The Slow Food movement illustrated via Southern Italy (Pt.1)

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At the Pugliese McDonalds in Bari, Italy, the first hint we weren’t in America anymore was the clientele: suit-clad, they sat at windows, sipping beers and reading newspapers. Food was served on porcelain and beers in elegant glasses. And then it was the prices: seven Euros (about $9 USD) for a hamburger? Eight for a salad? But my travel companion and I had a train to catch in an hour, and there was nothing else around. Bari, the capital of the Puglia region in Southern Italy, is an industrial port town—not exactly known for its dining options.

The salad was, to our shock and awe, delicious. The chicken was grilled and tender—just so. The leaves were fresh, green and crunchy. The dressing was two miniature bottles of oil and vinegar, ready to be mixed on the spot. The salad left us feeling satiated, yet light and buoyant. We lingered over our fast food with fork and knife.

At the coffee counter, I was again shocked to see the barista loading an actual dishwasher and fresh squeezing orange juice. She was going to come over and take my order when she was ready to. A customer was not king, but rather, a customer was a customer. The concept of McDonalds, the most quintessential of American Fast Food companies, had been completely turned inside out as it collided with Italy’s—now global—Slow Food movement.

Slow food, a movement founded in Piedmont in 1986, emphasizes holistic snapshots of where food comes from, placing importance on relationships, not just transactions: of food to farmer; of farmer to soil; of practice to community; of animal to plant. It aims to foster a dialogue amongst the community who collectively grow, eat and cook.

I had to hand it to McDonald’s—they knew their audience.

We had arrived in Bari, moments earlier, our first stop on the way to Lecce, a small town in the heart of Puglia, bordering the Adriatic Sea. Life is rumored to move more slowly in Italy, and in the South, in the aggressive heat of August, life moves molasses-like and slower still.

There are few English speakers there: by the looks of it, most of the vacationers filling the beaches were other Italians, and we barely heard our native tongue at all during our stay. In Rome it was all, “hi, what can I get you” in perfect English (implicit: we looked American) and eight dollar espresso, marked up to punish our clueless tourist ways; in Puglia it was a wry smile: charming, but unapologetic (implicit: you’re gonna have to figure it out yourself, ciao!) And that coffee was only 1 Euro—made for and by Italians.

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Though we thought we had come to Italy’s shores open-minded and relaxed, the idea of instant gratification died stubbornly. For our morning coffee, we traded in a hot to-go cup of joe for the more stylish espresso (partially because it seemed like the Italian thing to do, and partially because there is no drip coffee in Italy). To us Chicagoans with journalist backgrounds, coffee is a vehicle to jumpstart the day. We expected it to behave as an auxiliary to our main activity, which would be exploring our town and its neighboring alcoves. Perhaps sequestered in a paper cup, it would accompany us as we strolled through the cobblestone streets.

But espresso doesn’t really travel in Lecce. So coffee took an hour, and then lunch took at least two. Not because we planned on it, but because there was no other way. There were multiple courses to be ordered, and servers didn’t come to scoop up our plates until we asked them too. The check arrived by sheer act of God. Eventually we loosened our grip on the concept of food as fuel, and surrendered to it being our primary activity. We languished over espresso and pastries, multi-course lunches and dinners, developing affinities for pureed chicory, taralli, and orrechiette pasta along the way.

We thought we had grown accustomed to the idea of slower food and a pared down schedule, one which demanded we not multitask, but instead remain present and become educated about our surroundings. But then on our last day, we really wanted our coffee to go. We had woken up late and couldn’t relinquish the idea of getting moving ASAP.

Forgoing the usual espresso bars with their glass plates and cups, we sheepishly approached McDonalds, hoping to get a cup to go. The sun was high in the sky but the storefront was still closed. When it finally rolled open at 11am, and we requested two espressos, the woman behind the counter expressed disapproval, motioning to the independent coffee shop across the street. She wouldn’t condone someone purchasing an espresso from her establishment, when there was much higher quality just around the corner.

We realized the fastest food we were going to get there was a cone of gelato or a bottle of wine. We gave in and allowed our agenda to melt under the summer sun.

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Later that week, on the train from our tiny, sunny town in Southern Italy to stately Rome, we would sit next to a doctor who would grin when he noticed I was still using paper and pen to collect my thoughts. “It’s not too often you see that anymore,” he would say, flicking the screen of his iPad. Our conversation quickly turned to the United States as it can’t help but do when you are an American visiting Europe.

The doctor had once lived in Philadelphia, for a period of eight years, and had gotten paid about eight times as much as he makes now, a practicing physician in Italy. He missed the States, but would never go back. “Americans do not know how to enjoy life,” he concluded. A bold statement, rooted in practical experience.

Perhaps this is true: our culture demands of us a high dedication to work, with little time or energy left over to truly enjoy ourselves. Many of us are caught in a cycle of work, tv, drinking and sleeping, with lots of prepared, rushed and poor quality food bookending each activity. Much is lost in the shuffle, but most regrettably is our time to cook, create and become acquainted with what we are putting into our bodies. Food on the table is a cause to celebrate, in the most essential and satisfying way.

However if our trip to Southern Italy taught me anything, it’s that the doctor may have been right, but we can certainly learn, though it will take a little bit of persistence.