They Say You Are What You Eat

Think you know anything about food or how food should work? Meet Carlo Petrini and that will all change.

A gorgeous 60 degree day of classes was set to begin with an introduction from founder and university president, Carlo Petrini.  A few minutes after 10:00 am, in walks an adorable, 60 something, Italian man, smiling, talking with the woman at his side.  He mentions how warm it is outside and takes off his coat, but leaves his scarf.  Introducing himself, he immediately welcomes the new masters classes.  This is quickly followed with an introduction of the woman beside him as his translator.  Chuckling at himself, he mentions, “believe it or not, the president of this international univeristy cannot speak English”.

Carlo Petrini is the father of Slow Food, a champion for taste, and cheerleader for the human condition.  He is also quite literally a food-obsessed godfather with the power to change lives.  Petrini founded the Slow Food movement because he believed that humans deserved food that promoted biodiversity, continued cultural traditions, supported farming as one of the most impactful professions in the world, and perhaps most importantly, tasted good.  As he walked around to meet each new student, I was starstruck as I introduced myself to him and shook his hand.  

The next two hours were spent soaking up every ounce of wisdom from the incredibly charismatic president.  I furiously attempted to take note of every poignant statement about the university, our world, food and life in general.  My reflection on his message took a few days, not only because he is quite an eloquently spoken man, but predominantly because my translation headphones went out after about fifteen minutes, leading me to spend the next two hours attempting to translate everything myself.  After the headache subsided, I was suddenly aware of the lessons I’ve already learned without even beginning a real class.

Rewind to the first day of orientation, the staff welcomed my class to our year of becoming gastronomes.  Immediately shivers ran down my spine, but as they asked us what this might mean, there was no clear answer.  I think my favorite answer (perhaps the most Rafiki response, as well), was that being a gastronome means dedicating more of yourself to food.  It hit me hard and stuck in my brain, coming up in the most random of moments over the following days.

As awful as it sounds, I really never cared about sustainability before.   Ask any of my friends in Boise.  It was too inconvenient for me to recycle and I loved to drive my car, even the shortest of distances.  However, this may be the first huge change I have experienced being in this new environment.  In two short weeks, I am acutely aware of things like buying (and questioning) biological products from the market, and separating my garbage correctly.  If the orientation week to this university can impact my behavior so much so fast, I am going to be a hippie for sure in a year.

The second huge lesson I have learned this week?  The “high quality products” in the title of my degree, does not mean the Grana Padano and fine Barolo life.  It means good, clean, fair food.  It is the food we all deserve.  When you think about it, it makes sense.  High quality is food that tastes good, that was made in a way that respects the earth, and was purchased at a price that is fair to both the consumer and the producer.  High quality products should not be an elite class of food, it should simply be what we expect from food.  It is the goal of my education and, after only a week, my future.

In Petrini’s address he said many things that stuck with me.  One of my favorites was, “money does not change the world.  Money certainly helps, but it cannot change the world”.  I simply adore that this man is so passionate about changing problems that he sees.  More than that, he sees it as possible.  Since the creation of Slow Food in the 1980s (and really before), it is now in 150 countries with over 2500 Slow Food producers.  Clearly a massive impact on the world in a part of one lifetime.

In this technological age, Petrini argued that an element of becoming gastronomes is to protect what is not technical: things like poetry, philosophy, love, friendship, etc.  Eating will always be the same, food is going to be the same.  When you sit in front of pasta and it is overcooked, you know it because you have been trained throughout your life to know food.  When you are little and eat a tomato but don’t like it because of the skin or the seeds, your grandmother tells you to be patient. She cooks it round and round for hours, and has you try it later.  Suddenly, you love it.  That was an act of love.  This beautiful depiction is Petrini’s explanation of how we each begin this relationship with food.  Our love for food was given to us by our grandmothers because they were the ones who followed us around making us try things before and after they had been affected by love. We are entering a field that cannot be understood with technology because it is a field of affection.  

One of the most endearing parts of Mr. Petrini is his belief in people.  We have been told many times this week that networks are what we can learn from here.  It is not about who has more or better experience, it is utilizing those experiences as a gifts.  In my class alone, get to be friends with and learn from classically trained chefs, sustainability farmers, children of sommeliers, and yes, even a dentist.  My classmates’ varying educations, experiences, and connections are the Midas touch to changing food systems in our world, no matter how food focused or far removed they seem.

Petrini mentioned an additional interesting point, “we teach children from a young age to be competitive, not to interact or play, to compete.  This university is 84 countries solely interacting”.  He also talked about the use of markets as education about the importance of diversity.  If you do not experience diversity, you cannot understand it or learn from it.  It is one of my favorite parts of this school, the vast globalisation.  It adds value to the network of students, but also supplies firsthand views of current gastronomic systems around the world.  This diversity has helped clarify and drive home to me the global food problems, in a way that travel alone could not.

I swear every word from that introduction and the past week of orientation has spoken to my soul.  I have so many more questions than I did when I began.  I itch to discover the answers and find more questions along the way.  This university, this class, this environment is magic.  It is the fire from a food revolution, and sparks personal evolutions as well.  Petrini’s last tidbit of magic, I came home immediately and tacked it up onto my fridge so that I see it everyday.

 “This is a year of training to make you strong enough to face the world.  Nothing shall be impossible for you.  Do what is you see as possible and suddenly we will be able to realize what is impossible.”

Stay hungry for good, clean and fair food, my friends

-The Very Hungry Traveler

P.S.  I encourage anyone interested in this field, Slow Food, Carlo Petrini or understanding my perspective more, to use this link to watch The Slow Food Story. (I am in no way being compensated for the encouragement of this Amazon purchase.)  It is an amazing story of how this revolution began, all the way to the creation of my university and into present day Bra.  I would love to open up conversation about it afterwards at TheVeryHungryTraveler@gmail.com

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