Virginia Tech Digital Library and Archives

Culinary History Collection


Current Editor: Cynthia D. Bertelsen

Issue 8 Spring 2005

Fast Food or Slow Food?

by Jo Ann Barton

Members of my generation can remember when it was a treat to go to McDonalds; that was before there was a fast food restaurant on every corner. These restaurants moved hamburgers from an infrequently consumed food (For me, hamburgers were a part of the annual family outing to a state park where my uncle cooked the burgers on an outdoor fireplace.) to something that was available every day. French fries were even more of a treat as the potatoes we grew were not well suited for making them. We did try occasionally but they didn't measure up to those we could get at McDonalds. Now, several hundred, or maybe even thousand burgers later, both burgers and fries have lost some of their appeal. Evidently, I'm not the only one who feels that way as fast food restaurants continue to enlarge their menus to include other meats, salads, and a variety of drinks including milk and juice. Some of the additions are due to an increased awareness of nutrition but some are just to tempt a jaded palate.

Fast food restaurants do offer food for those on the go. The food is ready to eat when you order and can also be eaten in a hurry-one hand on the sandwich and the other on the wheel. They also insure a certain level of quality so that you can have confidence in what you are buying; a level sometimes described as "standardized mediocrity." Sit-down restaurants like Howard Johnsons and Holiday Inn also offered the familiar even when on the road.

With the advent of frozen foods, consumers were able to duplicate many of the dishes at home with little preparation time or skills required. The convenience of these items often offset the fact that they didn't taste as good as the ones mother made. And as years have gone by, mother may have adopted the prepared product as her standard and may no longer have the skills for producing the product from scratch. The next step was the purchase of ready to eat meals-no thawing and heating needed. Supermarkets pioneered in this movement but now many restaurants offer a carry out menu.

It now looks as though consumers are becoming more interested in preparing at least some of their own meals. One indication is the interest in cooking classes. Tyler Florence, author and celebrity chef of Food Network's "Food 911" and "Tyler's Ultimate," says, "Cooking classes are taking the country by storm and people are working them into their weekly schedule: Monday the gym, Tuesday a movie, and Wednesday a cooking class. It's an exciting and savory way to learn to cook without spending two years at a culinary school." (Better Homes and Gardens Magazine, September 2004)

Food professionals are well aware of the phenomenon that consumers want someone else to test a recipe and recommend it. Several members of the Peacock-Harper Culinary History Committee can attest to the popularity of cooking classes locally. Gary Giovanni has taught a number of classes for the Free University, sponsored by the YMCA at VA Tech. Sandy Bosworth and Bruce Jensen often assist with these classes which may focus on the food of a particular country or use of herbs in cooking or meals prepared on the grill. Chef Billie Raper teaches classes at the Hotel Roanoke. Maxine Fraade, cookbook author and committee member, also teaches classes in the Roanoke area. Mary Rapoport often shows food preparation techniques in her work with the American and Virginia Egg Boards.

At the opposite end of the scale from fast food is the Slow Food movement headed by Carlo Petrini, an Italian food-and-wine writer. According to the group's web site (, "Slow Food is an international organization founded in 1986 in Paris whose aim is to protect the pleasures of the table from the homogenization of modern fast food and life. Through a variety of initiatives, it promotes gastronomic culture, develops taste education, conserves agricultural biodiversity and protects traditional foods at risk of extinction."

The headquarters of Slow Food are in northern Italy. It has over 80,000 members in 100 countries. Local organizations are known as convivial and there are two in Virginia in Hampton Roads and Keswick. The Snail is the icon and the name of the newsletter.

One of the activities of the Slow Food movement is the development of an Ark of Taste which aims to rediscover, catalog, describe and publicize forgotten flavors.

These are the criteria for Ark product selection (note that nutrition is not one of the criteria):

  1. Products must be of outstanding quality in terms of taste. "Taste quality", in this context, is defined in the context of local traditions and uses.
  2. The product must be linked to the memory and identity of a group, and can be a vegetable species, variety, ecotype or animal population that is well acclimatized over a medium-long period in a specific territory (defined in relation to the history of the territory). The primary material of the foodstuff must be locally sourced unless it comes from an area outside the region of production, in which case it must be traditional to use materials from that specific area. Any complementary materials used in the production of the product (spices, condiments, etc.) may be from any source, and their use must be part of the traditional production process.
  3. Products must be linked environmentally, socio-economically and historically to a specific area.
  4. Products must be produced in limited quantities, by farms or by small-scale processing companies.
  5. Products must be threatened with either real or potential extinction.

The interest in heirloom fruit and vegetable species is one indication of interest in perpetuating certain flavors.

There are two books by Carlo Petrini in the Culinary History Collection: Slow Food: Collected Thoughts on Taste published by Chelesea Green Publishing in 2001 and Slow Food: The Case for Taste by Carlo Petrini (translated by William McCuaig) and published by Columbia University in 2003.

Less extreme, are the efforts of Alice Waters, a California restaurateur, who has long promoted the use of locally and organically grown, seasonal foods. She sees food growers and consumers working together to sustain the earth's resources. A current project is the "Edible Schoolyard" which promotes a seed-to-table curriculum for schools. Waters will be appearing at the Smithsonian Institution's 39th Annual Folklife Festival on the National Mall in Washington, D. C. in June, 2005. A quarter-acre organic garden is being set up for the event.

Waters' book Chez Panisse Café Cookbook (Harper Collins, 1999) is in the Culinary Collection. She has also written a child's cookbook Fanny at Chez Panisse based on her daughter's experiences at the restaurant.

Most of us are probably not going to settle for only locally grown foods (no oranges in Blacksburg) or even seasonal foods (fresh strawberries only in late May), but there are some things we can do to increase our enjoyment of foods.

  1. Use locally grown foods when possible. Grow your own or shop at a farmer's market or at a pick-your-own farm.
  2. Use foods at the peak of quality. A noted grower of sweet corn said you should put the water on to boil before you picked the corn!
  3. Use cookbooks, magazines, newspapers, and on-line sources to find new recipes to give familiar foods a different taste.
  4. Enroll in a cooking class or watch food shows on television. The exchange of ideas can open up new ways of preparing familiar foods.
  5. Introduce your family and friends to foods you ate as a child.
  6. Try foods that are new to you. You just might like them!

A reference in addition to those listed was Eat My Words by Janet Theophano which is in the Newman Library.

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Last modified on: 06/13/06 11:32:04 Kimberli D. Weeks