In Italian loafers and a fitted suit, Petrini is not your usual provocateur. And maybe that was why he was picked to be the first speaker.
His was a modern tale where we reconcile systemic challenges by tackling them today.
But are the disciples of the food movement - many of them moving their fingers quickly during the talk to type text messages on their smart phones and check their friends’ Facebook status updates - ready for a commons mentality and a back to the land order?
When Carlo Petrini took the stage on Tuesday night, an audience of Michael Pollan inductees made up the 760-person auditorium. This was the first in a 13-week University of California, Berkeley, Edible Education course to explore and define that “big, lumpy tent” called the food movement.
Sam Kanner an engineering graduate student searched for Pollan specifically when he signed up for the course. His eyes wide and his gaze focused directly at Petrini throughout the talk, his rapture and posture were like that of everyone else - down to the on cue laughing - and his hand positioned securely around his phone.
Next to Kanner sat his out of town friend Grant Lindsley, who snuck into the hall to hear from Petrini.
“I’ve read Pollan’s book and always try to buy local food. I avoid fast food. And while I’m here, maybe I’ll pick up some good cooking tips,” he said with a wide grin.
Mostly UCB students, everyone polled by this reporter had either taken a Michael Pollan class, read his books or watched his movie. Which begs the question, how much of Tuesday’s discussion was new information and will it inspire deep change?
For years, we have eaten cheap supermarket food, purchased our own lawnmowers, hair trimmers and other items “because we need them” and focused on being efficient with our wallets and time. We are losing our culture said Petrini, father of the eco-gastronomy movement. Progress and individualism over friendship and sharing is robbing us of our shared history.
Though nutrition, environmentalism and impending doom are synonymous to the food movement’s organizing, according to Petrini, there’s more to it than that.
Over the 90-minute class span, Petrini worked to personalize possible solutions. Near the end, he called out those audience members with inklings of becoming farmers - there were 13 - and commanded everyone else to pay them a higher crop price. The farmers he was saying, are like you and me.
“Change [in the food system] is already taking place,” he said while melding an easy to understand story with environmental concerns, labor rights, human connection, nutrition and pleasure. “In 1980, when I first came to the United States, there were two kinds of beer available. Now, there are 2,000 micro breweries.”
In Petrini’s ideal world, we would share tools, convivir over meals (break bread together), focus on friendship and pay small farmers enough for their crops that they could send their kids to college.
This was the picture that attracted Paul Swanson, a sixth grade science teacher in Danville, and Brenda Ruiz, a chef at Biba Ristorante in Sacramento.
“I want to hear from [Petrini] about how he came to this idea of changing the food system,” said Ruiz who like Swanson, and much of the audience, is already versed in the subject.
Graduates of the of Edible School Yard Academy - a nonprofit program of the Chez Panisse Foundation, one of the course organizers - both Ruiz and Swanson work on food system change solutions. Swanson is building an edible garden with his students and Ruiz is intent on using fresh, local ingredients whenever possible.
Over the next 13 weeks, we will see the impact, if any, of this course. Leaders in the food movement along with professors and key food industry figures like Jack Sinclair, Executive Vice President of Grocery Merchandise for Walmart, will meet to present their points of view and discuss these positions during Q&A sessions. And the public is invited to every class. Each week, a limited number of tickets will go on sale via TicketWeb. And, Oakland Local will be there to report on what we see and hear.
Will the joyful-belly content inspire the deep change? Can progress on systemic challenges take place amidst a bad economy? Will Americans forego choice in favor of quality? Is there a way to overcome passivity and helplessness? And finally, what do you eat after two hours of talk detailing what needs to change in our food system?
These are good questions to workshop in a mixed audience that together faces the same challenges - a world coordinated around technology where due to complexity often compulsive behaviors reign over ideals.
For Alice Waters, the real impact is already taking place as her 40-year dream comes full circle and into the Berkeley classroom. Now if it will only go to the Berkeley cafeteria.
And for that “delicious revolution,” a cell-phone may be just the thing to pass the message, ring the bells and get a majority on board.