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Slow Food’s Elitism Only Fueled My Craving for McDonald’s

Carlo Petrini’s cult-like food movement is one for the privileged

I used to live a double life. By day, I preached a certain gospel. I wove through the dining rooms of two farm-to-table restaurants in Brooklyn, peppering conversations with words like “sustainable,” “free-range,” and “small-batch”; as adherents to the Slow Food movement, my employers placed sourcing and culture above cost in our operational hierarchy. Regularly, men carting whole chickens, ducks, and pigs would glide through the dining room, leaving diners awestruck — and on occasion, a bit uncomfortable.

But after 15-hour days of indoctrinating guests into our culinary religion, I craved something else. On my trip home, I would depart the subway one stop early, looking over my shoulder as I climbed the stairs to make sure no one was following. Quickly opening the door and darting inside my destination, I would march to the front of the line: “One Quarter Pounder with Cheese, a medium fry, and six-piece nuggets. Barbecue sauce. Medium Coke. To-go.” I committed the sin of eating, and, more blasphemously, enjoying, McDonald’s.

Working for a restaurant with such strong and strict values, like those of the Slow Food movement, can be exhausting. You’re not only the priest, but the disciple, as well. I needed to live the values we impressed upon our guests, but occasionally, I wanted to eat food without suffocating rules as to where it came from or the speed with which it was prepared. I felt my only choice was to hide that, in addition to enjoying softly scrambled cage-free eggs, I also loved Egg McMuffins. Slow Food and its brethren are built on a tower of judgement so high that it’s taken me more than eight years to climb down and confess that I love McDonald’s, all of it — its flavor, price, and speed.

The Slow Food movement was founded in 1986 as a direct response to McDonald’s. The American burger chain had earmarked the Piazza di Spagna, at the foot of the Spanish steps in Rome, as the site for what would then be the largest McDonald’s in the world, with seating for 450 people. Italians were outraged at the idea of this monument to American culture directly in front of one of their own. Protests ensued; the fashion designer Valentino took legal action, arguing that the stench of fried food would defile the air it shared with the headquarters of his couture. But in the end, the McDonald’s opened and is still there today.

While Valentino litigated, Carlo Petrini started a movement. He channeled the rage of Italian protestors to found the International Slow Food movement in 1989. Its manifesto, written by co-founder Folco Portinari, proclaims people have fallen “prey to the same virus: ‘the fast life’ that fractures our customs and assails us even in our own homes, forcing us to ingest ‘fast food.’” The manifesto goes as far as to propose a “vaccine of an adequate portion of sensual gourmandise pleasures, to be taken with slow and prolonged enjoyment.” In addition to slowness, the organization also focused on culinary terroir. To import culture (as in the case with the Italian McDonald’s) was to ruin an existing one, so Slow Food adherents were instructed to eat food grown locally, prepared in their culture’s original style. Slow Food, and its snail mascot, were here to save us from the likes of McDonald’s.

Today, there are more than 1,500 Slow Food chapters worldwide. Each chapter operates according to the Slow Food charter, but the goals and practices are unique to each location and members. In the United States, there is one official chapter, with 25,000 members and 250 sub-chapters. Each member of the Slow Food organization is “called upon to practice and disseminate a new, more precise and, at the same time, broader concept of food quality based on three basic, interconnected prerequisites.” These three prerequisites are: good, defined by flavor and aroma “recognizable to educated, well- trained senses”; clean, which means every step of the agro-industrial chain must be humane and sustainable; and fair, the social justice component of the organization and trickiest of the three.

My indoctrination into Slow Food came as an impressionable public policy graduate student. My goals were simple, and seemed to align with those of Slow Food: everyone must have enough food, farm subsidies must go to crops with actual nutritional value, and farmers must decrease the use of chemicals and antibiotics. Quickly, my interest in no one going hungry morphed into no one eating food out of season or food not grown locally, which turned into a career preaching these commandments.

I started small, in two beloved Brooklyn restaurants, where we sent diners home with a bag of the heirloom tomatoes they loved earlier in the meal, but not before giving them a minutes-long speech on the historical value of heirloom varieties. The Slow Food tenets required the restaurant purchase its ingredients within 200 miles of the restaurants; farms available to us were limited. Our guests knew that by visiting us, a meal for two would never cost less than $30 — admittedly out of reach for many.

But I’d soon grow exhausted of “good, clean, and fair” food, and realized that adhering to the Slow Food movement encourages a type of disordered eating. The organization’s evangelicals wouldn’t deign to eat anything falling outside the good, clean, and fair guidelines. What Slow Food overlooks is that its belief in restrictive eating willfully ignores that millions of people in the world who go without any or enough food daily. Yet, that type of eating comes at a cost, in dollars, yes, but also in the limited menu off which you can eat and the few places where you can purchase it. Practicing your culinary faith is expensive and limiting because “clean” food is hard to come by: It’s sold at farmers markets and Whole Foods, located in predominantly white and wealthy neighborhoods — not your corner store — requiring you to go out of your way to shop. While it rightly focuses on fair labor practices of food makers, it overlooks another important social justice issue — which is that the food falling within its guidelines is not accessible to all.

Admittedly, McDonald’s is an imperfect alternative. It does not increase access to healthy foods, and, given its antagonistic approach toward its workers (it’s actively against unions and the Fight for $15 minimum wage) and sourcing troubles, it’s not “clean” or “fair.” But what it does do is leave behind the red tape. Slow Food remains a religion for the privileged; to adhere to it is exhausting.

In my day job, eating came alongside an education. But a meal is also — and arguably, should be moreso — a setting for where we create memories. As a kid, McDonald’s was often the backdrop for mine. When I was a Slow Food adherent, pangs of nostalgia would creep in, reminding me of early morning orders of the Big Breakfast with my dad, who still visits McDonald’s once a week for a McMuffin and a coffee, or Happy Meals wolfed down after winning a softball game. Visiting McDonald’s would become more about reliving these simple memories than an act of rebellion. It was response to how I was raised, without judgement and with an appropriate amount of indulgence. My youth was never confined to a single type of food, so why should my adult life be so restrictive?

The frequency of my secret visits McDonald’s began slowly. Every few weeks, I’d sneak into the McDonald’s a half-mile from my apartment and order my meal by numbers from a neon sign. On my walk home, with my meal tucked discreetly in a canvas tote I packed for such occasions, I would breathe in the aroma of fat and salt. I cared not from where the meal was sourced, the details could only damper the experience. But I did not dare share my sin with colleagues, for fear they’d judge my low-brow tastes or lack of commitment.

After moving on to work with Sweetgreen and Dig Inn, fast-casuals that viewed themselves as antidote to my beloved McDonald’s, I grew even more exhausted by Slow Food’s rigidity, which was now coming at me in higher doses. I trained my staff of 40 to educate our guests on the menus; our canned response to criticism of our prices was that “good food comes at a cost.” Even with my coaching, and a daily staff meal, they too craved something aside from than the food they prepared and served for eight hours. Without ever disclosing my own sinful behavior, I trained my team to sneak their French fries and nuggets into the restaurant undetected. They were required to cover their uniforms before going into the nearby McDonald’s and bring a company bag to hide their food on the return trip. This commandment was not my own design; it was a company policy preventing our customers from learning that vegetable-slingers eat food other than what we sold. The staff didn’t understand why it wasn’t acceptable to indulge after a week of eating kale. Neither did I.

My devotion to the Golden Arches is wholly American, even in its flaws. For better or worse, McDonald’s is one of the few pieces of culture we did not appropriate from outside our borders. In 1954, a Multimixer salesman named Ray Kroc visited a restaurant owned by Dick and Mac McDonald in San Bernardino, California and saw potential. In truly American fashion, Kroc stole the McDonalds’ name and their idea and expanded on it. Within three years, the McDonald’s Corporation sold its 100 millionth hamburger. The restaurants instantly became an American institution — a monument as important to American culture as the Spanish steps are to the Italians.

The values of Slow Food instruct you to build meals solely on dogma, rather than memory-making. These same values don’t create space for non-binary thinking — that people can truly enjoy a fast-food burger while simultaneously supporting fair labor practices and treatment of animals that may be lacking in a company like McDonald’s. It’s also not the antidote to lack of access to healthy, fresh foods. However, this fast-food empire has perfected what Slow Food has yet to uncover: allowing people the opportunity to enjoy a meal on their own terms, no baptism required.

Suzanne Zuppello is a New York-based writer whose beats are food, boobs, and culture. Michelle Kondrich is a commercial illustrator and animator living in Maryland.
Editor: Erin DeJesus