Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Slow Food Savors Its Big Moment

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.”

A Locally Grown Diet With Fuss but No Muss

By Kim Severson
The New York Times

Eating locally raised food is a growing trend. But who has time to get to the farmer’s market, let alone plant a garden?

That is where Trevor Paque comes in. For a fee, Mr. Paque, who lives in San Francisco, will build an organic garden in your backyard, weed it weekly and even harvest the bounty, gently placing a box of vegetables on the back porch when he leaves.

Call them the lazy locavores — city dwellers who insist on eating food grown close to home but have no inclination to get their hands dirty. Mr. Paque is typical of a new breed of business owner serving their needs.

Even couples planning a wedding at the Plaza Hotel in New York City can jump on the local food train. For as little as $72 a person, they can offer guests a “100-mile menu” of food from the caterer’s farm and neighboring fields in upstate New York.

“The highest form of luxury is now growing it yourself or paying other people to grow it for you,” said Corby Kummer, the food columnist and book author. “This has become fashion.”

Locally grown food, even fully cooked meals, can be delivered to your door. A share in a cow raised in a nearby field can be brought to you, ready for the freezer — a phenomenon dubbed cow pooling. There is pork pooling as well. At Sugar Mountain Farm in Vermont, the demand for a half or whole rare-breed pig is so great that people will not be seeing pork until the late fall.

Although a completely local diet is out of reach for even the most dedicated, the shift toward it is being driven by the increasingly popular view that fast food is the enemy and that local food tastes better. Depending on the season, local produce can cost an additional $1 a pound or more. But long-distance food, with its attendant petroleum consumption and cheap wages, is harming the planet and does nothing to help build communities, locavores believe.

As a result of interest in local food and rising grocery bills, backyard gardens have been enjoying a renaissance across the country, but what might be called the remote-control backyard garden — no planting, no weeding, no dirt under the fingernails — is a twist. “They want to have a garden, they don’t want to garden,” said the cookbook author Deborah Madison, who lives in Santa Fe, N.M.

Her neighbor Chase Ault, a business consultant, recently had a vegetable garden installed with a customized set of plants and a regular service agreement. “I am working 24-7 these days, but I wanted to have something growing in front of me,” Ms. Ault said.

Like organic food, which corporate manufacturers embraced in the 1990s, before it, local food is quickly moving into the mainstream. Last year, the New Oxford American Dictionary picked locavore as its word of the year. A National Restaurant Association survey this year of more than 1,200 chefs, many of whom work for chain restaurants or large food companies, found locally grown produce to be the second-hottest American food trend, just behind bite-size desserts.

For a growing number of diners, a food’s provenance is more important than its brand name, said Michelle Barry, who studies American eating patterns for the Hartman Group, a research firm in Bellevue, Wash. As a result, grocery stores are looking to repackage products like milk and cheese to play up any local angle.

That will be a boon to people who find that shortcuts are necessary if they wish to eat locally. “If you live on East 80th 14 floors up and all you have is a potted plant, it’s tough,” said Lynne Rossetto Kasper, the host of the radio show “The Splendid Table,” who recruited 15 listeners for a study on the subject. Researchers will record their struggles to make 80 percent of their meals from organic or local sources. Spices are the only exemption.

Lazy locavores would never go to such extremes. Rather, they might simply sign up with the FruitGuys. The company, which has offices in San Francisco and Philadelphia, will deliver boxes of local, sustainably raised or organic fruit right to the cubicle.

In the mood for a meal that reeks of community but does not necessitate a communal activity? Three Stone Hearth in Berkeley, Calif., which describes itself as a community supported kitchen, offers its customers the opportunity to make friends while making food from local, sustainable farms, but the worker-owned company also offers online shopping for people who do not have the time to pick up orders or participate in educational activities.

Customers 20 miles away in the affluent community of Mill Valley, for example, can pay $15 to have jars filled with Andalusian stew, made with pasture-raised pork, delivered to their door. The jars, of course, are returnable.

“It’s a very savvy crowd that understands how all the pieces of sustainable farming and nutrition fit together,” said Larry Wisch, one of five worker-owners at Three Stone Hearth. “But they don’t want the headaches of getting here.”

Or you could just have your private chef handle all your local food needs. At their Hamptons summer house, John and Lorna Brett Howard want to eat almost exclusively local, which means that in place of one trip to the grocery store, their chef, Michael Welch, makes several trips to farm stands and the fishmonger.

“What I’m seeing with my clients is not the trendiness or the politics,” Mr. Welch said. “They are looking only at taste.”

Mrs. Howard said she ate local vegetables growing up in northern Michigan and Chicago. But her husband, a private equity fund manager, ate a lot of expensive imported food with little thought about where it came from. But all that has changed.

“It’s like the first time you start drinking good red wine and you realize what you were drinking was so bad you can’t go back to it,” Mrs. Howard said. “It’s that same way with vegetables.”

The author Barbara Kingsolver, whose book “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” was a best seller last year, did not have the lazy locavore in mind when she wrote about the implications of making her family spend a year eating local. But she celebrates the trend.

“As a person of rural origin who has lived much of my life in rural places,” she said, “I can’t tell you how joyful it makes me to hear that it’s trendy for people in Manhattan to own a part of a cow.”

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Princeville Ranch Tour & BBQ

By Lee Roversi
Slow Food Kaua'i

When Slow Food speaks of the benefits of eating locally, the Princeville Ranch is precisely the type of business to which they are referring. And Kauai’s Slow Food members and their guests got a firsthand experience of that stellar sustainable operation on Saturday, June 21, 2008.

Our own Kauai cowgirl, Karin Carswell Guest, who grew up riding the ranch with her family, so graciously gave us an inside look at this living piece of Kauai’s heritage. Princeville Ranch was one of the first established cattle ranches in Hawaii, created during the reign of Kamehameha III. A.S. Wilcox, the Carswell's ancestor, purchased the ranch in 1895 and ran cattle on it. The Carswell family started Pooku Stables, a trail riding operation, in 1978. The rides lead across the Princeville Ranch lands, giving riders a glimpse of the grazing cattle. Then in 1994, the family also took over the cattle operation. They began proudly marketing Princeville Pride beef locally in 1996, utilizing no antibiotics or hormones. The cattle are a breed called Brangus, a mix of Angus and Brahma, a perfect match for the tropics. Completely grass-fed, with pastures being switched frequently, they live a bucolic life, a far cry from the factory farming which provides most beef in the world.

After a fun ride across the ranch in our three pick-ups, punctuated by Karin’s fascinating information about the cattle and ranch and culminating in a breathtaking view from Green Hill at the very top of the acreage, we then reconvened at the barbeque site on the bluff overlooking Kauai’s north shore with more vistas to stun your senses. There Don Carswell, the patriarch of the family and a master on the grill, prepared Princeville Pride Filet Mignon and New York cuts for our sunset dining. We enjoyed local corn from Kilauea. As well, North Country Farms provided the organic salad greens and Icing on the Cake delighted us once again with both dinner rolls and fantastic dessert. The sun dropped behind the pali as we all ran out of superlatives to adequately describe the sheer beauty of the ranch and the superb product they grow so consciously there.

Slow Food Kaua'i would also like to thank Papaya's Natural Food and Kauai Tent and Party Rental for their generous donations for this event.