As an active member of Slow Food St. Louis, I have a brief spiel when someone asks me what we’re all about which goes something like this:
Slow Food is the opposite of Fast Food. Slow Food is good, clean and fair food.
The idea for Slow Food came from a journalist in Italy, Carlo Petrini. Basically, in 1986, while in Rome, he saw a McDonald’s being built outside the Spanish Steps and thought to himself, obviously enough, “what the hell?” He started an organization called Arcigola at that time, but in 1989 it became Slow Food International when delegates from 15 countries descended upon Paris, France and signed The Slow Food Manifesto.
In the US, when people think of Slow Food, they often think of it as a locavore group and, while it is certainly true that when food is good, clean and fair it is often local, this does not represent the complete picture.
More specifically, local food is often discussed in tandem with Slow Food because many small local farmers have a devotion to growing crop varieties that do not transport well. These foods are good because they make for biodiversity as varieties that would otherwise go more-or-less extinct continue to be grown. They are clean because the methods of production do less damage to our environment by cutting down things like pesticides and transportation costs. And they are fair because the farmers are being paid a living wage for their product.
But Slow Food is more than that…
Slow Food is about taking the time to (obviously enough) eat slow. Cook a meal from whole foods and sit down to a bounty with friends and family to enjoy one another’s company.
Slow Food is about protecting Artisan production methods from being lost. At Art of Food there was a local example of this with Slow Food St. Louis’s inclusion of 222 Artisan Bakery. While they do not use local flour because there is none of great enough quality available in our area, what they did do is produce naturally leavened breads. Continuing to use methods of baking that utilize wild yeast and passing them on to their workers ensures that these skills will not be lost as “a part of our cultural identity.” (1)
Slow Food is about education—whether that means holding a tasting so that people might see the taste benefits of biodiversity first hand or via garden programs at schools where students and adults alike can learn more about where the foods they consume actually come from and what it takes to produce them.
Slow Food is also about protecting flavor through its Ark of Taste and the U.S. Presidia and, for me, it is this area I am most drawn to as “93% of North American food product diversity has been lost since 1900.”(2)
With The Ark, Slow Food singles out foods that are unique to our culinary landscape. It is “agricultural conservation” where the best of those foods that have “fallen into disuse” are sought out and promoted to assist in increasing consumer demand so that their flavors may be preserved for future generations. Missouri products you’ll find in The Ark include black walnuts, red wattle hogs and sorghum. They are unique examples of our region’s food supply, and they are things that have all but been stomped out by industrial agriculture.
Locally Slow Food St. Louis has donated funds to local chicken farmers to assist in the purchase of heritage breed chickens so that we can not only support the farmers, but also so that we might have a tasting of those chickens down the line to show people first hand what might be lost if efforts like these are not continued.
In contrast, via the Presidia, The Ark is taken one step further with an even smaller number of foods. In order to “defend our world’s heritage of agricultural biodiversity and gastronomic traditions” more localized support systems are established to do things like set techniques and standards for production and to actively seek ways to increase consumer consumption via promotion.
Working with The American Livestock Breed Conservancy (who has taken over management of this Presidia item), heritage breed turkeys are a great example of these efforts. They not only document those breeds in danger, but they assist with providing a resource network for farmers interested in obtaining heritage turkeys for their own farms, and further assist with getting the word out on the market place that alternatives to industrial farming are available. As a result of these efforts consumer demand for heritage breed turkeys has increased dramatically. In 1997 there were a mere 1335 heritage turkeys (of any breed) nationwide. In 2003 that number had increased to 4272. (4)
So why am I mentioning all of this now?
Because, right now I am in the Chicago O’Hare Airport awaiting my delayed flight en route to San Francisco for Slow Food Nation. Next to me sits Ellie, and besides her sits a 30ish year old woman from San Juan Puerto Rico who we found is also heading to Slow Food Nation. She is eager, well informed, and optimistic about what the weekend will bring to her. I, however, always the pessimist, have been thinking a lot about the major gripe of many Slow Food critics who believe the organization is elitist. And I believe they have a point in that Slow Food has chosen to hold their event on a coast in one of the most expensive cities in the country.
In the New York Times a few weeks ago Kim Severson wrote that “the Slow Food faithful say they want the festival to be the Woodstock of food, a profound event where a broad band of people will see that delicious, sustainably produced food can be a prism for social, ecological and political change.” (5) The thing is, where Woodstock was free after the first 186,000 people paid, Slow Food Nation is anything but.
Travel costs aside (which are extensive), with the exception of the Victory Garden outside City Hall, practically everything at Slow Food Nation costs money (Though even it cost $180,000 and they’re just going to tear it down).
Say you want to go see that lovely Slow Food Nation Food for Thought panel discussion with Wendell Berry, Michael Pollan, Alice Waters, Eric Schlosser, and Carlo Petrini. That’s awesome, I’m sure it will be profound, but at Slow Food Nation enlightenment carries a cost—$25 for this event. While I’m aware that for many that’s not a lot, for some it is, and with all of the discussions costing money, it means that if you found yourself hoping to go see four of them on Saturday, you’d be looking at $80 or more. And these are the cheapest events of the weekend.
For most it’s the Taste Pavilion they’re really excited about. 50,000 square feet will be segregated into 15 Pavilions in which “each…will offer two types of food plates, flights and snacks, and connect visitors with the artisans’ process via unique displays and demonstrations.” That sounds awesome! I honestly can’t wait. But I’m paying $65 for it. Plus, that $65 doesn’t even get me a taste of anything I want because, “when you enter Pavilions with your ticket, you get 20 Dough”. With every taste being one or two dough that means you might find yourself wanting to try more–which of course you can if you’re willing to shell out yet more of your version of dough to purchase extra dough cards worth five of theirs for ten of yours.
And the kicker: anyone had the ability to buy tickets to any of these events. There is no general admittance fee that then enables you to tack on additional events. What that means for those of us going, is that anyone in the Bay Area that decided to cruise on over for a few hours without really committing to the overall idea of it, could. What makes this troubling is that with an anticipated attendance of 50,000+, the Herbst Theatre, the theatre in which all the conversations are taking place, seats something like 916 people. Other events like heirloom hog tastings, chocolate tastings and coffee cuppings have even fewer possible attendees with most having a cap of around 40. Having spaces for less than 1/50 of the expected number of attendees doesn’t sound like the “Woodstock of food” to me.
But don’t kid yourself; I am fully aware that to put something on of this magnitude takes time, energy, and gobs of money. I can’t even begin to describe how excited I am to see how it all goes down. That’s why I’m going. It’s just that I’m not convinced it’s the best way to go about educating Americans regarding what it is that some of us think they should be eating. Slow Food Nation is, at least in some way, a multi-million dollar soapbox. The only way to get on top is to have paid a hefty admission, and if the offers I’ve been receiving for my extra Taste Pavilion ticket are any indication, most of those attending will have plenty.
The real value in Slow Food Nation, however, will be if the overall goal is met. As Katrinia Heron said in the same New York Times article, “The success of Slow Food Nation depends on political leaders taking up this issue.”
I guess we shall see.
From the Andrews Hotel in San Francisco, I am now off to Slow Food Nation.
1 – http://www.slowfoodusa.org/about/index.html
2 – http://www.slowfoodfoundation.org/
3 – http://www.albc-usa.org/news/april5_06.html
3 – Slow Food Ark of Taste http://www.slowfoodusa.org/ark/ark_list.html
5 – Slow Food Savors Its Big Moment – New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/23/dining/23slow.html