In American food literature, discussions and portrayals of local, organic, and slow food often rely more on its aesthetic than its practical value. Nowhere is this transcendent quality more in evidence than in the “back-to-the-land” narrative. Often part polemic against industrialization, part nostalgic yearning for tradition, part tale of personal growth, and part practical guide, this genre reveals the many cultural and philosophical influences that converge on the newly minted, yet deeply rooted, American slow food movement. My research focused on how four back-to-the-land narratives – Second Nature (Michael Pollan), Coming Home to Eat (Gary Paul Nabhan), Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (Barbara Kingsolver), and The Good Life (Scott and Helen Nearing) – engage with these influences to reveal the structure of a growing cultural phenomenon.
I first established the two central paradigms guiding how Americans relate to nature: Romanticism, championed by Thoreau, and agrarianism, by Jefferson. Though these two ideologies contradict one another in their conception of how humans should behave in nature, they have equally shaped the American psyche and consequently the American slow food movement. Because slow food is deeply associated with the health of the earth and soil, understanding our historical relationship to the land was essential in understanding how we view slow food today. The remainder of the paper delved into more specific cultural aspects of slow food, such as back-to-the-landers’ tendency to idealize and to appropriate other food cultures – namely Native American and Italian – in constructing a vision for American slow food. I also discussed how slow food has defined a strict moral and aesthetic code that determines the “goodness” of foods and agricultural practices according to a “slow” ideology.
Ultimately, I concluded that the extent to which slow food has developed with respect to American history and culture suggests that it could become a compelling alternative to the reigning industrial food system. Not only does slow food hearken to beloved American concepts like Thoreau’s wilderness and Jefferson’s self-sufficient agricultural nation, but it also responds to specific cultural impulses today, particularly the “green” movement and ensuing backlash against industrialization. As a result, I believe slow food is poised to gain even greater prominence in society and acceptance in our collective consciousness.