Amid the background clatter of clanking plates, I couldn’t help but overhear a conversation at a baretto near the Trevi Fountain. “How much for a slice of pizza?” the shorts-clad tourist asked the woman behind the counter. “Depends if you’re sitting or standing,” replied the woman. “What difference does it make?” asked the tourist. After a solemn pause, the woman responded: “Slow makes all the difference.”In Italy, a slice of pizza can triple in price if it’s eaten at a linen-draped table instead of at a stand-up counter. Sure, all enterprising restaurateurs want to maximize business by keeping tables open for heftier tabs, but there’s more here than meets the North American eye. Enjoying food and drink is a ritual that Italians take to heart, and the symbolic value of table dining is reflected in how much it costs. Maintaining a price distinction between table and counter reinforces the Italian ideal that slow, sit-down dining is the more civilized way to break bread.
In recent years, determined global marketers have dutifully taken fast-food chains to our Mediterranean paesaniacross the Atlantic, but their optimistic ventures have been met with indignation and resistance. Fast food has so offended Italian sensibility that a group of protesting wine and food lovers in the Piemonte region founded the Slow Food Movement. The movement’s opposition to on-the-run food is based on the premise that dining is an experience to be undertaken slowly from beginning to end. According to the movement’s doctrine, food should not only be eaten slowly, but also prepared that way.
For some of us, fast food pushed through an open window into our SUVs represents the ultimate experience in “dining out.” In defense of our fast-paced mode of living, we argue that less time at the table means more time for taking care of business, catching up on e-mails, and taking the kids to soccer. We’re just keeping stride, after all, and trying to manage our overloaded schedules. But advocates of the Slow Food Movement ask the age-old chicken-egg question: Which came first? Are we truly reacting to our hyper-agendas by limiting the time we spend in the kitchen and around the table, or has the prevalence of fast food shaped our accelerated lifestyle?
From a sociological perspective, the difference between our dining habits and those of the Italians has much to do with the infrastructure of our respective lifestyles. For example, Italians’ longer lunch periods and nonchalance in the face of punctuality make it easier to manage slow, leisurely dining. In contrast, our shorter lunch periods and cultural preoccupation with the clock leave us more dependent on fast food. When in a hurry, food on the go is as good as food on a plate.
Granted, slow food enthusiasts must have time, a lot of time, on their hands. The thought of quotidian market expeditions and bringing food to a slow simmer rather than a quick, rolling boil, leaves many of us hyperventilating with anxiety. The average, over-extended household simply doesn’t have time to cook. For this reason, we can rationalize calling a cup of dehydrated noodles, after a two-minute twirl in the microwave “home made soup.”
Blame our fast-food mentality for not only dulling our palates but also blurring our vision of snacking and dining. In Italy, it’s considered gauche to make a meal out of something intended for snack consumption. Conversely, our cafeterias are chockfull of people “dining” on muffins and granola bars, simply because these foods are quick and easy to eat.
Maybe our Italian friends have given us food for thought. We need to slim down our bulging agendas, reassess our priorities, and reintroduce slow dining into our schedules. That way we’ll have more time to enjoy la dolce vita and things that really matter – like savouring our food while communicating with our families and friends around the table.
Loretta Di Vita is a consultant in business skills development, image and etiquette. She is president of Decorum Consultation Inc. firstname.lastname@example.org