discoveries. He told me of two of these which are curious and wholly incompatible.
One is that the Italians -- of the north, at least -- are no longer taking siestas. This is discouraging.
The other was an encounter with a lady who professed to be a member of the Slow Food movement. This was encouraging.
The members of Slow Food, I assume, are not the ones who have stopped taking siestas. I have never met a Slow Fooder, but I am for them. Having read their manifesto, I now count myself as a Slow Fooder. I am for siestas. I am against people who think they must stay awake during the hottest part of the day to work in the global economy, which they are able to do because they have had practically nothing to eat or drink at lunch time. They are the same people who go to bed early without a genuinely good meal so they can wake up early and get cracking immediately at whatever work they do to make themselves or, usually, someone else rich.
Old World ways
Well, I am not so much against them, for I know they could easily be converted to the true faith, gastronomically speaking.
But fast is the American way. It has spawned the McWorld we live in and it has infected the rest of the globe. Giving up the three-martini lunch was a good idea. But did the three-course meal have to be abandoned for a pathetic burger in a paper bag? No more wine with the meal, even though a glass or two of wine is good for the heart. Ever had an Asti Spumanti after lunch, with a small cup of sherbet? Fantastic!
My first exposure to a genuine European meal came when I was about 12 years old in 1955. I went to spend a couple of weeks during the spring of that year with the Dard family of Mulhouse in the Alsace region of France.
The Dards were the parents of friends of my parents so they were both born in the late 19th century. Madame Dard was a sweet, gentle woman who managed her household gracefully. Monsieur Dard was known to his own children as Le Grand Turque (The Great Turk), which implied some sternness of character. He looked very much like the 1940s actor Sydney Greenstreet. Both of the elder Dards had lived through both World Wars. Verdun, where more than half a million were killed in World War I, was less than a two-hour drive from their home, so life must have seemed especially precious to them.
They did not know what to do with a young American boy, so they simply kept to their routine and made me a part of it. This included wine at lunch and at dinner. And a good nap in between. One day, Monsieur Dard decided to take me along on a business visit to one of the felt factories his family owned. Lunch was served in the board room and it was an extravaganza of many courses, wine and Cognac.
"Pas trop pour le gosse," Le Turque cautioned. "Not too much for the kid."
Monsieur Dard took no siesta that afternoon. He should have. We returned to Mulhouse at a high rate of speed. Driving on a road through a forest, he rammed into a young deer. Unfazed, he got out of the car, picked up the deer, put it in the trunk and announced, "Le diner."
He could have been a charter member of the Slow Food movement, which might have winced at the way the deer was slaughtered but would have been mortified if it hadn't at least been eaten afterward. And at a leisurely pace with good wine.
Slow Food has a Web site (www.slowfood.com) that describes its origin and function.
The organization was founded 17 years ago in Bra, in the Italian region of Piedmont. The movement claims 60,000 members around the world, with more than half of them in Italy.
"Its original aim was to counter the tide of standardization of taste and the manipulation of consumers around the world," the Web site declares. "The fundamental importance of conviviality and the right to pleasure are still the basic principles upon which all Slow Food events and activities are built. The movement believes that any traditional product encapsulates the flavors of its region of origin, not to mention local customs and ancient production techniques. With this in mind, Slow Food is working not only to protect the historic, artistic and environmental heritage of places of gastronomic pleasure (cafés, inns, bistros), but also to safeguard the food and agricultural heritage (crop biodiversity, artisan techniques, sustainable agriculture, rural development, food traditions)."
Next time you visit McDonald's, ask them what they're doing to encapsulate the flavors of the region, or the local customs.
The problem here is that the Big Mac has become the flavor of the region and something of a national custom.
The rush to rush
Fast is the national custom. We rush to work. We rush to eat. We drink, but we rush that, too. We binge as no one else in the world does, with the exception of the English, who have an excuse.
We rush to judgment. We rush to war. Just as quickly we rush away.
What America needs is slow food, more long lunches with quality food and more siestas. The rest would follow.
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