In the very years that small-farming Italy seemed condemned to die, Carlo Petrini conceived his project. They were the years that saw depopulation of the countryside, expanding suburbs and the creation of satellite towns. Social changes occurred which Pasolini described so elegiacally and Fellini, Visconti and Germi portrayed with pitiless insight.
And so the wonderful vision called Slow Food was born. It means being in charge of events rather than submitting to them and, crucially, rediscovering the thread that connects us to the best of the past without uncritically deferring to every fickle modern practice. It means preserving the best of popular science, respecting the enigmatic age-old practices and know-how embodied in the knowledge of practical actions and not codified in those books that condescendingly dismissed the premodern inadequacy of naïve activities which still respected the periods of the waxing moon.
We pay tribute to Carlo Petrini for his outstanding achievements:
he has opposed current trends, untiringly defending Italian agricultural traditions at a time when food standardization seemed inevitable and succeeding in protecting endangered diversity together with its embodied cultural heritage and knowledge.
he has created a worldwide movement which has set up new forms of enterprise able to preserve, protect and promote local food cultures.
he has shown that food culture and identity is a cultural asset that is both a record of the past and a resource for the future: it is a living story connecting the centers and outlying areas of our global village.
And finally, like a true anthropologist, he understands the wealth inherent in all difference, whether cultural, productive or biological. He has proclaimed an ethical and cultural manifesto based on biodiversity, territoriality and tradition, emphasizing the key role played by a community context which is not closed to innovation or fertilization from outside. Above all, he has always endeavored to maintain an attitude to the cultural treasures of food and wine which steers clear of two dangers – neither lamenting the loss of an imaginary golden age nor indulging in nostalgia. He has resolutely opposed the contrived trends adopted by the media towards food and wine and stresses the importance of what he defines as an ecogastronomic approach. This is an approach which restores food to its geographic, historical and anthropological context, where tradition, dedication, specific dishes, ingredients and recipes assume their proper socio-cultural meaning. These ideas were already being introduced during the illustrious days of the publication La Gola under Alberto Capatti.
Petrini has always maintained that gastronomy loses its essential substance if it is separated from anthropology, history, the sciences of biodiversity and cultural differences. It becomes a metaphysical study of food, its original and distinctive features are removed, it is deprived of its origins or history; it becomes disconnected and therefore fantasized or as often happens, transformed into a fetish. Interestingly, this was much clearer to Apicius, Varrone and Columella than some theatrical pundits of the gastronomic media.
In this sense the work of Carlo Petrini can be considered a contribution to what Michel Foucault would have called a social history of the body.
Among Slow Food’s most significant projects from an ethno-anthropological perspective are the Ark of Taste and the Presidia. Since 1996 these projects have been cataloguing and carrying out research on Italian food products that were at risk of extinction. We owe thanks to the movement that there are now nine Presidia products from our region of Campania, including the San Marzano, an expression of the perfect tomato, which had been reduced to a name in an empty shell.
Through the Presidia it has been possible to set up practical projects in local areas to support and protect local economic activity which is part of the cultural heritage of Italy.
Instead of confining himself to nostalgically decrying the disappearance of many quintessential foods which are distinguishing features of a country like Italy, Petrini and his friends have created organizations to protect and promote them. They have refused to contemplate just preserving a product as a museum-piece, and even less that it should be a stereotyped example of food difference, something exotic to eat while in fact concealing the fact that there has been a leveling of cultural diversity, typical of the standardizing pressure on differences between all types of goods. That is a way of denying cultural plurality while pretending to fully recognize it, erasing the age-old layers of significance that underlie every culinary practice.
Since 2002 the Presidia have expanded to become a worldwide program, with projects being set up in many countries including Morocco, Brazil and Nigeria. They aim to defend biodiversity, encourage the recovery of traditional agricultural practices and knowledge, and to spread awareness of them around the world, so enabling farmers and small producers in developing countries to enjoy a better life.
For these and many other reasons, Petrini’s work joins the achievements of the founding fathers of European anthropology from the nineteenth century – from his fellow-Piedmontese Costantino Nigra to our fellow-Neapolitan Vittorio Imbriani, from Giuseppe Pitrè to Ernesto de Martino – who were convinced of the need to save our great non-written heritage, composed not only of oral culture but also material culture, materials, methods, everyday actions, naturalistic knowledge – what we would today call ethno-science.
Objects, actions and knowledge also contain within them a world view, ethical attitudes, aesthetic values and practical science – as Lévi Strauss would say – because the living thread of history appears through the “fixing” of this traditional layered heritage, like a geology of memory.
In conclusion, I would like to stress the significance of today’s ceremony for our university. We regard the Conservation of Cultural Assets as one of the major subject areas studied here. The university is situated in a region which can boast a wealth of top quality food and wine products with a pedigree going back far into the past. Some of the masterpieces of material culture that come to mind are the Irpinian wines, the high standards of cheesemaking achieved by producers such as Gian Battista Basile who has gained recognition throughout Europe, and we mustn’t forget the famous pasta produced along the Vesuvian coast or the prized fruit known around the world and which prompted Goethe to extol this Mediterranean shore as the “land where the lemon trees bloom”. They are traditions that live on thanks to the far-sighted efforts of men and women who are newly aware of these cultural treasures and have created a virtuous circle linking past and future, tradition and innovation which best suits these bright lands of the south.
And they also live on thanks to the efforts of Carlo Petrini and his movement.
For all these reasons our university has great pleasure in today awarding the Laurea Honoris Causa to Carlo Petrini in recognition of the significant value of his work for the Italian economy and culture.
Mario Niola is professor of Cultural Anthropology at the Università di Suor Orsola Benincasa of Naples
Adapted by Ronnie Richards