Monday, September 01, 2008

Slow Food for the Unfamiliar

Over the past few days, as I've written and talked about this event to people who weren't involved - I've realized that not everyone knows what the heck Slow Food - much less Slow Food Nation, is all about - and it might be helpful to have a little primer.

Ways to go slow

Slow Food is a movement dedicated to a return to traditional ways of producing and enjoying food. Growing food on a local level, preparing it in a manner that showcases it's true character, enjoying it around a table with friends and family, those are guidelines that Slow Food espouses. Somewhere along the way, Slow Food has also developed a political angle. To my knowledge, this is a relatively recent development - certainly within the past ten years, and maybe even within the last five. Slow Food's current stated goal is now "clean, fair food for all" - affordable is sometimes thrown in there, though that can be a bit of a landmine, because Slow Food is ALSO about fair payment to food producers for their artisanal goods. That, as we all know - can require one to part with a "fair" amount of money, and I don't mean that in the social justice sense.

Some in Slow Food would like to see it become a force for political change. According to the NY Times, in one of the sessions I didn't attend, Michael Pollan said: “The era of cheap food is over. Politicians like cheap food. It’s what allows them to sleep at night. We’ve known this since the French Revolution.” People need to change their lifestyles, but in order to really make a difference, he said, "Slow Food needs policy people and lawyers to carry the message beyond the table and the field." In other word, to counter the influence of lobbyists from the agribusiness giants. (Where do I sign up??)
Apples at the Marketplace
The most often heard criticism of Slow Food is that it is nothing more than a bunch of self-congratulatory dilletantes sitting around patting themselves on the back and eating five dollar peaches. It's true that a certain amount of that does exist, but that sort of generalized naysaying arguably dismisses the efforts of the educators, farmers and growers who live by the prinicples of Slow Food, in some cases molding their lives around them. They might do what they do with or without Slow Food, but the organization provides a platform for them to bring the message to other people who might not otherwise hear it, through school programs, community projects, neighborhood farms, gardens, and farmers markets. When people who hear this message stop shopping at Albertsons and start growing their own food and buying from their local markets - they start investing in their own communities. On a widespread scale, that can be a powerful thing.
I agree...
Slow Food also encourages consumers from all walks of life to contribute to their communities by going to farmers markets, eating locally - even just buying from local businesses is a step in the right direction. There's no one dogmatic approach - and everyone takes from it what they will. It's not necessary to be a member to live the life, and arguably, if you're out there doing it, then you're already a member of the movement, whether or not you carry a card in your wallet.
Lunch in the loft at Harley Farms
Apart from the political side - Slow Food encourages families to eat together, and enjoy fresh, high-quality foods, produced in a sustainable manner. Of course, these things cost money - since they cost more to produce, but I do have to admit, they really do taste better. Over this past weekend, I had strawberries that tasted like candy, and tomatoes that literally made me swoon. (I also had a pickle that tasted like a bad mussel, but we'll forget about that for right now.) When you pay more for these foods, especially if the producers are in your local area - you're putting that money back into the community, and helping someone make a living wage. When you buy the lesser quality produce at the supermarket, you're sending that money off to a corporation that is likely using most of it to pay for fossil fuels - and the rest on pesticides, the bane of large-scale farming. Wages? Pah - the stuff is grown in Mexico. Soil quality? What's that?

On a practical level, nutrients in the food are actually lost in the transportation process, and sustainably grown produce actually has more nutrients to start with if it's grown in good soil. If you haven't read Michael Pollan's book, the Omnivore's Dilemma - it's an excellent place to start with an understanding of why large scale farming is unhealthy, and why good soil is so important for growing food.
The SFN Victory Garden
Slow Food Nation itself, I have to admit - I am still trying to figure out. The stated purpose was to bring people together and energize the movement, and I think in terms of that goal, it was a success. The weekend offered lectures, the Civic Center happenings (which were free) the Taste Pavilions (with the $65.00 tickets) the Slow Journeys (one of which I went on) and several workshops sponsored by various advertisers, which had low cost tickets at around $10.00.

It was a convention, a festival and a showplace. A way to draw attention to the movement - which contrary to what some may believe - has not subsumed all of San Francisco just yet. It was a little over the top in some ways, but that's what sells tickets (and sell tickets they did.) It was educational - and though some criticize for "preaching to the converted" - sometimes the converted need a little encouragement and inspiration - a little recharging of the batteries - in order to keep doing what they're doing and feel like it's making a difference.

Did I need to see a giant bread snail, or stand in line for prosciutto in order to feel this way? Probably not, and I would think twice before paying for the Taste Pavilion experience (my ticket was comped) but I'm glad I went this one time. It was - as was the event as a whole - definitely something to see.


  1. Thanks for the post, alice. It is interesting to me to read the post-mortems as I only attended what was probably one of the least centralized events.

    what do you think became of that bread snail? I owuld like to think they made it into panzanella salad and fed it to the homeless. I am pretty sure that didn't happen though.

    look forward to seeing you the next time you are in town!


  2. Nice post. That was a great primer for those unfamiliar with the movement. Wish I could have been there this weekend!

  3. “The era of cheap food is over. Politicians like cheap food. It’s what allows them to sleep at night. We’ve known this since the French Revolution.”

    And politicians also like cheap health care, and cheap housing, and cheap education.

    But that's only so as many people as possible can have the benefits of those things.

    Pollan is willing to have people go hungry for the sake of his moral vanity. I guess the people who would suffer just aren't the artisanal type.

  4. Yeeeaaahhh! Anonymous comments are back! To celebrate, I hereby make the following inappropriate anonymous comments:

    1) Alice Q. Foodie has a nice rack
    2) twittering is super creepy
    3) Slow Food is anti-Jesus

  5. Hey Alice,
    Thanks for the post. I attended (I'm from San Diego) and had a wonderful time.

    Personally, I think we need to change our culture before we can change our politics. If we value our food, we go a long way in changing our collective mindset in how we treat food systems politically.

    I was an anthropology student in college and I can't help but be reminded of the rise and fall of mesoamerican civilizations like the Mayans and Aztecs (and probably many others as well). When resources were cheap, specialization exploded. When specialization happens, you see stratification and things like large-scale farming. Eventually large-scale farming (and other industrial pursuits) exhausts the natural resources. Without resources, society sort of disperses, and goes back to a rural life.

    Of course, that's a gross oversimplification, but you can see what's at work with the rise and "fall" of civilizations.

  6. Um, what's super creepy, actually, is having your husband leave a comment on your blog about your rack!

    Tracey - It's especially crazy when you think about how recently this has all exploded - the population and food production - really, just over the last 50 years or so? And look at the damage we've done in just that amount of time!

  7. Really enjoyed experiencing the events vicariously through you, thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  8. now i *really* want to meet your husband. Bring him next time. I insist!

  9. Enlightening post, That was a great primer for those unfamiliar with the movement.