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The New Global Leader, Part X: Dana Bentia, and the Sensuous Pageantry of Slow Food

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Dana's passion is food and our senses with a mission of showing how the richness of our multi-sensory environments and the multitude of our everyday interactions can create, when free of prejudiced ideas, healthier and more sustainable lives and communities. A Romanian social scientist who speaks English, German, French and Italian, she thinks deeply about the formation and transformation of taste and taste practices, and their socio-economic impact on contemporary societies. Bentia has taught, lived and conducted research throughout Europe, and is active as a lecturer, writer, public speaker, researcher and thought leader in public institutions and academia. She holds a PhD in Sociology from Lancaster University, UK. She recently gave a presentation on taste at the "Culture of Senses" congress in Zurich, Switzerland.

O'Brien: I love your phrase, the "sensuous pageantry." What does this mean to the producers and consumers of food?

Dana: This refers to the relational qualities of foods and drinks and the ways we engage with them. Food is not simply an object which we grow or buy because we are hungry and which we put into our body because we need energy. For instance, foods which traveled fewer miles appeal to us in a different way than those sealed, packed and made sterile to last longer on a shelf. The colors, smells, tastes, variety and freshness of a salad or cheese from a producer nearby tells us something about the ways in which these were produced. It's a bit like looking at foods the way we approach wine. So food gives us a lot more information than is actually filtered down on labels if we learn to guide our attention towards them. And I say this because all too often we get enmeshed in an overload of stimuli which instead of disclosing the vitality of our world tends to dull it. I believe it is well worth it to become aware of the multiple ways in which we experience our world through eating.

O'Brien: How does taste and food promote intercultural understanding?

Dana: Food is a great communicator. It links and binds people together, and attaches them to places. It is sharing across borders and across generations. The Slow Food movement, for instance is not, as many assume, merely a white middle class phenomenon. It embraces diversity in all its meanings yet with one unique goal of creating ways of living more mindfully on Earth. You know well through your work how wonderful it is to bring together people at a table who do not necessary share all the same views yet come to talk to each other over food.

O'Brien: Does the Slow Food Movement have any sustainable effect on modern, industrialized food production?

Dana: Oh, yes! One of Slow Food's greatest achievements is to remind us that by eating, consuming and growing we are part of the food chain on a local as well as global scale, and thus actively steer the direction our food systems evolve towards whether we are producers or consumers, sometimes called co-producers for this reason. Most people nowadays recognize that a century of mass production took a toll on our soils, our food and not the least on our bodies. Many groups, communities and movements are currently changing these patterns.

O'Brien: Your research and writings focus on the "sensory education" of people. Can you give some practical examples of this?

Dana: We often hear the saying that we are limited by our senses. I believe the contrary is the case. If we shift our perspective more to the idea that we 'do' senses rather than 'have' them, we can start to notice that it is possible to play with them, to test them, and to train and hone them to perceive more and not less, to perceive differently. Taste then develops into an extraordinary journey which connects your brain, tongue, and guts with the soil and the sun, with your experiences and emotions to those of others, including the atmosphere of the place with the memory of a childhood event, etc. This appeals as much to a Riesling from the Rhineland, Germany where the craft of the winemaker transports the qualities of the mineral-rich slated soils into the wine as it does to the pork lard produced in marble trays in the Carrara region of Italy where the qualities from the marble dissolve some of the toxic properties of fat. Change the way you taste and you take part in changing the food system.

O'Brien: In your view, what are the current trends in food consciousness, and what are the major threats to people's health?

Dana: Without doubt, the demand for food produced sustainability is steadily growing. But there is quite a battle going on between those who exaggerate the monetary value of life and all those who reclaim control, transparency and justice over the food supply chain.

O'Brien: Here's a broad and complex question for you: How are food and taste practices linked politically, socially, economically and environmentally?

Dana: Well in a nutshell, these things are always interlinked. For instance, when talking about a Riesling wine from a small producer in the Rhineland it is probably good to think of how his work contributes to the well-being of his vineyard and the people who help make it and those who consume it. Given the environmental and economic tensions most of the world nowadays faces, awareness of the political struggles and implications of consuming and producing food is central into guiding us towards the practices that help create more sustainable ways of living.

O'Brien: This has been a very enlightening discussion, Dana, and I thank you for sharing your unique insights on a hot topic.

You know, the whole idea is not simply to judge what we taste and eat, but to keep an open mind regarding this subject. My role is to facilitate exchanges in knowledge, feelings, skills, etc., to help people create a space for imaging how we wish to live upon our Earth.