Goodbye to Folco
11 Jan 2019
One of the authors of the Slow Food Manifesto, Folco Portinari, has died at the age of 93
Today we must say farewell to one of the founding fathers of Slow Food, Folco Portinari, a great intellectual and gastronome who has died in Milan at the age of 93. He was responsible for the extraordinary Slow Food Manifesto, a groundbreaking text that ended up revolutionizing food culture around the world. But he was first and foremost a friend, whose lively commentary and criticism that has accompanied the history of the association will be greatly missed.
A year ago, on his 92nd birthday, Carlo Petrini paid tribute to him with this profile.
If gastronomy today enjoys a culturally high status, in Italy as well as elsewhere, much of the merit must go to a group of intellectuals who, between the 1970s and ‘80s, were able to illuminate and narrate the complexity of the world of food. Among the most far-sighted and original interpreters of this holistic vision applied to the study of gastronomy is the poet, writer and scholar Folco Portinari.
In the 1980s, we started an intellectual fellowship that continues to this day. We were both on the editorial staff of La Gola, the magazine that revolutionized gastronomic communication and included among its contributors Alberto Capatti and the unforgettable Gianni Sassi.
Born in Cumiana, a small rural town in the province of Turin, on January 25, 1926, Portinari became a lecturer in the history of Italian literature at the University of Turin. He wrote for many of Italy’s leading newspapers and magazines and authored numerous books on subjects ranging from Manzoni to 19th-century Italian literature, food culture and sport. He joined Italian state broadcaster RAI in the 1950s, along with other cultural figures and intellectuals like Umberto Eco, Enrico Vaime, Piero Angela and Angelo Guglielmi. Thanks to his sensitivity towards the land and his passion for local cuisine, he brought Luigi Veronelli and his stories about the lives of farmers and cooks onto Italian television screens.
The Slow Food Manifesto, written in poetic prose by Folco in 1987, developed out of our friendship. It is a revolutionary document, now known throughout the world, that has contributed to making generations of gastronomes, farmers and artisans aware of the dignity of their work.
Folco has a distinct sense of irony. When I phone him, he often answers, “Soldier Nemecsek present,” a reference to Hungarian writer Ferenc Molnár’s novel The Paul Street Boys. As he would explain, “In an army of generals, I am that simple soldier, whose destiny is never to be heard. You listen to the generals and not the simple soldiers.” Like Nemecsek, he is undisciplined, but valiant and loyal. Unlike Nemecsek, however, he is listened to.
Thanks to Folco I have a greater understanding of the cultural approach to gastronomy: “Reducing it to just good food is a double mistake, firstly because we implicitly share the cliché that separates the history of food—economy and subsistence—from the history of gastronomy—culture and pleasure—and secondly because we take into consideration a small part, perhaps the least noble, of the complex system of roots that underpins our food.” His book, Il piacere della gola (1986), remains a milestone. “Even the gastronomic language is a language, a symbolic system, more or less explicitly revealed,” he wrote.
With Folco there are no first- or second-class subjects, because for him they all have equal dignity and he manages to make them all interesting and noteworthy. In conversation with him, one might pass from food to Dante, from the Bible to sport, and even to the tarot, because “you cannot intervene on the culture of food without changing culture in its entirety, because there are no independent sectorial cultures (of food, sport, the arts, etc.). Culture is the result of a synthesis. It is a glue that holds everything together. Otherwise we would be talking about trends.” A lesson that, today more than ever, is not only useful, but clears the field of carelessness and superficiality.
Thank you, soldier Nemecsek. Happy birthday.
La Repubblica, January 25, 2018
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