Kimberly Behr

Slow Is Not Necessarily the Opposite of Fast

The enjoyment of good food and drink in many countries was once the particular preoccupation of the wealthy right wing, of people who had the time and money to indulge in luxuries. Slow Food, whether the organization or the concept, is grittier. In the United States, for instance, there’s an allied new wave of young apprentice farmers and food artisans who have little concern for money. Anyone who follows the news closely these days recognizes food as the highly political topic it always was, from government subsidies to the “externalized” costs of industrial farming (such as water pollution) to the content of school lunches to hunger at home and abroad. Food in all its complexity, including its capacity for deliciousness, is a subject increasingly associated with the left wing.

As the North American interest in food and farms has grown, more people have become familiar with the organization Slow Food, which was started in 1986 by leftwing intellectuals in the gastronomically and vinously rich Italian region of Piedmont. (Right away I have to pause and say that I work with people who do or did work for Slow Food, but I’m not much of a joiner, and a few years ago I let my brief membership lapse.) The immediate cause for starting Slow Food was the opening of the first McDonald’s in Italy, near the Spanish Steps in Rome. A few years later, in 1989, the Slow Food movement went international when delegates from 15 countries met in Paris to sign the Slow Food Manifesto.

This short document is rather wonderful. It says: “We are enslaved by speed and have all succumbed to the same insidious virus: Fast Life, which disrupts our habits, pervades the privacy of our homes and forces us to eat Fast Foods.” The manifesto contains a large element of hope: “May suitable doses of guaranteed sensual pleasure and slow, long-lasting enjoyment preserve us from the contagion of the multitude who mistake frenzy for efficiency.” And the manifesto proposes just that single solution to the problem: “A firm defense of quiet material pleasure is the only way to oppose the universal folly of Fast Life.”

As slogans go, the meaning of “slow food” is perfectly clear. It’s the opposite of fast food. The Slow Food mother organization in Italy celebrates the country’s traditional regional food, publicizing and arranging support for many individual foods. Those include lardo di Colonnata and alici di menaica. The first is cured fat back, as prepared in marble coffers in a particular quarrying village above Carrara in Tuscany; the second is cured anchovies, caught in an ancient design of net in just one fishing port 100 miles south of Naples. The symbol of Slow Food is the snail. Slow Food opposes mass-production and a high-speed life. It supports what I would call a civilized life.

These days Slow Food talks about Slow everything — even Slow Fish, meaning fish that have been caught in ways that don’t result in overfishing or other damage to the environment. But “slow food” also has a lower-case meaning. And a slow life doesn’t revolve just around food.

You’re living a slow life when you gather seashells along the shore, feed a campfire, visit a nearly empty museum on a weekday morning, talk late into the night, read an ink-on-paper book cover to cover without stopping to do much else, and, I would say, if you take the time to be bored. Part of being civilized is not just being slow but occasionally coming to a stop, establishing a point of reference for the moment when you start moving again. When you stop you aren’t really stopping, of course, because that’s often when good ideas rise to the surface.

Coincidentally, I started writing and publishing about food in the same year, 1986, that Slow Food started, although at the time I was unaware of the organization. I believed in pretty much the same things: traditional ingredients, traditional methods, traditional dishes. Then as now, I was focused on taste, not on health, entertaining, or some other aspect of food. I was on a back-to-the-land wavelength that assumed superior results came from hand methods and generally from old ways of doing things, which are of course typically somewhat slow. I was opposed to the cheapening effects of industrial production. Yet I had no conscious thought about the importance of speed, fast or slow. If anyone had asked me, I would have said it was pretty self-evident that good work as rule takes time. I’ve learned since then, after many visits to cheese makers, bread bakers, charcutiers, market gardeners, olive growers and grape growers and all sorts of farmers, that good work comes from experience and repetition, years if not decades of it.

Some proof that good work takes time lies in traditional hand-crafted foods. The best, for instance certain wheels of Gruyère cheese, are still the point of reference for quality in all foods, even if such products are scarce and most of the “artisanal” cheeses that we buy are really made by industrial techniques. When I speak of “proof that good work takes time,” I mean that the market generally rewards good traditional products much higher prices. Sticking to the example of cheese, some of the best farm cheese makers, to make more profit from a better product, are going backwards: rejecting silage in favor of pasture and hay, creating “clean” raw milk without the use of sterilizing chemicals on teats and equipment. (The milk contains microorganisms but predominately good ones, enough of them to overwhelm the bad.)

I live in northeastern Vermont, where the view is mostly fields and woods, but my work can be as intense as anyone’s and mostly I look at a computer screen. During the warm months, when I’m done for the day, I go outdoors and immediately I relax. In a cliché, I breathe deeply, and I feel my chest expand and relax. I walk into the garden: I hoe, kneel down and pull weeds, maybe thin some seedlings, eat a leaf of lettuce, a carrot, some berries. I may accomplish something, but there’s no goal or focus. These are acts of appreciation and pleasure, nothing at all to do with speed or efficiency. They’re the slowest.

Some of the most delicious food, including some of the greatest dishes, is made using cooking techniques that by nature are slow. Most of these involve liquid — braising, poaching, stewing, soup making. But proper roasting, too, takes time, whether on a spit or in an oven (though the latter is really baking). Some examples of excellent results from slow tactics are a French navarin (braised lamb shoulder with spring vegetables, including turnips), oxtail soup (which starts as a braise), braised lamb shanks with whole garlic cloves and bulb fennel, pieds et pacquets from Marseille (sheep’s feet with packages of sheep stomach), osso buco from Milan, and the beef brasato made in different regions of northern Italy.

Of course, those who believe in slow food don’t really oppose fast cooking techniques. What’s wrong with toast? Or call it bruschetta. Certain techniques are inherently fast — sautéing, frying in deep fat, grilling. They apply high heat directly to relatively thin or small pieces of food, and if the cooking goes on too long the food burns. A lamb chop grilled medium rare takes just two or three minutes per side. A classic French omelette takes less than five minutes from cracking the eggs to sliding the cooked omelette onto a plate. Spinach, with the washing water still clinging, can take just a minute to cook through in a wide covered pot, stirred once or twice, a hybrid of boiling and steaming. Peas, green beans, cut-up carrots, turnips, or broccoli put into a big pot of boiling water don’t take more than a few minutes. (You can boil spinach, too, but if it’s young and delicate, it loses too much flavor to the water.) Then, to have all the good qualities of this quickly cooked food, you have to eat it quickly, before the vegetables lose their utterly fresh taste, before the grilled meat or fish looses juice and the bit of outer crispness.

Slowness really means living at the right speed for whatever you are doing, living more in the present moment, rather than looking always ahead to the next thing: deadlines, bills, future plans. It’s not about being inefficient or taking too much time. It’s about moving at the right speed.

“Slow” has all the connotations of the words ecological, small-scale, human, just as “organic” used to have for many people. Yet for all that “slow food” is a wonderful phrase, “slow” doesn’t have quite the right literal meaning. Better words might be “real,” “authentic,” “genuine,” “decent,” “honest,” “ethical,” all of them difficult to define in relation to food but a lot closer to the mark. In cooking and eating, what’s the practical meaning of slow? To me, it’s “careful, thoughtful, open, precise.” It means you pay attention. A better single word than slow might be “integrity,” except that it’s a noun and doesn’t lend itself at all to a catchy name or a slogan. If we weren’t easily distracted by its other connotations, I’d prefer “innocent.”

As an opposite to “slow” food, “fast” isn’t quite the right word either. Industrial “fast food” is ready-to-eat and quickly eaten, but more important, it’s fake, cynical, false, misleading, unhealthy, ill-considered, bad for the environment, bad for workers, bad for all the animals raised under cruel conditions.

The pleasure we find in cooking and eating lies not in being either fast or slow but in being both or in-between at different times. Different speeds are part of food as they are of the rest of life. What we need is balance.

Some slowness helps concentration, unless for example you’re driven by adrenaline, like a line cook during the lunch rush. It turns out, if a study I once read about is right, that multi-taskers don’t have a special ability that the rest of us lack; in fact, they do everything badly. Focus is important. If I run out of shelf space for books and I want to get rid of those I’ll never look at again, it doesn’t work to skim the shelf — I’ve tried that. What works is to take each book down and hold it briefly in my hand and mind. I get rid of a lot more books.

Considering that I spend my days writing about food and publishing a food magazine, it’s ironical that at the end of the day I often feel I don’t have enough energy to cook more than a basic meal, often grilled meat and grilled vegetables with rice or potatoes. My family and I would probably eat out most of the time, if not for the cost, the distances, and the limited choices in the rural area where we live. Americans are cooking less and less. We spend an average of 27 minutes a day preparing food and four minutes cleaning up (to borrow the figures used by Michael Pollan in his writing on the topic). We spent more than twice that amount of time in the mid-1960s. And the reason isn’t only to do with time. Fashionable restaurants, from casual to luxurious, now generally pursue minimalist cuisine. In France, the classic sauces have all but disappeared; you hardly find a sauce at all. Maybe we’ve simplified because we’re tired, don’t have the time, don’t have the attention span. Maybe we’re worn out from living with the world’s complicated problems. Maybe the “slow” in “slow food” really just means “slow eating,” because so few of us cook or want to cook. And if so, I think that’s all right.

What about time- and labor-saving kitchen appliances, such as food processors and microwaves? Do they have a place in slow cooking? A labor-saving tool frees you to do something else more important, presumably more important than taking a nap. I write on a computer, which eliminates the many hours I once spent retyping; now I spend more time writing. When the food processor became popular back in the 80s, the idea was not only that it would supply the skills you lacked but you would also have more time to cook fancier meals, involving more chopping, shredding, purées — French meals in particular. Which sounds rather quaint now. Personally, I avoid my food processor, except for making certain purées, because it takes longer to wash, dishwasher or no dishwasher, than a cutting board and a knife do. (Also, I love sharp knives.) For purées, a mortar and pestle give a more pleasing, slippery texture. Cooking and eating are sensory experiences; a food processor only gets in the way. I use a copper bowl and whisk to beat egg whites, just for the pleasure of the process. I can’t remember the last time I used an electric mixer. If we still have a blender, I don’t know where it is. The best thing about hand tools is that they increase your sensitivity to the physical state of the food, perhaps especially texture. They make you pay close attention. They help you understand the process better, which generally means better results. Often hand tools give more control. My hand-cranked Tre Spade coffee mill gives a more even grind with less powder than my electric coffee grinder does, and that in turn gives less-cloudy coffee whose fine flavors are easier to taste. (We could talk a long time about coffee and the different ways to make it and why.) You cannot make as delicious bread by machine as you can by hand, because the fermentation is everything to flavor, and the best fermentation requires that you check and respond to its precise evolution — another fold, a few more minutes…

After you’ve cooked, “slow eating” may literally come into play. During a meal, when something on the plate is especially interesting to taste, I slow down and zero in — slow again.

There’s one more thing: you don’t eat food without having something to drink, if only water. What about “slow drink”?

The “slowest” drink is local water or, depending on where you live, local wine or beer or something else, such as cider. When liquids are transported from far away — water, wine, beer, soda — there’s an environmental cost. It’s important to have a few luxuries in life, however, and I admit that for me one of them is imported wine, mostly French. At home, when we open a really good bottle, we tend to sip it more slowly than we do more everyday wine. That’s partly because there’s more to experience and partly because we don’t want the experience to end.

It’s obvious that for ideas to surface and for any of us to do our best work, we need time to relax. And some of that time should be spent sitting down and eating with full enjoyment with other people — talking in the easy-going, open atmosphere of the table. Ideas come and information is exchanged that you might never otherwise receive: personal information, stories, unusual facts. An essential refreshment takes place that has nothing to do with the physical one coming from food and drink.