The Slow Food Movement and the Liturgy

To celebrate this Mardi Gras I thought it appropriate to post something about food.  Good food and good eating are not things to be taken for granted.  I am a proud Italian-American—my grandfather was a baker—and, for Italians, a good meal is an art.

Unfortunately, as many have noted, even in Italy, the art of gastronomy is increasingly becoming lost.  Demographic decline, the pressures of work, an increasingly utilitarian attitude toward just about everything, the encroachment of fast food—these and other factors have taken their toll on the quality of the Italian meal.

There are, of course, unwritten rules to the traditional Italian meal—rules about the order of the courses and their content, about the way food should be served, about which foods are appropriate in which seasons, about who does what at the table.  These rules are practical only up to a point and they don’t always make for the most efficient eating, but they tend to facilitate instead savoring, conversation, and—to drop a weighty theological concept—communion.

I can remember a friendly altercation with a great-aunt on my first trip to Italy when, at one of those delightful two-hour Italian lunches, she insisted on changing my silverware between courses.  Doing so was silly, I insisted:  my silverware was barely dirty; I could wipe it off with my napkin; and besides it would mean more dishes for her to wash.  (I had already learned that visiting American nephews doing dishes is strictly vietato).  The argument was not an even one:  there is a certain hierarchy in Italian kitchens, and in that hierarchy great-aunts are near infallible, so Zia carried the day and I surrendered my dirty silverware.

More was at stake, I realized as I began to appreciate the art of eating, than whether the pasta had left any residue on my fork.  There was a certain ceremony to the meal itself, an order, a dignity.  The extra minute it took my aunt to rinse the silverware was a way of showing respect for her guests and a way of preserving the dignity of the meal itself.

I will admit (somewhat reluctantly) that Italians don’t have a monopoly on the art of the meal.  Living for two years in Kazakhstan, I came to appreciate other ceremonies and customs that come with breaking bread.  At the Kazakh table there is an order to offering toasts—who speaks when and who says what—an order to what is served, and other unspoken rules it just feels weird to transgress—men pour the vodka, women pour the tea, and you get funny looks if you mix those two up.  Everyone has a distinct part to play in serving and being served.

Looked at in isolation, separated from the whole of the meal, any of these customs might seem insignificant or silly or cumbersome, but together they add up to something quite beautiful, the art of the table.

And then there was McDonald’s

Though the art of the table is deeply human, it can no longer be taken for granted, and I am not the first to notice its erosion.  On my meandering trip home after two years in Kazakhstan, I had dinner at a restaurant on the Adriatic coast associated with the Slow Food Movement.  I still smile warmly thinking of that meal—the fresh seafood, the risotto, the local wine, the four different desserts, the after-dinner drink on the house.  I stayed at the table with a friend for three hours; the meal and our conversation were all the entertainment we needed for the evening.

The Slow Food Movement began in Italy in the 1980s after McDonald’s opened a restaurant next to the Spanish Steps.  It includes restaurants, farms, markets, and individuals.  The movement is international now and dedicated to preserving local gastronomical traditions—traditional recipes, locally grown products, an emphasis on environmental sustainability.  As you can imagine, I’m rather sympathetic to its ideals.  Man was not meant to subsist on fast food alone!  When the art of eating is reduced to mere nourishment, something deeply human is lost.

The Slow Food Liturgy

So, what does the Slow Food Movement have to do with the liturgy?  Well, I think right now the Church is experiencing something of a Liturgical Slow Food Movement.  This movement has been described in many ways, not all of them helpful.  The tired political paradigms of left and right, liberal and conservative, progressive and reactionary are bandied around.  Some say we are in the midst of a “reform of the reform,” others that we are (cue sinister music) “turning back the clock.”  The old divisions and old categories are not particularly enlightening, which is why I offer “the Liturgical Slow Food Movement” as a new—I admit, somewhat fanciful—descriptor.

The Liturgical Slow Food Movement has been influenced strongly by the writings of Benedict XVI, but it has a grassroots element too.  Younger priests seem to be paying more attention to the rubrics; the Pope is giving communion only on the tongue; new translations of the Roman Missal are on the way; college students are asking for things like Eucharistic adoration from their campus ministries.  I know that some of these developments might seem downright bizarre to some, especially those who went through the changes to the liturgy immediately after Vatican II, and I’m not going to debate the merits of any of the above mentioned practices right now in this post.

What I am offering instead—especially to those who see these movements as bizarre, irritating, or even harmful—is a way of understanding what’s behind them:  the same sort of yearnings that are behind the Slow Food Movement, the desire for a meal which is not just nutrition, but something to be savored for its own sake.  More so than any other meal, there is a richness to the liturgy, a beauty, an order, a dignity—something wonderful and opulent, slow and subtle, something perhaps a tad inefficient which rubs up against our contemporary utilitarian ideals, but something which precisely because it conflicts with our mechanical and efficient age is worth preserving.

The Liturgical Slow Food Movement says we should cherish our tradition and savor the details of the banquet.  It’s an invitation to take seriously what our fast food culture would tell us to forget or dismiss—even down to the materials of the “tableware,” how they’re washed, who “does the dishes.”  It challenges us to spend a bit more time with prayers that might not, at first, roll naturally off the tongue.  And it suggests that perhaps all those little ceremonies sometimes omitted for efficiency’s sake—washing the hands, pouring the wine and water into the chalice—add up to something beautiful and are worth an extra minute or two each day.

So this Mardi Gras, skip the fast food and cook at home; spend a few more minutes around the dinner table; offer an extra toast; wish everyone a Buon appetito! And if you’re feeling liturgical, offer a hearty “And with your spirit!” in reply.

11 Responses to The Slow Food Movement and the Liturgy

  1. Michael Wegenka says:

    When I first saw the image of the McDonald’s sign in this post, I thought that you were going to go after the McItaly, McDonald’s latest creation and the first to be endorsed by Italy’s national minister of (agri)culture: .

    But I found the actual topic of the post to be much more satisfying. Well said.

  2. ragekj says:

    Ya’ll have been doing a great job with this blog, and I really liked this post. I don’t know how you managed to combine mardi gras, food, and beauty in the liturgy in one post, but well done. It’s as if Josef Pieper had a discussion with Wendell Berry and you were there to record it. Thank you!

  3. Henry says:

    A truly inspired post Tony – truly inspired! I am going to send this to many many friends. I am going to do my part to spread the The Liturgical Slow Food Movement and I pray that it speads like fire!



  4. Well done, Anthony! Roasted just well…lol!

    Good topic to occasionally kick around! However,
    I wonder if the more accurate label may not be,
    the actual “Ritual” of the shared common meal?

    I recall somebody wrote something on that a bunch
    of years ago?! If nothing else, wasn’t the Last
    Supper exactly that: a RITUAL meal? And, He tells
    us to “do THIS in remembrance of me?” We probably
    have eons to yet go, before we mine, and extract,
    all the profound sociological content to this
    process of human interactive behaviour, tied to food?!

    Now, on a completely different angle of vision:
    I have been applying much of what you suggest
    but in a Fast Food context! I do much theological
    reading, and meditating, as I eat my McDonald’s
    meals, in the Urban Monk setting of my mind!
    Able to exclude all the external mayhem, and
    concentrate on His Silence (the Spirit!) speaking
    to my inner silence! Many a book, and America
    magazine, were both intellectually plus spiritually
    “digested” that way! (Starting with, reading them
    even as I moved slowly in line, towards the Order
    counter: never wasting a minute of time, since
    that’s all it takes to read a page: one minute!
    And then go back later, to meditate through those
    that warrant more “digestion!”)

    So, just as in your Novitiates where somebody reads
    to the seated community so that their “mind” is fed
    WHILE they feed their bodies, so should the laity
    learn to take advantage of such good spiritual
    practices and maybe even bring them on occasion
    into the home? Why not? (!)

    Peace beckons: may we follow, and may we in
    following, e x p e r i e n c e Its embrace!!!

  5. Jay Hooks says:

    It’s funny – two days ago I was with friends in a McDonald’s in Italy discussing some of the same topics mentioned here. The whole notion of ‘fast food’ does indeed collide with traditional Italian dining culture. The same goes for the liturgy: the idea is to slow down and savor what God does for us. A respectful, deliberate pace and the use of symbol help to this end – what a difference from the drive-through mentality!

  6. Qualis Rex says:

    Salve Antonello! I’ve been waiting for one of your posts, and indeed this did not disappoint. Not knowing how much Italian you understand, I’ll keep this in English : ) I highly agree with and endorse everything you said, regarding the liturgy of good-eatin’ as well as the liturgy of the divinity. I will add one more component which has been detrimental to both: TV.

    In Italy, it is very difficult these days to have a meal at home without the television in the background. This unfortunately cuts across all social classes and culinary boundaries. Therefore, it doesn’t matter if you are having a 5-course meal with long-lost friends or eating pasta from a can by yourself. The meal, the interaction and the experience itself has been dumbed down.

    One would have a hard time arguing this is exactly what has happened to the divine liturgy over the last 30 years. The “TV” in this case is popular culture and a desire to “dumb it down” so it all looks pretty much the same. One would never be able to look at an EF mass and say, a Lutheran service and not know which is which. But the same cannot be said with many Novus Ordo masses.

    So, yes. Turn off the TV and enjoy the meal. It’s been waiting for you for 2,000 years now…

  7. Andrew McKenna says:

    Regarding the penultimate paragraph of Tony’s essay, it has always struck me painfully that for all the 6500 undergraduate students on campus during the week, and n. [I don’t know how many] bordering through weekends, Madonna’s liturgies are so lacklustre. The hymns are not often very singable, neither poetic nor tuneful, and are played too slowly for untrained voiced to participate. Voices fall off and out of singing out of inertia. So the liturgies lack formal, esthetic appeal, of the kind that Tony evokes about a proper meal, and as would befit something undertaken AMDG.

  8. […] of faith such an object is, and what a challenge to our everyday ways of thinking.  I’ve argued before, in a slightly different way, that it’s the subtlety, the hidden rhythms and richness of liturgy […]

  9. […] year about this time I wrote a post about food for Mardis Gras, so this year I thought I’d better muzzle my inner epicure and write something […]

  10. […] model, which I’ve used here before, is that of a meal, but that can’t be the only model we use.  In fact, if the only way we […]

  11. Italians love discovering new foods and new way of preparing familiar dishes. Every year there’s more and more interest in the traditional cuisine of the various regions and in biological, environment friendly foods. Italian food for Italians is a reason of pride. You can recognize Italians abroad for their longing of typical dishes, pasta over every other. And you can see how dishearten they are when they try pasta outside Italy. Some upper class foreign restaurants have managed to master almost all the typical Italian dishes, but pasta still eludes them.

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