Tuesday, July 22, 2008
By Kim Severson
The New York Times
At the end of the summer, the gastronomic organization called Slow Food USA will host a little party for more than 50,000 people in San Francisco.
Outside of the tight culinary circles of San Francisco and New York, people seemed to have a hard time figuring out exactly what Slow Food did. Some farmers and producers perceived its members as dilettantes who traveled the countryside “discovering” Berkshire pigs and heirloom tomatoes and old apple orchards.
Steven Shaw, a food writer and a founder of the food Web site eGullet, said Slow Food succeeded early on because it mixed hedonism with a leftist political agenda. But, he contends, its strong antitechnology, antiglobalization views are lost on the average member.
“Most people I know who go to Slow Food events are the culinary equivalents of the guys in college who go to protests to meet girls,” he said. “They couldn’t care less about the ideology.”
In the spring, several bloggers faced off over charges that the international organization was nothing but a collection of jet-setting food theorists. Brahm Ahmadi, the executive director of the People’s Grocery, a community organization that works to get healthy food into poor parts of Oakland, Calif., wrote in his blog that Slow Food lacked “economic and racial diversity.”
Katrina Heron, the chairwoman of the board that is running the Slow Food Nation festival, said Slow Food USA is trying to become more inclusive and develop an identity distinct from the parent group. “It had an awkward landing from the beginning,” she said. “There was kind of this problem in translation.”
Ms. Heron believes Slow Food Nation will be a turning point. Festival leaders have courted Mr. Ahmadi and others to lead panels on hunger, race and poverty. The group has also hired a “justice director” to make the conference more diverse.
She and other Slow Food leaders say that many of the 200 United States convivia — the term the organization uses instead of chapters — are doing important work in places where like-minded people might not otherwise have found one another. There are five chapters in Iowa, for example, including one in Des Moines started by Neil Hamilton, a gentleman farmer and director of the Agricultural Law Center at Drake University Law School.
“Farmers’ market vendors and farmers are not always the most organized,” he said. “Slow Food has provided an organizational place for all these folks to come together and support each other.”
Slow Food has helped build gardens in schoolyards, and it came to the rescue in post-Katrina Louisiana, raising about $50,000 to help restaurants reopen, farmers replant and shrimpers buy new equipment, among other things. New Orleans’s premier farmers’ market reopened a couple of months after the storm, largely through the sheer will of Slow Food members.
Slow Food also helped popularize the word “heritage,” now commonly used to describe certain breeds of pigs and even fruit. The group’s effort in 2001 to help a breeder sell his rare, old-fashioned turkeys — he called them heritage turkeys — became a cause célèbre that Thanksgiving.
But leaders realize Slow Food USA must do more if it is going to grow much beyond the 16,000 members it has now and build enough political muscle to help reform the food system.
Now, they say, the organization is getting a makeover. And the festival in San Francisco will be the perfect place to show off a more inclusive and more politically attuned Slow Food USA.
“I don’t know if it’s going to be the youthful, happening Woodstock they want it to be, but it certainly has the potential,” said Corby Kummer, a food columnist, book author and Slow Food board member. “It will be a failure if it is only well-dressed people over 35 from the Bay Area treating it as if it’s another Ferry Plaza Farmers Market” — a reference to the place where well-fed San Franciscans and celebrity farmers chat over perfect peaches and soft, ripe cheese.
Carlo Petrini, a charismatic Italian who writes about food and wine, started Slow Food with friends who shared his notion that left wing politics and gastronomic pleasure could be happily married. The international organization has grown to 86,000 members and become an industry in Mr. Petrini’s hometown, Bra, Italy. There are Slow Food restaurants, a university and a hotel. You can buy a cashmere truffle-hunting vest embroidered with the Slow Food snail logo at the main office in Bra.
To get things ready, the mayor let the group dig up the lawn in front of City Hall and plant a quarter-acre garden. It will be the centerpiece of the festival, ambitiously named Slow Food Nation.
Events will pop up all around the city over Labor Day weekend. Fifteen architects have volunteered to build elaborate pavilions dedicated to things like pickles, coffee and salami. Lecture halls have been booked, politicians invited and dinner parties planned. Nearly $2 million has been raised.
And for the first time in its 10-year history, the notoriously finicky organization has embraced corporate partners like Whole Foods, Anolon cookware and the Food Network.
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.
They also realize that it may be their best chance to prove that Slow Food, as a movement, is not just one big wine tasting with really hard to find cheeses that you weren’t invited to.
The American wing of the Slow Food movement, which began in Italy in 1986, has a tendency to polarize people. When it first took root here in 1998, some people were drawn to its philosophy, while others were put off by what they saw as elitism and an inflated sense of importance.
Slow Food’s leaders, the chef Alice Waters chief among them, bristle at the criticism. But most acknowledge that the organization did not translate well to an American audience. As a result, it has never had as much cultural or political impact as its parent group in Europe.
The group’s budget is about $39 million, and subsidized by the Italian government. Much of the organization’s work involves identifying traditional foods, like Ethiopian white honey or Amalfi sfusato lemons, and designing ways to help the people who produce them.
Its philosophy — that food is about much more than cooking and eating — is often hammered home by Mr. Petrini on his frequent trips around the world.
“I always say a gastronome who isn’t an environmentalist is just stupid, and I say an environmentalist who isn’t a gastronome is just sad,” he said through an interpreter in an interview last year.
In the late 1990s, Mr. Petrini’s ideas were quickly embraced by people on America’s coasts who were fans of farmers’ markets, local food and a slower, more reflective way of life. Ms. Waters, who had spent more than two decades advocating delicious organic food and the small farms that grew it, was among them.
“I heard him for the first time and I just fell for him,” she said. “I thought, oh, my God. We are soul mates.”
Most of Slow Food’s achievements in its first years in the United States were intellectual. It easily won new converts like the authors Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan to its critique of the status quo in American food.
“Slow Food came on as a way to influence the system through small, enlightened groups,” said Bill Niman, the California rancher. “For me, any effort or movement that helps motivate people to ask where does this come from and where is it raised is very important.”
Slow Food gathered critics quickly, too. Those who embraced the Eurocentric Slow Food model struck some as cliquish and snobby.
“I do slow food. Why should I join it?” said John Scharffenberger, who made his name producing sparkling wine and chocolate in Northern California. “But I think it is a really good way to promote Italian food.”
“To change consumer buying habits and to get people to think differently about where their food comes from is one thing,” Ms. Heron said. “But that’s not the main event. The success of Slow Food Nation depends on political leaders taking up this issue.”
Meanwhile, Slow Food USA itself is trying to change, said Erika Lesser, the executive director of the national organization, which is based in Brooklyn.
“This is really a coming-of-age moment for us where we are trying to define who we are in the United States,” she said.
To that end, Slow Food USA is adding college chapters, reorganizing its internal structure and dropping the term convivium in favor of the more American-sounding chapter.
Even Ms. Waters, who is a vice president of Slow Food’s international board, realizes that her beloved cause has to invite some new guests to the table.
And it appears many of them will be showing up on Labor Day weekend.
“All I can say is, there are enough really beautiful people coming for it to be bigger than the sum of its parts,” Ms. Waters said. “If 60,000 people do come, and we’re all in front of City Hall, and it’s a beautiful night, well, who knows what could happen.”
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