Recipe for success
Despite growing pains, Slow Food is helping to change the way people consider their dinner plates—and the farmers who fill them.

By Renee Ciulla

 

Posted September 14, 2007: Glancing down at my jeans and dusty brown clogs, I suddenly felt self-conscious among the finely attired people surrounding me.

“Are you sure this is the right venue for Carlo Petrini?” I asked my friend, who was accompanying me to this much-anticipated talk by the founder of the international Slow Food movement. With a quizzical half-nod she pushed forward, waiting for the doors to open.

After working on organic farms in Italy the past fall, I had met several Italian farmers who vehemently supported Petrini’s mission. I was naively expecting a similar “crowd” in San Francisco, where Petrini spoke, but was surprised that even with my keen people-watching skills I was unable to locate a single farmer. Although I was happy that Petrini’s talk sold out, I couldn’t help thinking that without the farmers we would have no food—and the food, after all, was what we were there to discuss.

The Slow Food movement was founded in 1986 by an enraged Carlo Petrini after McDonalds attempted to open a franchise in Rome. With more than 80,000 members in 50 countries, the movement has secured a firm place in the world. Slow Food helps redefine people as "co-producers" rather than "consumers," showing how the choices about what we eat give us a role in the food system and puts us side-by-side with farmers in many ways.

Slow Food's international role has grown far beyond the pursuit of great taste and into the realm of making ours a better world, starting at home. Slow Food USA, founded in 2000, has been both revered and attacked by farmers and the general public. Consider this piece an invitation to join me as I delve into various views regarding Slow Food USA’s effectiveness in connecting to small-scale farmers and the various convivia representing their local regions. As an American organic farmer and Slow Food (SF) member, I represent both sides equally with hopes of generating healthy discussion on the topic.

For a farmer’s perspective I spoke with Tim Stark, a well-known heirloom tomato grower in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, who works tirelessly from two plots of land a few miles apart from each other. He believes that Slow Food USA has its heart in the right place but worries that farmers aren’t being heard enough.

We need a connection

“We still need a connection between the farmers up to their knees in mud and the fine-dining customers at the other end.” Stark said Slow Food chefs are key motivators, since they can pay a premium price and advertise the farms to a clientele that might otherwise be disconnected from where their food is being grown. We pondered how Slow Food could offer farm tours to family-run, traditional farms and glamorous establishments—
such as Stone Barns in New York and Shelburne Farms in Vermont—during the same day to encourage member discussions.

Stark added that while harvesting olives in Italy—New York’s Greenmarket sent him there this past winter as its representative at the International Slow Food conference in Turin—he noted traditional knowledge disappearing there, as well, with an increase in heated presses. It’s important, he agreed, to consider that even Italy has its imperfections, as farmers turn away from Slow Food motives and practices.

Closer to home (mine, that is), I called Dave Trumble, an organic vegetable farmer in Weare, New Hampshire, who employed me years ago to squish potato beetles and collect garlic scapes. Trumble actively supports the Slow Food convivium in the Monadnock, New Hampshire, region and is pleased that people are simply thinking about their food and where it is coming from. He views Slow Food as an educational group that is just one more means to connect people with farmers, but not necessarily the only group that should be responsible for such a daunting task. Trumble also noted that Slow Food is a young organization that will probably evolve with time.

Slow Food Seacoast co-leader Michelle Moon, in Kittery, Maine, explained that the group began as a gourmets’ society to encourage people to savor food and the craft that went into it. Very quickly, she said, those food lovers realized that good taste isn't something you can just go out and buy—it has to be cultivated into food and guarded every step of the way. Moon believes, “More than anything, it is the philosophy of the farmer that determines the health, good taste and environmental impact of our food.”

In their convivium, Moon explained, they see their role as one of sharing information with the public about where to find good, local food. The group is currently compiling a Slow Food/Eat Local Resource Guide—a directory listing regional farms and retail locations where you can buy milk, produce, meats and baked goods directly from local producers. Each month they set up a table at the farmers’ market highlighting local produce and ways to prepare it. At Thanksgiving they host a "100-Mile Thanksgiving" dinner, and next year they will host a CSA open house.

Investing in local food

Moon’s optimism about Slow Food Seacoast was obvious in her closing thoughts: “I think our events like the farm picnic are a great model for bonding farmers and their customers. By inviting people out to picnic on the farm, we hope to connect them back to their land and their communities. They'll have beautiful memories of picking raspberries, and those warm memories will surface when it's time to make purchasing choices or vote on legislation affecting land use. This cycle of support brings together food, friendship, community, political life, environmental activism, tradition and health in a way that lifts everyone. When I buy local food, I don't feel like I'm just buying—I feel like I'm investing in the future. Growers and consumers should talk about that more!”

Ave Lambert, a CSA promoter for Capay Organics in San Francisco, is applying for admission into Slow Food’s University of Gastronomic Science in Piedmont, Italy. She is driven by the possibility of forging farm-to-school connections and personally educating communities. Lambert stands behind her opinion that we need to “attack this issue politically and culturally through education, since only well-educated people with greater means can really afford to eat organically [as opposed to] Italy, where the local food system has been in place for centuries, making organic food more obtainable to all.” Lambert is not alone in her struggle to comprehend the “trendiness” and premium price of organics, and what that means to farming communities around the world.

"One of the problems with food culture in the U.S. . .is the focus on fancy food and food elitism. Good food becomes an aspect of consumerism, rather than about environmentalism, tradition or social justice."

~David Szanto

As a recent American graduate of the University of Gastronomic Science, foodie David Szanto brings an interesting view into the discussion. “Given the contemporary reality of food in our world, it's critical that food be thought about in complex and interconnected ways, and that that way of thinking be spread to a large audience,” he said. “The forces of industrialization are too strong, and there need to be equally organized counter-forces for anything to change.”

Szanto believes the major flaw of Slow Food is ironically its great strength: its universally accessible brand with access for producers, processors, consumers, community organizers and activists, alike. Szanto views these many entry points as necessary for Slow Food, which believes in using cross-disciplinary action to bring about change; people want to be aware of food's taste, history, environmental impact, anthropological significance, production techniques, economics and nutritional benefits, he said. “You would also want people in places with wildly different food cultures to connect to a common cause and direction, so it does have to have a pretty wide and loose brand. That means at the local level, Slow Food looks different from place to place as convivia approach food through taste education, producer concerns or fancy food.”

Szanto emphasized that it would be wrong to take the Italian Slow Food model and force-fit it onto the U.S. “One of the problems with food culture in the U.S.—aside from separate and simultaneous overemphasis on nutrition and convenience—is the focus on fancy food and food elitism. Good food becomes an aspect of consumerism, rather than about environmentalism, tradition or social justice. We are, after all, a highly consumerist society, and until that changes, food will remain a subset of that culture.” There are really two Slow Food movements operating in the U.S., Szanto offered in wrapping up our conversation: the national leadership with its overarching culture, and the collectivized organization embodying a mosaic of cultures.

"In Italy, Slow Food has created an unbelievable awareness, especially with children who aren’t taking food for granted quite as much. People are also seeing the economic impact more clearly."

~Boriana DiMonte

It seemed wrong to discuss Slow Food without an Italian’s voice so I sought out Boriana DiMonte, a vibrant Italian from Montelpulciano, Tuscany, who grew up eating vegetables from her grandmother’s garden and appreciating the earth’s bounty. To support the small farmers near her home and preserve their traditional knowledge, she opened a shop in Montelpulciano selling their products, and recently a similar store in the Ferry Building in San Francisco.

During my trip to the city to hear Carlo Petrini, I stopped in to chat with her, particularly since she is a friend of a Tuscan farmer whom I worked for when I was in Italy. DiMonte is also a close friend of Carlo Petrini and was happy to share her views about the movement. “In Italy, Slow Food has created an unbelievable awareness, especially with children who aren’t taking food for granted quite as much. People are also seeing the economic impact more clearly.”

Commenting about people shopping in her store in San Francisco, DiMonte expressed that most people don’t know about Slow Food but at least are slowly learning similar values by supporting small-scale farmers. She also related how in Italy Slow Food is very reachable and not as “fancy” as in the U.S. She expressed strong sentiment that teachers and others with broad influence need to her about it to hear about it in order for the concept to reach the general public.

Vilmo Barbi is one of the small farmers that Boriana supports by selling his chickpeas, pasta and olive oil. I spent several weeks working on his farm last fall and learned that he is Slow Food Italia member. He relayed that in Italy, Slow Food focuses on writing books and organizing meetings, fairs, markets and dinners in order to connect producers to customers but doesn’t ever directly help farmers. Barbi verified that in every country Slow Food has a different agenda: for instance, in Third World countries the priority necessarily shifts to fighting hunger or alleviating bad political or social situations so farmers can continue to produce their products. (Read more in the New Farm article Harvesting a sense of place from Italy's agriculture.)

Following are some of the gastronomic insights Petrini, himself, shared during the talk I attended. He began by offering a “new kind of recipe,” emphasizing the need to connect the “stupid, spoon-stirring recipe-givers” we see on American television with ecologists. Petrini humorously demonstrated with exuberant Italian gestures the ecologists holding their shaking heads in a state of depression, with the gastronomes happily stuffing their faces.

Petrini also expressed the need to create a new sense of “ruralism” in order to attract young farmers from the city and keep the youth in small towns. Italy is currently working hard to revitalize many of its abandoned hillside villages and bring some development, such as the Internet.

When questioned about “organics,” Petrini passionately insisted that we first need to rebuild our local agricultural economies before we worry about being certified organic. Adding to this, he said, “…Organic is not organic after traveling around the globe.” Petrini’s talk encompassed many ideas conveyed in his new book, Slow Food Nation (Rizzoli, Ex Libris, 2007), which further examines the many roles of this complex organization and the ethics it was founded upon.

Settling myself into the plush seat at the Fort Mason Auditorium, I began reflecting on these issues while Petrini continued to wildly gesticulate. Even though I wasn’t as sophisticated-looking as the woman seated next to me, I fully enjoyed bonding with her over the apartment she owns in Florence and the joys of learning the Italian language. She was equally mesmerized by my farming stories, cultivated in both Italy and America. Perhaps the greatest strength of Slow Food USA will eventually be its ability to unexpectedly link farmers and foodies. Although this is not a goal explicitly written into their mission, it could be a very powerful agent for change in this country. Every place has a unique recipe for Slow Food success, leaving the cookbook wide open for us to discover.

Renee Ciulla became dedicated to the world of organics after writing a paper on Bob Rodale in college. She currently resides in the mountains of Bozeman, Montana, where she farms organically, manages a health-food store and works to bring more local food into the community.