There’s a wonderful singer in Italy named Mina. She’s known as the girl with an orchestra in her throat. At one point, Frank Sinatra wanted to take her on tour and show her off to America. She ultimately declined, partly out of a fear of flying and I’m not making this up, partly out of a fear of American food. I mention this to illustrate how serious food is to many Italians. I suspect Carlo Petrini, founder of Slow Food, feels the same as the great singer about saying ciao to Italian food, even for a short period of time. And food should be taken seriously, but Petrini won’t rest easy until the US has a food culture similar to Italy’s and that’s not going to happen. As a smarter friend told me, Italy’s is slowly eroding while America’s was wiped out and now has to try and rebuild itself. It’s a different problem and Petrini doesn’t understand it.
As I wrote earlier, Petrini’s book has caused quite a stir among the vendors and management at my farmers market. Clue Number One that there is a big problem should have been that Petrini expected to come to this same market and sell his book on Saturday, May 12! CUESA, the producers of the market, wisely declined giving him the platform and instead a meeting was called. I attended, along with three other growers, all of whom attended one or both Terra Madre conferences. CUESA management was there as were Carlo Petrini, Slow Food USA president Erica Lesser (who was oddly only introduced as his translator) and a fellow who worked on the book. I should add this was 9 a.m. on a Saturday morning, my busiest time of the day. This meeting was costing me to attend. We all introduced ourselves. Petrini’s face visibly lit up when he saw the bean samples I brought.
After some basic concerns were laid out, Petrini touched the fingers of his two hands together and leaned back in his chair as if he were a philosopher who had been asked the meaning of the universe. “I apologize that you are offended by what I wrote in the book. I see many contradictions in the sustainable food movement. Even contradictions with myself. I am exploring these.”
“But the examples you give are not true,” I said. “These people don’t exist.”
A fire entered Petrini’s eye. “I have shown this to many people and they all agree with my impression of this market!”
“But it’s still not true. You’re perpetuating a myth. I would even say you came here with preconceived ideas and ….”
He didn’t wait for Lesser to translate my words.
“No! It’s you that have the preconceived ideas about me!” He was quite mad at this point.
Now here is where I have to laugh. I had no idea that to be in Slow Food was to be in the Cult of Carlo. My local Napa Slow Food group is a fun, tight-knit community that likes to get together and support each other and eat well. At Terra Madre, Petrini seemed to be just one of many boring speakers. I have never read his books before. In other words, I had no preconceived ideas about him except for the very words he had written.
Petrini continued: “And this entire book is about all the wonderful farmers markets of America.”
I didn’t wait for Lesser and pushed on in my bad, but passionate, Italian.
“Show me in your book where you say anything positive about this market!”
“The whole book is about your wonderful markets!”
“But this one. San Francisco. You wrote about one visit and it was through the eyes of Alice Waters and she doesn’t even shop here!”
At this point I was losing my cool and knew I would never regain it. Petrini was yelling and pointing fingers and I understood he had no idea what he had done. And probably never would. He struck me as a George Bush or Michael Jackson type that was surrounded only by people of a similar belief system that would never challenge or cross him. His words (and Lesser's) faded away as I watched this angry, twisted face yelling at me. It was bizarre. He had accused me of pre-judging him yet this was my only real introduction to him. His fuse is rather short.
As is the norm on a Saturday, I’d been up since 4:30 a.m. to get to San Francisco and set up and be ready for my customers at 8:00 a.m. I’ve been concerned about finances, getting my fields ready, weeds, seed stock, who was going to get booted off American Idol next, my family, getting enough water after a dry winter, etc. I looked at Petrini’s red face and flaying arms next to the dead expression on Lesser’s as she translated his vitriol, and thought, I think I'll go get some coffee and then return to my stall.
I got up in the middle of his sentence and said, “I have to
go to work so I can go surf.”
I heard laughter, but I assume not from Petrini.
I saw none of his noted charisma this morning.
To his credit, he didn’t play the language card. He knew exactly what he was saying. I’d heard from Slow Food people that his meaning was lost in translation, but as TV’s Judge Judy says, “Don’t pee on my leg and tell me it’s raining.” Now I'm hearing it is partly a language issue. This is hard for me to believe after meeting Petrini and learning that his manuscript, in English, has been floating around the Slow Food US offices and among its executives for months and they all signed off on it.
I wonder if some of his disdain for the market and ferry plaza has something to do with the fact the neither Petrini nor Slow Food had anything to do with its success. The building is a justifiable source of civic pride for San Franciscans and the Bay Area as a whole but it grew organically, long before Slow Food's manifesto hit our shores. Slow Food is planning a big event called Slow Food Nation to regionally show off food producers but I'm trying to think what this event can offer that a Saturday at the ferry plaza can't. I was invited to participate in Slow Food Nation and my uncanny intuition tells me this invitation will get lost in the mail.
My impression is that Petrini has a certain amount of disdain for America, justified or not. His disdain is based on impressions, not facts. He's only interested in his own output, not in taking in anything beyond the cliches he's already learned. He needs us to be greedy, foolish, over the top or stupid so Poppa Petrini can come in and save us. He won’t be happy until we follow his model to the letter. And the funny thing is, there are lots of problems with this market, and a lot of other farmers markets as well, but they're not the problems Petrini describes. Language and cultural bias are going to keep him from understanding what they are and what we should do about them.
I'll be honest. I'm feeling a little sorry for myself. I have had one day off in the last seven weeks and that day was spent with a tiller and chicken poop. I'm dog tired and I have to wonder why Carlo Petrini is picking on me and small guys like me. Hasn't he heard of Monsanto or ADM, the self-described supermarket to the world? If he doesn't feel like helping us, please ask him to leave us alone.
I would, however, thank him sincerely for showing us where the dead bodies are, but we’ll clean up our own mess in our own way, thanks. It’s the only way any of us are going to learn.
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