People preparing food

Slow Food

Sound Consumer | November 2002

by Charles Finkel, Slow Food

(November 2002) — Everyone on Earth deserves the pleasure that food delivers; we all should slow down and spend more time breaking bread with family and friends.

Slow Food is a superb combination of words, especially in our fast food nation. Slow Food, the opposite of fast food, was conceived by a food enthusiast from a cheese-making town in the Piemonte region of Italy.

On a visit to Rome, at the foot of the Spanish Steps, Carlo Petrini observed that a McDonald's was packing people in. He must have felt as if on the edge of an science fiction dream, of robots serving plastic containers — filled with highly processed, hormonally-enhanced, bio-engineered, artificially-colored, antibiotically-intense, chemically and pesticide charged, nuclear fertilized, cheap food — to other robots, many overweight, some wearing name tags.

He saw a sad, boring sameness to every meal in a society that placed food in low regard. It was man imitating machine. He knew how pervasive the fast food culture was in the U.S. and his greatest fear was that the mania would bully its way into Italy.

The threat of fast food called for action. Education was at the heart of his vision. In 1989, Petrini founded a grass roots organization to promote the pleasures of food culture — its emblem, the humble snail; it's name, Slow Food.

Unknown to Petrini at the time, a growing number of Americans also were concerned about the pervasiveness of a food culture making speed and cheapness its greatest attributes. For decades, PCC and other co-ops had been encouraging shoppers to support local farms, brewers, bakers, and winemakers. Since the '70s, PCC cultivated buying arrangements with local farmers such as Gene Kahn. When Kahn first started Cascadian Farm, he drove a Volkswagen bus full of corn on the cob and strawberries from the Skagit Valley straight to PCC. Although not named as such, the slow food philosophy was underway here.

Foods from artisan growers, more expensive by nature, began their steady growth, which continues to this day. Were Carlo to shop at PCC this Thanksgiving; he'd be delighted at the plethora of slow foods: organic meats, dairy and cheeses from small-scale regional ranchers; sustainable seafood from local shores; organic greens, root vegetables, and fruits from the Olympic peninsula, the Skagit Valley, Eastern Washington and Oregon; handcrafted breads and baked goods from local, artisan bakers, fresh salads made from scratch in small batches.

The Slow Food philosophy has caught on around the world: that each citizen on earth deserves the pleasure that food delivers; that we all should slow down and spend more time breaking bread with family and friends; that dining slowly aids digestion and conversation and is a sensual experience; that we derive pleasure from food that is grown with concern for the health and welfare of farmers and farm workers. Put another way: You can't break "Wonderbread!"

Slow Food and PCC share a number of common precepts: that cooking from scratch with whole foods is a valuable endeavor, that supporting local farmers and preparing meals with seasonal ingredients produces more delicious meals. We believe farming should be sustainable and that organic is even better.

Scores of plants are becoming extinct as buyers — taught that food should be cheap and quick — drive to discount stores to buy limited varieties of vegetables that were shipped thousands of miles to market. We believe that education is the key to making change and Slow Food makes that education fun at thousands of events held by local conviviums around the world.

My introduction to Slow Food was at the sensational "Salone del Gusto," held at the gigantic, former Fiat auto plant in Torino, Italy. It's the world's largest consumer food event. I met Carlo Petrini there and his team of devoted followers.

Together, they produce Slow, a gorgeous magazine about enology, gastronomy, agriculture and food, and publish scores of books on wine and food. They host the annual Slow Food Awards, run a Master of Food program (a food university housed in an ancient monastery), and orchestrate two major international events: "Salone del Gusto" in Torino and "Cheese" in Bra. We learned about the Slow Food Presidia, an umbrella organization created to protect endangered food products.

We spent hours on the market floor talking to hundreds of artisan producers, tasting their products. We sampled aged balsamic vinegar; perfect prosciuttos; sensational salamis, choice chocolate and ravishing raw milk cheese. There were 2,500 wines available by the glass, barrels of boutique beer, freshly baked bread, authentic Neapolitan pizza (they brought their own wood-fired ovens, bakers and flour) and every other delicious taste of the earth's bounty that you can imagine.

That was in 1999. We have returned to Salone and Cheese every year since. When I met Carlo Petrini, I told him of the need for Slow Food in the U.S. I described how American supermarkets and fast food restaurants have taught people, especially kids, that the best food is cheap. "America is ripe for the picking," I told him.

Since then, a U.S. office has opened at the French Culinary Institute in New York and convivia are popping up all over the country, like mushrooms after a spring rain. Slow Food membership in the U.S. is growing even faster than in Europe. Key projects include: the Edible Schoolyard (educating young people about their food), the Ark of Taste (nominating native products that are in danger of extinction), and regional Salones (a Northwest Salone was held this year in Portland.)

Our Seattle Convivium is active and fun and made up of a diverse group that includes both professional and amateur food lovers. Our events have featured many foods available at PCC: a comparative raw milk cheese tasting at Experience Music Project featuring Lora Lee Misterly of Quillisascut Cheese in Rice, WA; chocolate — from bean to bar, with Fran's and Scharfenberger chocolates represented by their owners; grilling sustainable and "green" (pasture-finished) meats; a wood-fired pizza party with featured guests, Denia Alexa Marin and Francisco Escobar Corea, growers of fair trade coffee in Nicaragua; and a Slow Beer tasting at Bottle Works with Fish Brewing company brewer, Crane Horton. A Seattle Salone is planned for 2003.

Slow Food's goals are lofty. Educating the consumer about food is a big responsibility and even more work, but first let's eat!

You can join online at www.slowfood.com or by calling toll-free 877-SLOWFOO. Individual membership is $60 per year, couples for $75, and includes Slow magazine and information about projects and events. Volunteers are always appreciated.

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