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In Praise Of Slow Food

The bright news is that people all over the world are taking a slower approach to food -- and eating better as a result.
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When a friend of mine moved from France to London last year, one local tradition left her perplexed.

It wasn't the British penchant for talking about the weather, or for apologizing when someone else steps on your toes.

It was that Londoners often eat while walking down the street.

"Devouring a Niçoise salad and dodging pedestrians at the same time is not a sign of civilization," my friend concluded, with Gallic hauteur. "It's a sign that you need to slow down."

You can say that again. In our fast-forward culture, we have lost the art of eating well.

Food is often little more than fuel to pour down the hatch while doing other stuff -- surfing the Web, driving, walking along the street. Dining al desko is now the norm in many workplaces.

All of this speed takes a toll. Obesity, eating disorders and poor nutrition are rife. We are also missing out on the sensual pleasure and social connection that come from eating good food together.

The bright news is that people all over the world are taking a slower approach to food -- and eating better as a result.

The Italian-based Slow Food movement now has 100,000 members in 132 countries, including the fast-food-loving US. The search for a kinder, gentler relationship with food is reflected in other trends, too: the renaissance of the farmers' market; the rise of school gardens; the growing popularity of cooking classes; the organic, fairtrade and eat-local movements; the thriving artisanal production of everything from cheese and chocolate to bread and beer.

The recession may also be helping. To cut back on restaurant bills, people are eating at home more. But unlike in the last downturn, when sales of frozen meals soared, more of us are taking the time to cook from scratch. The US is now racking up the highest levels of homecooking since 1992.

There is so much to be gained from investing more time in what we eat.

Buying fresh ingredients means knowing where your food comes from and what's in it. In a world where so much happens through computer screens, making a meal by hand, touching the raw materials, feeling your way through a recipe, tasting, adjusting, engaging all the senses, can be a soothing release.

Eating more slowly, chewing every mouthful, pays dividends, too. It helps digestion and guards against gluttony by giving the stomach time to tell the brain that it is full.

It also allows you to savor what you put in your mouth. Of course, this works better with Slow food, which is packed with natural flavors, textures and aromas that linger on the palate and in the mind. By contrast, processed food is designed to be eaten quickly: Pay it too much attention and you start to realize how vile it tastes.

Sharing a slow, convivial meal can also bring people together. It is no accident that the word "companion" is derived from the Latin words meaning "with bread." As Oscar Wilde noted, breaking bread together can even help us bond with those we find hardest to stomach: "After a good dinner one can forgive anybody, even one's own relations."

At the same time, studies from around the world show that children who have regular family meals are more likely to do well at school, enjoy good mental health, and eat nutritious food; they are also less likely to engage in underage sex or use drugs and alcohol.

Yet Slow food need not be a luxury for the rich. As Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the 19th century French gastronome, put it: "The pleasures of the table are for every man, of every land, of every place in history or society."

In other words, a Slow meal does not have to be a five-course banquet of handmade delicacies. Small, affordable and simple works, too. You can prepare a fresh tomato pasta or vegetable soup in less time and for less money than it takes to order in pizza or sushi.

Start by fencing off time in your schedule for cooking and eating. Then get reacquainted with your kitchen. Grow a few herbs, like mint, rosemary or thyme, in the garden or on the windowsill. Buy your own fresh ingredients and cook with them. Turn the preparing of food into a communal affair by enlisting others to help with the chopping, grating, stirring, simmering, tasting and seasoning.

When the cooking is finished, eat together round the table with the electronic gadgets switched off so you can savor the food and let the conversation flow.

But, hey, don't beat yourself up if you fall short of the Slow Food ideal. Nobody's perfect. And I mean nobody:

The last time I bumped into my French friend, she was racing down a London street munching on a sandwich.

When was your last slow meal, and aren't you due another one soon?