The Power of Slow Food

Setting the Scene

We can all imagine the scene. A quaintly-small, dimly-lit restaurant in Italy filled with mouth-watering smells, half-empty wine glasses, and new romances at each corner table. Hushed conversations linger over melting candles and empty plates as the hours of the night go on and on.

This scene might be a familiar one if you have had the chance to visit Italy or one that is easy enough to imagine if you have not. Renowned for its incredible food, Italian restaurants are destination spots for many tourists both from America and beyond. Even so, moving from America to Italy, a shock may come at the difference not only in the food but more so in the culture of a restaurant and meal.

The American Restaurant

Who doesn’t love to go out to a restaurant? All over the world, the restaurant industry thrives off of hungry consumers, ready for a delicious meal and great environment. But what do I mean by “restaurant culture”? or “meal culture”? With these phrases, I am referring to the experience and philosophy behind a restaurant or a meal, rather than the food itself.

Having grown up in America, this is the culture to which I can speak most accurately, although of course not perfectly. In general, America is a culture of hurry, efficiency, productivity, and instant gratification. With the Industrial Revolution, the invention of the assembly line, and the capitalist mindset driving economic success, many of these traits seem to be hard-wired into our national and personal DNA. While quality of life is still sought in America, it comes at a different price tag than in many other nations around the world.

These observations translate to the meal and restaurant scene. As author Gary Paul Nabhan pointed out,

“As it is, there are already more fast-food outlets in the United States than there are sit-down (table service) establishments. In fact, a quarter of all fast food outlets do not even provide seating…by 1997, the sales of fast foods had topped 100 billion dollars a year in the Untied States, and…both McDonald’s and Burger King [reported] more drive-through sales than indoor sales. To paraphrase the poet Galway Kinnell: Surpassing the porcupine, we have become the species most adept at eating and shitting on the run.”

Coming Home to Eat: The Pleasures and Politics of Local Foods, Gary Paul Nabhan

As these statistics (and countless others) show, America is one of the many countries that has lost touch with food and the importance of meals. In the same book, Nabhan later goes on to ask,

“Is it that we can’t stand to be at home, with ourselves or anyone else? If so, there is little reason to garden, pickle, or thoughtfully prepare vegetables for dinner at home with one another.”

Coming Home to Eat: The Pleasures and Politics of Local Foods, Gary Paul Nabhan

Have we, as a country, lost touch with what a meal is? With the power that it holds? And the way it can bring people together? What are we missing out on by shoving our food down on the run to the next activity, not taking the time to taste and enjoy our meals and company?

An Italian Meal

So, what makes Italy different? What does an Italian meal look like? Here in Italy, mealtimes are savored, both the food and the company (read more about this aspect of Italian Cuisine and more here). Restaurants are not eaten at for convenience, but pleasure. Because of this, one does not go to a restaurant for twenty or thirty minutes, rushed in and out by a waiter trying to turn over another table. A restaurant experience here is one that lasts hours and continues over much good food and wine. A waiter will never rush you out, give you the bill, or interrupt you while you partake in the sacred act of eating a delicious meal.

What may also come as a shock to many Americans is the time at which these meals are consumed. For many here in Italy, one does not sit down for dinner until 9 or 10pm and does not finish until much later in the evening. There is something especially intimate and important about reserving the meal as one of the last things you do in your day. The later dinnertime also ensures families can eat together no matter their differing schedules, a practice that has been all but lost in the American culture.

Beyond the Meal

Italian dinners portray an attitude of intentional slowness that is prevalent in many other aspects of Italian life. It is rare to see someone rushed or in a hurry, even in stressful situations. It is not uncommon to see someone sit down with an espresso and chat to a friend for hours on end, giving the person (and the coffee) the intentional time necessary to fully appreciate.

This culture of slowness also informs another Italian culinary tradition: the Aperitivo. The Aperitivo (invented in Milan) is an Italian practice of having a drink and a small appetizer a few hours before your meal to prepare your palate. This tradition with origins going back to King Vittorio Emanuele II in the 18th century. As journalist Keith Beavers defined it,

“aperitivo is an opportunity to open your appetite, to ready your stomach for the amazing food on the horizon.”

The History of Apertivo Hour, Keith Beavers

While some in the past may have tried comparing Aperitivo to happy hour, they could not be more different. In fact, comparing these two gives an adequate representation of the different cultures I am trying to highlight. Happy hour is when drinks are reduced price, you get “more bang for your buck”, and can get cheap drunk, quickly. Aperitivo is a time to enjoy a carefully selected cocktail and matched food, widening your palate for new experiences, and giving you further opportunity to enjoy a few hours of good conversation before a meal.

Why Does it Matter?

To many who are reading this, the topic may seem inconsequential or irrelevant. Spending hours on a meal may seem like a waste and one might think, “I’m happy to just eat for convenience!” Although this is not a change that can be forced, I simply encourage you to consider a new perspective on the food that nourishes us. Our time is never as precious as the experiences that fill them and this is true for meals as anything else. The table is the center of a society and holds power in our lives. A good meal around an open table can change you, if you let it. I will close with a quote from Shauna Niequist, author of Bread and Wine: A Love Letter to Life Around the Table with Recipes.

“We don’t come to the table to fight or to defend. We don’t come to prove or to conquer, to draw lines in the sand or to stir up trouble. We come to the table because our hunger brings us there. We come with a need, with fragility, with an admission of our humanity. The table is the great equalizer, the level playing field many of us have been looking everywhere for. The table is the place where the doing stops, the trying stops, the masks are removed, and we allow ourselves to be nourished, like children. We allow someone else to meet our need. In a world that prides people on not having needs, on going longer and faster, on going without, on powering through, the table is a place of safety and rest and humanity, where we are allowed to be as fragile as we feel.”

Shauna Niequist, Bread and Wine: A Love Letter to Life Around the Table with Recipes


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One response to “The Power of Slow Food”

  1. Oh! Thank you for these beautiful thoughts and quotes. I love the final paragraph & words by Shauna Niequist. Poignant reminder of the beauty of our fragility and humanness.


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