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Most of us, if we’re lucky, eat three times a day – or more. We can look at this activity as either a chore, or a joy. We can take pleasure in every flavour, every spice, every texture and smell, or we can look at eating as something we have to do to stay alive, but man, doesn’t it get tedious after a while?

Recently, I had the opportunity to experience both ends of the spectrum.

April marked the 20th anniversary of the last time I had eaten at McDonald’s. I wanted to mark the occasion in some way but none of the options were appealing – especially the ones that might get me arrested. Instead I chose to do the most radical thing I could think of, which was to go and eat a meal at McDonald’s. Heck, I’ve eaten bull’s testicles, it couldn’t be that bad, could it? And to counter the McDonald’s meal, a few days later I would be attending the Slow Food Banchetto feast, a five-course meal created by 25 of Toronto’s top chefs.

The McDonald’s meal, as expected, was disgusting. The burgers were greyish brown and had the spongy texture of crepe soles on a pair of shoes. The McChicken sandwich was bland and beige and resembled a flat disc of breaded particleboard (which would have been more palatable, knowing how mechanically-deboned chicken is actually made). The fries smelled and tasted of rancid grease. The fruit pies were spit out and thrown away, they were so soggy and bland. The first few bites of the meal took me hurtling back to 1989, when this was something I would have described as delicious, but my grown-up self could not stomach that food or the hard seats, bright lights, chaotic service area or the aura of sadness and defeat that permeated the restaurant.

Later that week, I joined 200 others for 5 courses of Canadian-focused food; dishes that featured charcuterie, local trout, bread and biscuits made from red fife flour, fiddleheads, wild leeks, maple syrup, BC stinging nettles, Tamworth pig, local honey and a selection of Ontario wines. There was an enthusiasm in the air – Slow Food Founder and President Carlo Petrini was the guest of honour – but it was also obvious that the guests in attendance were excited about the food.

Petrini spoke enthusiastically to the crowd about real gastronomy; about enjoying the food we eat and about the importance of protecting regional cuisines, local ingredients, and traditional preparations. He referred to the University of Grandmothers, encouraging us to go back to past generations and learn from them in order to keep traditional foodways alive.

The contrast with the McDonald’s meal was obvious, and in so many ways these meals represent the two extremes in our society.

Price, of course is the most obvious; dinner for two at McDonald’s was under $12, dinner for two at the Slow Food Banchetto was $300. To be fair, the event was for charity, and was most definitely a special occasion. I would hope that most people don’t eat this much rich, fatty food on a daily basis – it was a “pulling out all the stops” event that, while fun, was an obvious extreme.

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Also, the emphasis on quality cannot be overlooked. While the food at McDonald’s might fill the hungry hole or bribe a screaming child into submission, no one is pretending that it’s good for us (in fact, the opposite has been well-documented), or the environment. The McDonald’s I visited didn’t even offer recycling bins for garbage. The Slow Food menu, however, was created from locally-grown produce, foraged foods, and rare breed pigs.

It could be argued that the world has flip-flopped; that the Slow Food meal we ate comprised of foraged foods and charcuterie made from the less popular bits of animals was once the food of the poor, while the poor now eat out-of-season food grown with cheap labour in other countries. In a time when people are losing their homes and the resources at food banks are stretched, it’s unfair to wag a finger and lecture them about eating better quality food, but I can also understand Petrini’s insistence that an appreciation of good food is vital to our society.

Critics have accused the Slow Food movement of being cult-like, and of being both elitist and self-congratulatory regarding their efforts to encourage the consumption of good, clean, fair food. I didn’t get that vibe from Petrini (and I’m a consummate cynic); rather, I saw a man who cares deeply about an issue that has worldwide significance.

A couple of speakers at the Banchetto dinner did, unfortunately, perpetuate the image of elitism and self-congratulations. At one point, everyone in the room who had attended Terra Madre (a Slow Food event held in Torino, Italy every 2 years) was asked to stand and be acknowledged for their contribution to promoting the principles of Slow Food, while the rest of us sat by feeling oddly uncomfortable – were we supposed to be applauding these folks because they could afford a plane ticket to Italy? The MC for the event acknowledged the contribution of specific food writers in the room who had helped to promote the event, but not all of them. These actions, while perhaps unconscious and unintended, separated the crowd, which included the paying public along with Slow Food organizers and delegates, into A and B list guests.

Social faux pas aside, the principles of the movement are sound and logical. What needs to happen now is a shift in which people who would normally turn to those dry grey burgers at McDonald’s or other fast food chains look to factors other than cost when choosing what to eat. I’m not suggesting replacing $10 worth of fast food with a $150 per plate feast – that’s unrealistic even for the well-to-do. But given that I could make the meal I had at McDonald’s from scratch for the same price or less using fresh, local and sustainable ingredients, and have a far healthier meal on my plate when I sit down to eat, Petrini’s suggestions of getting back to basics, or home cooking with simple quality ingredients doesn’t seem too out of whack.

 

Meeting in the middle between the two extremes requires a societal shift, however. It means reassessing priorities such as how we spend our free time. It means putting the whole family to work helping to prepare meals. It means placing value on quality over cost, eating with the seasons, and choosing to support local farmers. It also means beginning to think of food as a pleasure, to look at a beautiful (and lovingly prepared) dinner as a reward at the end of the day, instead of thinking of food as mere fuel, or food preparation as a chore.

My McDonald’s meal was a sad experience in a depressing place that left me feeling dirty and unhappy. It wasn’t the joyful fun experience the clown in the commercials made it out to be at all. And while some in the Slow Food movement may require a slight adjustment of attitude and perception if they really want their organization to grow and be accepted by the mainstream, I firmly believe that their hearts are in the right place and that the foundations of the movement’s philosophy come from wanting the best for the world – for the earth, for the farmers and for the co-producers who eat the final products.

Who do you think McDonald’s are rooting for?