Sunday, May 20, 2007

I Left My Heart in San Francisco or Let's Expel the Politically Correct

I know that there are dozens of blogs (written by folks who are much smarter and much more literate and articulate than I am) that are giving their own view, review, and play-by-play of the events surrounding Carlo Petrini and the Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market. But like any good gastronome, I just can't resist an opportunity to stir the pot.

I'll start off by stating that what is being written here is not the opinion of my convivium. This silly little piece of prose was crafted purely to fulfill my culturally motivated need to speak my mind about current situation. Some of it is obviously tongue and cheek and some might or might not be. I'm not on anyone's side here and I'm not going to try to convince you that any of the characters in this story is particularly right or wrong. You decide for yourself and then please feel free to share your opinion of my opinion with someone besides me.

I want to make it perfectly clear that I am not, by any means, a passionate devotee of Mr. Petrini. However, I do sincerely appreciate his efforts and I am grateful that his vision has fostered the formation of the Slow Food movement, thereby helping to contribute to the efforts of numerous groups of like-minded people who are all trying to save the world through compassion towards fellow human beings and respect for our living planet.

I do not fully accept, nor do I agree with any number of things pertaining to the policies, events, and operation of Slow Food USA, Slow Food Intl., and the national/international officers and board members...but that's just a personal thing and I have no problem being able to put all of that aside in order to focus on the "big picture". (Or in my case, the small picture. I am much more interested in grass-roots local efforts, free or low priced events, and the politics of my community than I am about Terra Madre, the NYC Slow Food Gala, or figuring out how to raise money locally to support any number of national or international efforts...again, that's just my personal approach to spreading the Slow Food gospel.)

So back to the story of Carlo and the Ferry Plaza Market Farmers.

Mr. Petrini is currently on a PR tour to give some face time to the masses in order to promote his latest book, "Slow Food Nation". I'm not going to spend a great deal of time criticizing the book. If you're curious, pick up a copy and give it a read. It's a bit wordy and a bit philosophical and a more than a bit opinionated. But like other things I've read that were written by Petrini and translated into English, I think that the combination of Petrini's style and the work of some overzealously intellectual editors and translators always make his publications somewhat difficult to digest. I did, however, find this most recent book to be somewhat more approachable than many previous Slow Food/Petrini publications.

If you've ever read (or attempted to read) any of Mr. Petrini's other published works, you'd know by now that the average American would at least need to keep a dictionary close at hand. And if he or she desired actual comprehension of all of the concepts, theories, and politics there would be a great benefit from the assistance of a college literature major, someone with a PhD in a life science field, and perhaps an armchair philosopher for good measure. This goes double for Slow Food International's 'Slow' magazine. It's not that intellectual literature is a bad thing by any means, but most folks just don't have the education or intellectual curiosity that is required to derive pleasure from attempting to read things that seem akin to someone's master’s thesis or an article out of the latest academic journal. No offense to you uber-smart, post-graduate educated people, but while most of the world's citizens are far from being knuckle-dragging troglodytes, we just aren't as bright as you are.

What happened in San Francisco was basically this. Some folks associated with the Ferry Market read a particular passage of Mr. Petrini's book. The passage was specifically related to the Ferry Plaza Market, its farmers, surfing, Mr. Petrini's philosophy of what things would be like in the Slow Food, ideal, utopian gastronomic universe, and how this philosophy could not exist alongside American-style capitalism. They didn't like Mr. Petrini's view of their market or their business practices. They felt insulted and irate when Mr. Petrini would not retract his opinion and fall in step with what they felt was the correct perspective of their market and business practices.

I call bullshit here.

As I made clear in the third and fourth paragraph of my little story, I don't agree with any number of Slow Food issues, policies, etc. (I also don't agree with my wife and her philosophy on how often the lawn should be mown, but I'll be damned if a difference of opinion is going to end the marriage.) My point is that a difference in opinion, which leads to a inflamed argument over a piece of literature, and finally results in an irreconcilable situation in which neither party is satisfied with the outcome and everyone walks away is just plain ignorant. I realize that it often turns out that way when people disagree, but that doesn't make it acceptable. Not to mention that in my mind there are few things more hypocritical than Americans having a problem with anyone calling a spade a spade.

Americans have always had a knack for being unable to accept that there could be little in the way of productive conversation without speaking directly. Even if the subject was brutal, ugly, or socially questionable. We take pride in making the rest of the world aware that Americans have no problem telling it like we think it is or at least as we believe it should be. Stupid or not. Truthful or not. We think it. We say it. A nation of Asperger afflicted individuals...minus the unusually high IQs.

(The exception to this All-American, culturally significant mode of speaking are the lunatics who believe that there is even a mote of value in the ridiculous concept of political correctness. We should appeal to the United Nations to displace another indigenous, Middle Eastern population and give their little slice of desert paradise to the politically correct folks so they can all live together in a politically correct nation...far, far away from here.)

Now read on, brave soul, and feast your eyes on Mr. Petrini's inexcusable transgression. See for yourself how the pompous foreigner with his Socialist ideas slandered and soiled the character of the noble, capitalist, American farmer/surfers.

From “Slow Food Nation” by Carlo Petrini (Copyright 2007 Rizzoli Books):

Morning. The cool morning began quite early: if you are going to the market, it is best to be ready by seven o’clock at the latest. The sun was not yet warm enough when, in the company of my chef friend Alice Waters, I entered an elegantly refurbished area of the docks; pretty little coffee shops were serving warm mugs of excellent organic fair-trade coffee; sumptuous bakeries were putting out all sorts of good things, spreading the fragrant aroma of some wonderful kinds of bread. Oil and wine producers were offering samples in marquees, while hundreds of open-air stalls were selling excellent products: fruit and vegetables, fish, meat, sausages, and even flowers—fresh, healthy-looking food, all carefully marked organic.

One could have easily spent a fortune there. The prices were astronomical, twice or even three times as high as those of “conventional” products. But how hard it is to produce things so well, and what costs are involved in obtaining certification! I am convinced that the farmers’ intelligent, productive efforts deserve to be paid for generously, so I was not too scandalized by the prices, even though they were those of a boutique. Yes, a boutique: for I soon realized I was in an extremely exclusive place (bear in mind that this is one of the oldest and most important farmers’ markets in town, la crème de la crème). The amiable ex-hippies and young dropouts-turned-farmers greeted their customers with a smile and offered generous samples of their products to a clientele whose social status was pretty clear: either wealthy or very wealthy.
Alice Waters introduced me to dozens of farmers: they were all well-to-do college graduates, former employees of Silicon Valley, many of them young. Meanwhile, their customers, most of whom seemed to be actresses, went home clutching their peppers, squashes, and apples, showing them off like jewels, status symbols. Two of the producers in particular struck me: a young man with a long beard and a man who was selling oil. The former, with long hair and a plaid flannel shirt, held his lovely little blond-haired daughter in his arms and told me, in a conspiratorial tone, that he had to drive two hundred miles to come and sell in that market: he charged incredibly high prices for his squashes, it was “a cinch,” and in just two monthly visits he could earn more than enough to maintain his family and spend hours surfing on the beach.

The latter, who wore a tie, extolled the beauties of his farm: it consisted of hundreds of hectares of olive trees, stretching as far as the eye could see, and nothing else. While I was tasting his excellent organic oil on a slice of bread which reminded me of Tuscan bread—absolutely delicious—I was thinking of what he must have uprooted and cleared away in order to grow all those plants, each one of them impeccably organic.

Afternoon. In the early afternoon, with those odors and aromas and the faces of the marvelous farmers’ market still in my head, I was sweating in a taxi (it lacked the usually ubiquitous American air-conditioning) on the way to Berkeley for my appointment with Miguel Altieri. The professor, an entomologist, teaches agroecology at the university. He spends six months a year in California and the other six elsewhere in the world, especially in South America, where he carries out fieldwork and projects of sustainable, family-based, organic farming. He is a champion of biodiversity, with his theory that agricultural systems, like all ecosystems, ought to have all the necessary capacities for self-regulation, without the intervention of external factors such as pesticides and fertilizers. According to Altieri, the existing biodiversity—on which farmers’ knowledge has been molded for thousands of years—and local people’s know-how are the only basis for developing agricultural systems that are sufficiently productive and respectful of cultural diversity all around the world. By blending the local farmers’ knowledge with the discoveries of “mainstream” science, it is possible to create a clean and productive agriculture which will foster human well-being while respecting nature.

I walked across the beautiful Berkeley campus under a warm, dazzling sun (green California gets it even in the fall) and reached Altieri’s small office. I listened spellbound for over an hour to his theories, conversing in Spanish (he is Chilean) and relishing his militant passion and the unmistakable honesty of this man who works and struggles for a better world. Biodiversity before all else: this is the only secret behind sustainable development. His aversion to the use of chemical substances in agriculture is clear, absolute, and motivated. He proposes alternative methods with such utter conviction that in South America he is considered a luminary and is respected by universities, research centers, NGOs, and governments.

In his opinion, the main task is “to promote sustainable agriculture; a development program which is socially equitable, environmentally healthy, economically affordable, and culturally sensitive.”

I asked him what he thought of organic farming and its rapid expansion in California, wanting to test his agroecological “extremism.”

He replied:
There are many cases of organic farming that are not sustainable, because they create a vast monoculture, one that relies on the use of integrated pesticides which greatly reduce the surrounding biodiversity: vast stretches of vineyards in Chile and in Italy, huge plantations of vegetables in California, hectares and hectares of olive groves in Spain.
Olive groves . . . I thought of the man I had met that morning. I remembered the faces of my wine-producer friends in southern Piedmont, who, since Barolo sells well, have in the space of a few years planted vines everywhere, even in ditches, removing woodland and fields, indeed most of the surrounding biodiversity.

Altieri continued:
And in addition to the environmental question, there is also a socioeconomic one: nowadays in California there is a lot of organic agriculture which is unsustainable because, although it has a limited environmental impact, it exists at the expense of people who are paid very little, just as in conventional agriculture. Hosts of Mexican immigrants exploited like slaves, with no rights and earning a pittance. It is not fair, because the organic product is sold at a much higher price than the product of conventional farming. And only the very rich can afford it, the fruits of this work; the minorities don’t eat organic food in the United States.

I had seen confirmation of this a few hours earlier, and indeed, as Altieri flowed on:
In California, 2 percent of organic producers make percent of the total amount produced by the industry in this sector; I use the term “industry” advisedly: we are facing the same problems as conventional agriculture. The concentration of production, the exploitation of the work of ethnic minorities, monocultures, the reduction of biodiversity, and prices determined by a free market which is not sustainable. Social sustainability can be achieved through public intervention, through politics: in Brazil, in those regions where the Workers’ Party controls the local government, all food served in public cafeterias must by law be organic and must be produced by small local producers at fair but accessible prices.

Agroecology has a scientific basis, but it also has profound political implications, because it is badly in need of public intervention: before an agroecological approach can be established in Latin America, there must be agrarian reform and public intervention in the market to protect small farmers or to guarantee fair prices for producers and consumers. All these factors are crucial, and they affect both science and politics.

Evening. On my way back to town, I pondered those words and the market I had visited. Organic farming is undoubtedly a very good thing; it is an excellent alternative to agroindustry, and I do not like to find fault with people—my friends of that morning—who sell products that are so naturally good. But perhaps it is better to have doubts. Reality is complex and resists labels. There is a risk that technocratic thought, when it is deeply rooted, may shape and influence even those tendencies that are opposed to the system, thereby creating other anomalies. As the outskirts of town flashed by outside the window of the taxi, chains of fast-food joints succeeded one another on almost every block. They were all crowded with ordinary people, very different people from the customers I had seen at the farmers’ market.

In the evening I returned to Berkeley, and went to Chez Panisse, the restaurant owned by my friend Alice Waters, where I had a memorable dinner based on raw materials so fresh you could almost taste the life that had animated the vegetables only a few hours earlier. They served me the best agnolotti I have ever eaten. At Berkeley! Green California . . . vive la contradiction!

Hmmmmm...maybe I'm even dumber (or more insensitive) than I thought I was, but it seems to me that Carlo called it the way he saw it and told the story of what he experienced from the perspective of a man who is an idealist, intellectual, Socialist, Italian, or whatever you might believe he is...just like anyone else would have.

Maybe it would have made some folks feel a little better if he had apologized for stating his opinion.

Or if he had just had the decency to retract his views of the Ferry Plaza Market and its farmers.

Or if he hadn't mentioned the already well publicized point that large scale, monocrop-type agriculture is not a good thing, even if it is "organic".

Or if he hadn't told his readers that some of the farmers at the Ferry Plaza Market are enjoying leisure time thanks to their sales at the market.

Or if he had tossed aside his convictions that food should be good, clean and fair and that all human beings should have access to that food.


That might have made some folks feel a little better.

Now for those of you who believe that all of Slow Food operates like the hive mind society of Star Trek's Borg:

Slow Food members and supporters do not blindly follow the ideas and accept the opinions of Mr. Petrini as their own...try to look at him in the same way we perceive John Lennon or Bill Gates or any of a number of other popular culture icons. He gave us a great concept. He can be entertaining. He makes for a charismatic figurehead...most of the time. And as a bonus, he also wears great shoes. (But don't all Italians?)

He's not King Carlo. Your local convivium does not build shrines to him. He is, after all, just another human being. Just like you. Just like the farmers at the Ferry Plaza Market. At the very least he deserves the courtesy of not being vilified just for having an unpopular opinion. At best, perhaps people might decide that his observations and conclusions deserve further consideration.

It is worth noting that, whether you like him or not, Carlo Petrini is a determined man who has achieved a number of very noble accomplishments. He is a brave man who is not afraid to challenge conventional wisdom. And he is an uncommon man who is deeply concerned about the frightfully, gloomy future of humanity and is actively doing something to try to change things for the better.

My secret hope is that eventually this will turn into one big love-in and Carlo and Steve Sando will hug and make nice-nice. Just like John Mackey & Michael Pollan did.

But for now, let's all just take a deep breath, have a good laugh at what a bunch of silly monkeys we can be sometimes, and get back to the serious business of trying to save the world in whatever way we can. I know that our children would certainly appreciate not inheriting bigger problems than those which we already need to get to work fixing.

Now that I've had my fun, I want to also give you the opportunity to read the opinions and comments of the Ferry Plaza Farmers:

And the blogs of some of those smart folks I was telling you about: