We Are What We Eat: A Slow Food Manifesto

Alice Waters with Bob Carrau and Cristina Mueller

By Adrienne Martini

I’m still wrestling with Alice Waters’ We Are What We Eat: A Slow Food Manifesto. As a believer in eating locally, I want to support her arguments for a new food system that relies on older systems of food production. But as a human who also believes that one of the biggest barriers to sustainable eats is social inequality, Waters makes it hard to get fully on-board with her cause.

That’s not her argument’s fault, mind. Waters clearly divides our current food scene into two cultures: fast food and slow food. From there, she points out the main hallmarks of each. Fast food, she says, is built on seven ideas including convenience, speed, and cheapness; slow food’s seven tenants include beauty, stewardship, and interconnectedness. Each sub-topic is cogently and compellingly explained.

Take the concept of seasonality, which is on the slow side of the equation. Waters makes a point to address how the problem of geography plays a large role in what seasonal eating looks like. Where she lives in California, options abound no matter what time of year it is. But in a place like the Finger Lakes, February, March, and April wind up being mostly root vegetables. Which will keep you alive, mind, but is hardly a selling point.

Waters then suggests greenhouses can fill the void in colder climates and points out that indigenous populations found a way to make it work. Those statements are true and entirely unsatisfying once you start to unpack them. How are greenhouses not thwarting the very seasonality you champion? How do you square the number of calories needed for a small indigenous population with that needed for a population many times its size?These are the moments where Waters evangelizing for slow food systems come untethered from modern, real world concerns. Yes, she does nod to the practicalities that make her vision a struggle to realize; what she doesn’t do is engage with these issues in a meaningful way.

Still, Waters’ illuminates a way of feeding people that is something to move toward, even if getting there isn’t as straightforward as she implies. She suggests the way forward is to simplify our choices by using an image given to her by Maria Montessori. When we walk into a grocery store, we are confronted with “a tangle of truth and falsehood, the authentic and the artificial. Simplicity is an ideal to strive for, because it creates a path for us that points to what is real and true.”

That focus on the real and true is something all readers of this magazine can endorse.

Adrienne Martini writes about running, eating and local politics at martinimade.com.

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