I wrote this story for Zester Daily back in December 2009, rereading it today I realized that Douglas’ story, SLOW, the message and pictures have a long shelf life. Gayeton’s creative genius doesn’t go bad – so I’m sharing it here again to inspire you to go slower and live better.
I first met Douglas Gayeton, the author of “Slow: Life in a Tuscan Town” in October, when he drove to Los Angeles from his farm in Petaluma for a dinner at Mozza that I had organized. Nancy Silverton was cooking Italian food using local ingredients, Joe Bastianich was pairing Italian and Santa Barbara wines, and Gayeton was there to sign books and tell us all about life in a Tuscan town.
In one of those moments of synchronicity that surround Gayeton, Silverton had gone to Book Soup that afternoon to pick up a copy of “Slow” that she had preordered. She walked into Mozza to find 50 copies of the book stacked up waiting for the evening’s festivities and had no idea she was about to meet the author. Silverton and Gayeton are both friends of Dario Cecchini, made famous in Bill Buford’s book “Heat.” As Silverton cooked pizza and Gayeton signed books, they shared stories about their mutual friends in Italy, and we all planned to get them to Los Angeles.
Gayeton’s book is full of characters such as Cecchini, each captured in stunning sepia photographs. The danger of a visually dazzling large-format book such as “Slow” is that the nuances of the story are eclipsed. Gayeton is adamant that “Slow” is not a coffee-table book where you can dip in and out, but rather a story with a beginning, middle and an end. Perhaps it can be both — and just like slow food, it takes time to get to that moment of understanding. But you are better off for having made the extra effort.
A Better Life Where We Are
When I initially discovered “Slow,” I wanted immediate gratification. I was tempted to pack up and jet off to find this corner of Europe for myself. I had to taste the prosciutto, eat the fresh baked homemade bread dipped in local pressed olive oil and drink the biodynamic vino. I was missing the point. The real message is to reconnect with food where we live — by finding local artisans, visiting the farmers market and buying what’s in season directly from the farmer. We need to relearn how to make time to chop and cook and prepare a family meal from scratch. “Slow” inspires and shows us how to live a better life wherever we live. You don’t have to move to Tuscany. “Through this unusual portrait of a Tuscan community,” writes Carlo Petrini (founder of Slow Food) in his preface, “we come to understand that living slowly, once learned, can be done anywhere. It is not a matter of luck; it is a matter of choice.”
Gayeton’s endorsement of the slow food movement, with its beautiful imagery, came about from a sense of loneliness after his marriage to his Italian wife Ombretta ended in divorce. The narrative is filled with hope and inspiration. “As an American cast adrift in a foreign country,” Gayeton writes. “What I really sought were answers. I wanted to visualize what the rest of my life would look like. Intuitively I knew the people I met would show me a path.” There’s nothing sugary about this journey. The hardships are etched on the faces of Gayeton’s subjects as they go about their daily grind.
When he arrived in Italy, Gayeton was no different from most Americans. “I had no connection to food,” says Gayeton. “Where it was from, who had made it, the journey it took to reach my table and also the people who had raised it. I had never thought about food as being intrinsically cultural, as having a cultural dynamic and being culturally important.”
A Slower Life in Sonoma
At the culmination of the book, Gayeton leaves Italy and returns to America to live 10 miles from where he had grown up. This is no happily ever after ending but rather a way of starting another chapter in his life, with his new wife Laura Howard and their daughter Tuilerie. He uses all he has seen and learned in Italy to carve out a new way — a “slow” life connected to nature with homegrown vegetables, chickens, horses and goats. The book and the characters in it are inspirational; it shows the rewards and logic of moving back to this way of life.
A grueling national book tour aside, Gayeton’s life on his small farm in Sonoma is a far cry from his fast-paced life in Los Angeles, where he lived and worked before moving to Italy. He consciously prioritizes quality of life over career and ambition.
“First and foremost it’s about quality of life and everything else follows from that. This difference is a result of the book.”
He shares the pleasure he gets from watching 3-year-old Tuilerie grow up on the farm with a close connection to the land. It’s the small things — teaching her the proper way to feed the horses with her fingers outstretched. “When she sees farm animals in her children’s book,” Gayeton explains, “she knows that all of those animals actually have names — it’s not just a goat or a chicken but it’s her goat or her chicken. Today I was watching her in the barn feeding all the young goats and sorting out their fights and refereeing them.”
Howard founded and runs LaLoo’s Goat’s Milk Ice Cream Company. That is the reason the couple returned to America. Instead of buying a Tuscan olive grove, as Gayeton had planned, the pair bought a farm in Petaluma so that Howard could fulfill her dream of making artisan ice cream from goat’s milk. Tuilerie has milked a goat in her short three-year life, and she definitely understands that this milk can become sweet delicious ice cream.
A New American Lifestyle
This good life on the farm is unrealistic for most of us, and Gayeton realizes we can’t all drop everything and pack up a moving truck and relocate to the country. “Even if you live in a city, you can make an effort,” says Gayeton. “Whether it’s a farmers market or a small market that pays attention to what it sells. Just to make a connection to where food comes from.” Chef Alice Waters writes in her introduction to “Slow,” “We can begin by simply breaking bread around the table, inviting our children into the kitchen to help prepare the family meal, and planting a few herbs in a window box. Your life will be richer for it.”
Gayeton is using his book to promote a new lifestyle for all Americans in both sprawling cities and remote rural communities. “We are far too reliant in urban America on convenience foods,” he says. “Whether it’s fast food or pre-prepared foods, and I think that we are a poorer culture for that. In the 1940s, people spent 30 percent of their income on food; now we are down around 14 or 15 percent. People just don’t see a value in it or put a premium on quality food and it’s fascinating to me that that is the case. Most Americans don’t think about where their food comes from, and I was certainly guilty of being that person. I had only seen plastic-wrapped meat from a supermarket. I had never eaten an egg that had come directly from a chicken. My experience in Italy really opened my eyes.”
“Slow” celebrates what Gayeton calls the “almost lost arts.” In a nation of immigrants, first-generation families would make a conscious effort to become assimilated in U.S. culture and lose connections to their family traditions, yielding to the homogenizing melting pot of America.
Gayeton speaks to Tuilerie in Spanish, the language of his paternal grandparents who came from a village in northern Spain. He is preparing her for when they make their next move to live in Spain sometime in the future. All the Spanish and Italian traditions — he had a grandmother from Tuscany — were somewhere in his family, and “Slow” was an attempt to recapture what had been missing. People he has met on his book tour are arriving at the same realization. A young man in San Diego bought Gayeton some handmade salumi; it was some of the best he had ever eaten. Like Gayeton these people are children and grandchildren of immigrants, and they are realizing that in this race to become American their parents and grandparents cut them off from any cultural connection to the past that they had.
In the hills of Tuscany, Gayeton discovered, everybody turns to the business of harvesting and pressing olives each fall. Most locals have a plot of land with olive trees, or they help a neighbor pick from their olive grove and in return are given a bottle of olive oil. “Everyone in this town had fresh pressed oil on their tables come the beginning of November,” says Gayeton. “Or in late September everybody had fungi porcini on their table or truffles because there’s such a connection culturally to the land. All those rituals that go around whether it’s getting together with family and friends to pick olive trees or to go hunting for mushrooms, it’s only something that Americans are learning now.”
In Sonoma there’s no shortage of locally raised lamb, duck and grass-fed beef. Being part of this agricultural community has resulted in Gayeton becoming friends with many of the local suppliers of his food. If he wants lamb, he can call a neighboring farmer and will often trade goat’s milk ice cream for the meat. The sense of belonging doesn’t stop at the barter, more often than not the farmer will come over to cook and eat the meal with Gayeton and his family. These American dinners are evocative of the Italian meals captured in “Slow.”
“I had this kind of Italian arrogance,” says Gayeton, “that there’s a certain quality of life that Italians had that really couldn’t be duplicated in America, and it’s just laughable. All these preconceived notions about what constitutes a strong local cuisine I had only associated with Italy and specifically Tuscany, and I just couldn’t have been more wrong. It’s here; you just have to find it.”