Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A Stunning New Book Movingly Captures Italy's Slow Food Movement in Glorious Photos and Text

When filmmaker, Douglas Gayeton was asked by PBS to create a documentary about Italy's burgeoning Slow Food movement, it changed his life. Settling on Pistoia, a small Tuscan village near Florence and Gayeton's home, his camera began to explore the images he hoped to capture on film. The documentary never got made. Instead he found a new voice as an artist immersing himself in a way of life that merged food, family, and the daily rituals of this special place in a revelatory way. The result is SLOW: Life in a Tuscan Town (Welcome Books; $50.00; October, 2009; ISBN: 9787-1-59962-072-5). This is a sumptuous and utterly captivating book with many spectacular sepia-toned 4-color images and gatefolds, as well as other beautiful touches that mark this book as very special. SLOW also contains an Introduction by Alice Waters and a Preface by Carlo Petrini, the founder of Italy’s Slow Food movement. This skillful balance of art and publishing, I think, will surely make this one of the most popular gift books of the holiday season.

The Slow Food movement came from an idea that Carlo Petrini started as a reaction to the opening of a McDonald's branch at the foot of Rome's Spanish Steps. Petrini was sending out a warning call about the preservation of his food culture, which represents not only one of the world's great cuisines, but a way of life that was slowly disappearing in our modern world. The Slow Food movement has been gaining world-wide attention where it has raised awareness of locavore culture, which focuses on finding locally produced foods from farms and dairies, with a reduced emphasis on foods delivered to grocer's shelves from mass producers around the world.

Pistoia, is a small village where just about every inhabitant knows everyone else, but they also know the local sources of the food they eat and the wine they drink. Gayeton's girlfriend, Ombretta, originally came from Pistoia, and he would accompany her to family gatherings, where he haltingly learned Italian from his girlfriend's mother. The couple bought an apartment in town and sometime after a long period of partial restoration, they parted ways. Gayeton decided to stay.

"During the years Ombretta and I were together, her family made me the designated photographer of every celebration or shared event, so they were used to seeing a camera in my hands," Gayeton recalls in SLOW. He took many photographs and pouring over the results, he began to assemble "a single snapshot of an entire afternoon spent together." He did the same thing when he took his camera into the streets, shops, fields, and anywhere else his artist's eye directed him. He shot pictures of Pistoians at their tables, foraging in fields for wild greens and mushrooms, butchering meat, creating cheese, gathering eggs, conversing in bars, or at various social gatherings and celebrations. Once assembled in a way that gave each photograph some narrative drive, Gayeton embellished the images with handwritten notes, recipes, facts, and sayings. The pictures have the effect of being flat film, as described by his publisher. Indeed they are.

SLOW not only came to embrace the special culture of food, but also a way of life. Gayeton's stories have real charm whether he's relating how a contractor has run off with his money, leaving his restoration project in limbo, or of Giuseppina, an elderly village woman who raises chickens for their eggs. Stringent health laws and prohibitive health licenses and certifications prevent Giuseppina from legally distributing her eggs. She exchanges them for chunks of Percorino cheese or tomatoes at a local restaurant. They quietly incorporate these forbidden eggs into their fresh pasta. One of my favorite photographs shows four men gathering on a street in the village and lists, "What Italian Men Talk About When They Aren't Talking About Women: soccer, politics, Iraq (l'America), whoever isn't there."

Pistoia is also significant in that two of its most impassioned culinary citizens make memorable appearances in SLOW. Sauro, a fixture of Pistoia's open-air food market, had a strong influence on Mario Batali, who cooked locally there early in his career. Sauro gave the young Batali advice on local produce, and "was the first person to impress upon me the importance of eating local-foods, especially those in season," writes Gayeton. Dario Ceccini is a legendary butcher and restaurant proprietor, renowned for his recitations of Dante's Inferno, who figured prominently in Bill Buford's Heat, an acclaimed memoir about his culinary adventures in New York and Italy. Gayeton is in complete accord with Ceccini's memorable mantra of four things every animal must have: "a good life, a good death, a good butcher, and a good cook."

One of the most compelling sections of SLOW is the chapter on the butchering of a pig. Americans are entirely too squeamish and cut off from this process. We're used to buying our meats at the supermarket, knowing nothing about how that meat reached us and under what conditions. Gayeton describes the masterful and respectful way in which Domenico, a highly skilled macellaio (butcher), kills and then butchers a pig, wasting nothing. We see the various parts of the pig which will become salami, sausage, prosciutto, choice cuts for roasting--even some of the skin is saved, which the villagers will use to polish their shoes.

Nearly anyone who visits Italy invariably fantasizes about living there. I know I have. Douglas Gayeton experienced that fantasy life. "I wanted to get beneath the surface and live Italy from the inside." He watched a lot of Italian television. He "embraced soccer with a genuine all-consuming passion," and even attended Sunday mass and went to confession. The photographs and text in SLOW embrace this immersion with wit, compassion, and an artist's eye.

Taking my cue from Gayeton's example, I have absorbed SLOW...well...slowly. Having recently moved to a less hectic town from New York City, the book's arrival has signaled my own transition into a more relaxed way of living, buying foods regularly at farmer's markets, paying closer attention to eating more seasonally, while passing up easy conveniences such as processed foods that may be fast but don't deliver the good taste of fresh food from local ingredients. I'm keeping closer tabs on the seasons instead of complaining about the humidity or counting the days until spring comes. "The gift of this book lies in the depth with which it introduces us to the slow lives of ordinary people," says Carlo Petrini in his Preface to SLOW. "Through this unusual portrait of a Tuscan community, we come to understand that living slowly, once learned, can be done anywhere. It is not a matter of luck, it is a matter of choice."

Whether enjoying the daily ritual of a long lunch or a leisurely weekend supper, or indulging in a long-lasting feast at the table of Paolo, the owner of an important olive grove, the citizens of Pistoia commit themselves to the richer experience of communal dining. Find a roomy table and pull up a chair as you read this wonderful book and gaze thoughtfully at the superb images. Let Douglas Gayeton introduce you to the age-old Italian concept of SLOW.

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