Can fast food be Slow?

My blog here serves two masters. Or two books, anyway: In Praise of Slow and Under Pressure. Although the newly-published Under Pressure is my top priority at the moment, I still have things to say about Slow. And you can delve deeper into these on So here goes with a Slow post…

The fast food industry has always seemed at odds with the Slow movement. Just consider the Big Mac: everything from the way its ingredients are sourced to the way it is prepared and consumed is all about speed ? at the expense of quality. But can fast food also be a force for good? There is an article in the current issue of Fast Companythat supplies some food for thought. (Yes, I know, what is a proponent of Slow doing reading a magazine with a name like that? Well, it offers a sparky and insightful take on modern culture. And for some reason I have been given a free subscription…) Anyway, the article is about a chain of Tex-Mex restaurants called Chipotle. It’s growing like a weed across the US, and could have 840 branches and sales of $1 billion by the end of the year. What makes Chipotle stand out from the crowd is that it takes a very ethical ? perhaps even Slow? ? approach to feeding the public. Staff make every burrito by hand, which means that customers queue for much longer than the four-minutes that is standard in the fast food industry. But they’re happy to do so because they prefer hand-made over prefab fare and the burritos taste good. What’s more, the company seeks to use naturally-raised meat wherever possible. It uses rBGH-free dairy products. All its pork is free of growth hormones and antibiotics and is humanely raised. The same goes for 80% of its chicken and 50% of its beef. This means prices are higher than you find at fast food rivals but again customers are willing to pay. This begs some intriguing questions. Is Chipotle’s business model just a niche in the fast food market or is it the beginning of a sea-change? Already two of the biggest fast food giants, Wendy’s and Burgher King, are exploring how to bring humane pork into their supply chain. If enough of the market swings in the right direction, we could be on the verge of a great leap forward in agriculture. But can a large corporation with hundreds of branches like Chipotle ever be Slow? Or Slow enough? And does that even matter if its business practices are nudging the market in a healthy right direction? As it happens, I have just arrived in Seattle to start promoting Under Pressure in the US. Maybe I should go sample one of these Chipotle burritos for myself…

Slow Film

All over the world, artists are making works inspired by the Slow revolution. Here is a wonderful 90-second film sent to me by someone in Montreal. It’s his entry for Biblioclip, a contest where participants submit short videos exploring the rebirth of the public library. The film is beautifully shot and crafted, dreamy yet sharp-eyed, hypnotic almost; and it features a haunting soundtrack from Radiohead. It’s narrated in French but I’m told it works for non-francophones too. Click HERE to watch it.

Slow Driving

One of my pet peeves is people talking or texting on their mobile phones while driving. Are their conversations so pressing that they can’t wait till it’s safe to chat? Studies show that speaking on the phone can dull your reflexes more than being drunk. Here in Britain talking on a mobile phone while driving is banned but millions still do it. Just a moment ago in my street I saw a woman doing a reverse, uphill parallel park while talking on her phone. And that in an area filled with small children. Today another woman was sentenced to four years in jail for killing a cyclist while driving and texting at the same time. Read more by clicking HERE.

Slow Reading

Wow. Last night I finished reading to my children the seventh and final book in the Harry Potter series. What an odyssey – 3,407 pages in all. We must have started two years ago, and we read other books along the way, but Harry Potter was always there, a fellow traveller on this leg of their journey through childhood. When we started out, my daughter couldn’t read. Last night she was peering over my shoulder trying to see what was going to happen next with Lord Voldemort before I got there. Reading seems to me the ultimate act of slow. At a time when so much reading involves skimming bite-sized chunks, it is a relief and joy to tackle a very long work that repays the investment of time and attention so handsomely. I wouldn’t read Harry Potter to myself but I loved reading it to my kids. I hope the three of us will always remember those long hours spent huddled together on beds, in tents, in airplanes, by the beach, in forests, even in the car while stuck in traffic jams listening to the story unfold, slowly but surely. The question now is what big book to read next. My son is lobbying for the Hobbit and then Lord of the Rings. My daughter thinks there will be more princesses in the Narnia Chronicles. Any suggestions welcome…

Early slow…

Our culture is obsessed with time – how to use it, how to gain it, how not to waste it. But the roots of that neurosis stretch back long before the invention of management consultants and the BlackBerry. Mankind has been fretting about time for centuries, even if the anxiety deepened with the invention of clocks. A reader has just sent me a glorious excerpt from Rabelais’ Gargantua, which was written in the 16th century. It contains wisdom and advice that ring true today:
“… And because in all other monasteries and nunneries all is composed, limited, and regulated by hours, it was decreed that in this new structure there should be neither clock nor dial, but that according to the opportunities and incident occasions, all their hours should be disposed of; for, said Gargantua, the greatest loss of time that I know, is to count the hours. What good comes of it? Nor can there be any greater dotage in the world than for one to guide and direct his courses by the sound of a bell, and not by his own judgment and discretion.”

Everyone (almost) gets it

If you can gauge the strength of a cultural shift from the range of people taking part, then things are looking up for the Slow revolution. I get invited to speak to groups right across the spectrum, from schoolteachers, doctors and yoga coaches to business executives, IT specialists and architects. In fact, I’ve just agreed to speak at two events on February 7th in London. In the afternoon, I will give the second talk in a series of lectures and debates on slowness organized by the Royal College of Art. Then, after a very slow break, I’ll join an evening debate held by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council at the Hayward Gallery. The questions on the table are: “Are we moving fast enough? Does more speed always mean a society is making progress? Or is it time to put the brakes on our breakneck world?” Artists and engineers are seldom natural bedfellows but even they are finding common ground when it comes to challenging our fast forward culture.

By the way, the Hayward Gallery event is open to the public so maybe I’ll see some of you there…

Slow museum

I suppose it was only a matter of time. The world’s first Museum of Laziness has opened in Bogot·, Colombia. It is full of hammocks, sofas and beds for lounging. Funded by the municipal government, the aim of the museum is to challenge the modern obsession with work and wasting time – and to find a balance between striving and skiving. The only catch is that it is not a permanent museum. It closes next week. So if you’re too lazy you’ll miss it altogether…

Read the BBC report by clickinghere.

A new leaf

Don’t be alarmed by the time on this blog entry. I am in London and it is the middle of the night but this nocturnal burst of writing is not the beginning of a descent into workaholism. I’m just jet-lagged. We returned yesterday from a long (and very happy) holiday in Canada and my body is still on Prairie time. So rather than toss and turn for hours on end, I figured I’d start on one of my resolutions for 2007: to spend more time with my blog. The first observation of the new year comes from our journey home. Two years ago I wrote a long piece about the joys of Slow for EnRoute, the inflight magazine of Air Canada. This month, EnRoute has a cover story entitled “Why Fast Is Good” or “Éloge De La Vitesse.” It’s a hymn to the joys of speed. The writer starts off lamenting that “Slow gets all the buzz” and then goes on to sing the praises of taking a high-velocity approach to everything from the arts to food to exercise. The paradox, of course, is that the whole feature is just further proof that the Slow movement is on the rise and that the forces of speed are on the defensive. And not surprisingly much of what EnRoute says makes sense. Just as there are moments that call for slowness, there are also times when switching into hare mode is the best policy. In fact, some of the pro-speed trends touted by EnRoute sound perfectly reasonable to me – high-quality fast-food and environmentally-friendly hybrid cars with a bit of oomph are two that spring to mind. Then again, others sound just downright silly. A drive-thru art exhibition, anyone?

Cutting corners?

I’ve just heard from a psychiatrist in Poland. He has a plan to set up a network of small urban refuges where people can escape the hurly burly of city life and reconnect with their inner tortoise. There will be a quiet space to relax, recharge and reflect. There will also be consultants on hand to measure stress levels and give advice on how to live more slowly. These venues will be called Slow Corners. Someone in Norway is working on a similar idea. Certainly I can see a role for little oases of slowness in big cities. I was in London’s Oxford Circus filming a segment for the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) a couple of days ago. The idea was for me to stand still while the crowds swarmed around me. The place was an ant-hill – pedestrians racing hither and thither, barging past each other, cars and buses lunging through red lights. The closest thing I could find to an ubran refuge was Starbucks, and it wasn’t a refuge at all. It was jammed with customers jostling to get their caffeine fix. Two men almost came to blows over who was first in the queue. And all of this to a pounding soundtrack by the Arctic Monkeys. I was almost relieved to get back out into the mania of Oxford Circus.

The backlash begins?

The other day as we were driving through a neighbourhood not far from our home in south London I saw a young man walking along the pavement wearing a T-shirt that caught my eye. It was baggy and white, and the black lettering across the chest screamed: Slow Sucks. My wife and I had a good laugh, but I wanted to know more so I leaned out of the car and tried to engage the man in conversation at the traffic lights – not exactly normal behaviour in London. He must have thought I was a freak, or a debt collector, because he put his head down and started speed-walking in the other direction. Who was the mysterious Slow-baiter? Where did he get that T-shirt? If anyone can shed any light on this, do drop me a line…