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Friday, Feb. 29, 2008
Slow-food movement creeps to Japan
By YOKO HANI
Enjoying good food is a fundamental pleasure. But the slow-food movement asks whether "good food" can mean more than simply the flavor and presentation of a meal.
"When we talk about quality food, we mean something that is good to taste but also good in terms of its background,' " said Giacomo Mojoli, former vice president of Slow Food International, an NPO founded in 1989 in Italy, and the current spokesman for Slow Food Italy. Mojoli was in Tokyo recently to attend a symposium titled "Food Culture in the Global Age" organized by another NPO, the Tokyo Foundation.
Mojoli, who has visited Japan more than 20 times, said that every time he comes here, he deepens his understanding about food culture. When he visited green-tea farmers a few years ago, for example, he considered what a travesty it would be were we to lose the quality these local producers bring to the world.
In fact, he said he keeps 200 kinds of Japanese tea at his home, and drinks at least six cups of tea every day. He takes time to appreciate the whole process of making tea — while thinking about the tea farmers.
"Slow food has been interpreted as being about 'eco-gastronomy,' in which we appreciate not only food itself but also things 'outside the plate,' such as the method of farming, the producers and the food's history," Mojoli said.
"This is a different approach to food from gourmets, who appreciate only the taste and look of the food on the plate."
In fact, thinking about and appreciating the wider issues around food is key to understanding the movement, whose Slow Food International organization has gathered more than 80,000 registered members around the world since it was established in the late 1980s. Although the term "slow food" is often used to mean simply the opposite of fast food, Mojoli says that it is actually about constructing new values regarding food, considering where and when it was made and what history or tradition it represents.
Naturally, the movement questions the trend toward the standardization of food, which, it argues, could threaten local tastes and producers and then the diversity of tastes available to consumers. This could eventually threaten rich food traditions around the world, reducing our enjoyment of good food in the future.
"Of course food should be tasty," said Mojoli. "But we think food should have values from ethical and cultural points of view, too."
But how can one judge "good food" from wider points of view? Consumers — especially urbanites — have busy lives, and tend to buy food that's easily at hand. How can the average person adopt slow-food philosophy?
"Information and education," argued Mojoli. "We should give the younger generation in compulsory education the opportunity to become familiar with food culture and traditions. For example, we could set up school farms, where students learn how the food they eat is grown and how it is connected with local history, geography, economy and their life.
"Such education will enable future generations to choose food for themselves, basing their choices on factors such as the environment and health. Adults should realize that it is an investment into our future."
Mojoli's stance on urbanites is philosophical.
"I want to spread the motto 'cultivate cities,' " he said, explaining, "It's about applying countryside values to urban life.
"For example, we have come too far in this speed-oriented life. We need to take more time over fundamental daily activities such as when we make tea or cook dinner. Also, we should eat or consume only the amount of food we need. We should be more conscious of seasons and seasonal food."
Mojoli insists he is not suggesting an old-fashioned approach but, rather, "trying to introduce a new model in modern society by narrowing the gap between producers and consumers of food."
Protecting small farms and local tastes are serious problems facing Japan, too. The farming population in Japan has fallen to less than 5 percent of the population, from about 15 percent 45 years ago; and more than half of Japan's farmers are now aged over 65.
"Thinking about food should not be something difficult, but fun," he said. "After all, enjoying good food is a pleasure, isn't it?"