Becoming a Slow Food Nation

With friends Rossana and David, we were just four of the two thousand people going from Bread to Honey & Preserves, or maybe Olive Oil to Ice Cream during the morning sessions in the fifty-thousand square foot space at Fort Mason Center in San Francisco. The space had been transformed into the Slow Food Nation Taste Pavilions, and there we found a jar of the plum lavender preserves that had so captivated Rossana when she tasted it with the artisan cheese at lunch just moments earlier. When we told the women at the counter with us how much we enjoyed it, one of them said, “Oh, thank you. I made it.”

And that’s the kind of event it was as Slow Food USA took its first optimistic, confident and ultimately successful steps away from the apron strings worn for the last eight years or so by the founders of Slow Food in Bra, Italy. If one of the central tenets of Slow Food is the concept of farmers, growers and consumers as “co-producers,” this was the place to look each other in the eye and share the experience.

It’s fair to say we were skeptical—cautiously optimistic at best. As Slow Food USA has been working to establish its own identity the movement itself has been global, while the work at its most fundamental and important is intensely local. Individual conviviums, as local chapters are called, were establishing their own agendas, but this was a national coming-out party for Slow Food USA.

It had been postponed once (at the request of farmers who complained the spring dates interfered with planting), and we wondered if a non-European nation could successfully capture with the appropriate subtlety and conviction Slow Food’s underlying virtues of good, clean and fair. We were amazed. And impressed. At almost every level. The event drew sixty thousand people. The quality of the Food for Thought Speaker Series rivaled in content that of the biennial Terra Madre conference in Turin, Italy, and was even better in the intimacy of its design. Panels included Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini, environmental activist Vandana Shiva, NYU Professor Marion Nestle, New York Chef Dan Barber and journalists and writers Raj Patel, Corby Kummer and Michael Pollan on topics ranging from The World Food Crisis, Climate Change and Food to Edible Education and Re-Localizing Food. And when they weren’t speaking they could be found in the pavilions, the market or the garden, eating and talking to visitors. We ran into America’s godmother of slow food, Berkeley restaurateur Alice Waters, literally holding court for a dozen or more people (and one video camera) walking through the Victory Garden.

The Victory Garden itself is a marvel—a ten thousand square foot urban garden across the street from the downtown San Francisco Civic Center that, by the time of Slow Food Nation, was producing a hundred pounds of produce for donations to local food banks. Ringing the garden is a market with more than sixty regional farmers and vendors chosen to sell—and talk about—their food. The garden was so well done, and so well received by the locals, that Mayor Gavin Newsom decided to keep it going into autumn.

Similar care was found throughout Slow Food Nation, thanks to the participation of architects and designers specializing in environmentally friendly design using sustainable products. In partnership with Food & Water Watch’s Take Back the Tap campaign, refillable water stations at all venues reduced water bottle usage by an estimated 100,000. The organizers acted on every principle—good, clean and fair.

Next steps are being discussed. Slow Food USA is planning a second event, though they haven’t indicated where or when just yet. The goal of Slow Food Nation was to “catalyze discussion about building a broader and more inclusive food movement.” To their credit the goal was achieved not just by intention but by example.

Nancy Christy is the former owner of the Wilson Street Grill. She now runs the consulting firm Meaningful People, Places and Food. Neil Heinen is, among other things, her hungry husband. Comments? Questions? Please write to genuinearticles@madisonmagazine.com.

Madison Magazine - November 2008
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