By Lara Evans Bracciante
Originally published in Body Sense magazine, Spring/Summer 2004.
The succulent and distinct taste of a fresh Olympia oyster. The sweet, mellow, nutty flavor of dry jack cheese intensified by years of aging. The aromatic juiciness of a pixie tangerine. The richly flavored meat of the bourbon red turkey. Chances are you’ve never experienced any of the palatable pleasures mentioned here because these food sources are almost extinct, and along with them a slice of culture, and the appreciation for diverse and traditional foods.
But, then again, there may still be hope.
The Spirit of Nourishment
In 1986, when McDonald’s opened a restaurant in Rome’s historic and culturally-rich Piazza Spagna, food and wine writer Carlo Petrini feared that the industrialization of food was edging out thousands of old food varieties that would soon be lost forever. Whether it be a Chianti from a small vineyard in Tuscany, handcrafted cheese from a rural French dairy, or a breed of animal that didn’t mature quickly enough for factory farm turnover, these culturally rich food sources were too valuable to simply succumb to the worldwide Happy Meal. In fact, Petrini noted, the very “happiness” that food has fundamentally provided in all cultures was being undermined by the homogenization of flavors. And few people were taking time to taste, much less savor, their meals. So was born the Slow Food Movement, a nonprofit organization devoted to the pleasure of partaking in a dining experience and the necessity to support the culture that is embedded in food and food preparation.
So, what’s it about exactly? “Pleasure of foods, sustainability of foods, and biodiversity,” says Slow Food member Gerry Warren of Seattle’s Puget Sound Convivium. “As you practice the consumption of food with Slow Food principles, the primary thing is conviviality, sharing time and pleasure with others,” he explains. “We are also dedicated to preserving heritage items — things that have been grown or produced by people of older or obscure cultures. And we promote biodiversity, the concept of maintaining the availability of products in their fundamental or pure form.” Warren adds that the movement is opposed to genetically modified foods.
Now with more than 77,000 members in 48 countries, the backbone of the Slow Food Movement is in small groups of people who gather throughout the world to practice the principles of Slow Food, whether while cooking and eating together or promoting activities in support of cultural fare. These groups are called convivia, a Latin word meaning “fond of feasting, drinking, and good company.”
Warren, the Puget Sound convivium leader, is a clinical professor in the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine and Bioengineering at the University of Washington Medical School. He first learned about the Slow Food Movement on a trip to Italy. “It was so appealing to me, maybe because of my profession,” he explains. “I apply technology to help people with disabilities. In rehabilitation you are essentially being entrepreneurial in trying to maximize the potential of someone’s life. In my case, I identified a close parallel to what Slow Food was all about — maximizing potential.”
Besides enjoying a homemade dinner and a good bottle of wine with friends, Slow Food members can become involved with the two activist elements of Slow Food, the Ark of Taste and the Presidia projects. The Ark of Taste is the identification and cataloging of products, culinary creations and animals in danger of extinction. According to literature from Slow Food International, “The Ark metaphor is explicit: Onto this symbolic ship, Slow Food intends to load gastronomic products threatened by industrial standardization, hyperhygienist legislation, the rules of the large-scale retail trade, and the deterioration of the environment.” So like an “endangered species” list, when a food is identified as near extinction — as is the case with all the products mentioned earlier — it is added to the Ark list.
The second element is the Slow Food Presidia, which can best be described as community interventions. The organization provides support to those committed to saving an Ark product, helping to raise funds, increasing awareness, and identifying new markets for the product. Warren’s convivium, for example, is working with its community to bring back the Olympia native oyster, one of the North American Ark items. The unique, silver-dollar sized oyster — once abundant from Mexico to Alaska — was over-fished when settlers moved west. Shellfish farmers discovered the Olympia could be raised successfully in Puget Sound, and once again harvested the oysters as a commercial crop.
However, their success came to a screeching halt when paper mills were constructed, and the waste from the mills flowed straight into the Sound. The Olympia oyster was killed off. After the mills closed down, a few farmers managed to grow the oysters, for principle more so than for profit.
Now, Warren’s convivium is partnering with the Puget Sound Restoration Fund, an organization created to return the Sound back to its natural, healthy state — Olympia oyster and all. “That oyster was the mainstay of people living on the coastal regions of the Pacific for more than 4,000 years,” Warren says, explaining that we have a responsibility to bring this species back and give it its right to continue. “The other reason for it is hedonistic,” he adds. “That is, the Olympia oyster presents a very unique and delectable presentation.”
Convivia in the United States have also initiated the Slow Food School Garden project, bringing gardening initiatives to the inner city and helping children recognize true food sources rather than believing food is originally derived from cans, packages, stores, or fast food restaurants. “There’s no transparency for those kids as to where food comes from,” Warren says. “It’s a great place to start making a difference in people’s lives.”
Moving Toward An Ideal
While the Slow Food Movement begins with preserving food as a pleasure, it can’t help but seep into the realms of politics, environmental activism, and cultural preservation. And because it begins with food consumption, a universal concept that no one — regardless of race, religion, sex, or age — can deny, Warren believes it is a powerful tool for reaching out and finding common ground. “Food is the single most important commodity in the world,” he says. “Everyone is involved with it to some degree, in some way.” In developing countries, the Slow Food Movement is finding a wealth of fodder for its initiatives. “There is a clear evolution of Slow Food which began as focused on gastronomy, then evolved to eco-gastronomy, and now it’s evolving to projecting its principles of biodiversity to aid people in Second and Third World countries,” Warren says.
In its highest ideals, the Slow Food Movement advocates a pleasurable life, the preservation of culture and food sources, a solution to environmental destruction, a common ground for all peoples, and an end to world hunger. Can these lofty goals result from taking time and action to slow down a fast-paced life and deeply enjoy a home-cooked meal with family and friends? Warren believes it’s a start. “Carlo Petrini has great vision and has admitted to proposing objectives that may or may not be attainable,” he says, “but moving in the direction of those visions has been the goal. Getting even partway is important.”
If you are interested in joining or initiating a convivium, or for more information, contact Slow Food U.S.A. at 212/965-5640 or visit www.slowfoodusa.org. For international information, visit www.slowfood.com.