While nobody would ever accuse me of being “slow” around food, I must admit that when I heard the term “slow food” for the first time, I was intrigued. Without even knowing what it was, the two words seemed to go together naturally. Food is meant to be taken slow … consumed slowly … enjoyed in a leisurely way.
Look around at our ever-expanding American waistlines and the majority of restaurant choices available to the casual diner, and it’s not hard to argue that our “fast food” culture has eroded more than our palates. Seeing my fellow diners while eating a hasty meal of buffet Chinese food at the food court of the Tanger Outlet Mall in Riverhead recently, I needed no further convincing that we have lost sight of our culinary heritage. In our fast-moving society, where “grabbing a bite” has seemed to replace two out of three of our regular meals, the Slow Food concept looks very appealing. But what is it, exactly?
Simply put, “slow food” is a philosophy that posits there are strong connections between what (and how) we eat, and our planet. Call it eco-gastronomy: the idea that food is an important part of all cultures, and it is our responsibility to protect the way we produce and consume it (and, some would argue, dispose of it). Think about it this way: “fast food” often comprises genetically modified potatoes that are flash frozen, speed-fried, and served with a heart-stopping splash of salt at your local chain restaurant; Slow Food is the buttery mashed potatoes your grandmother used to serve, alongside a slowly braised pot roast. In the Slow Food world, vegetables are allowed to ripen on the vine, sea salt is raked by hand rather than machine harvested, and there is an emphasis on ingredients that are handmade or freshly grown.
It’s really a fairly simple concept, although one that’s been ignored for many years. Since food is the fuel that drives our daily lives, having a philosophy that guides our consumption of it is probably not a bad idea. That was the driving force behind Arcigola, the forerunner of Slow Food, whose 62 members met in Italy in 1986 to create an association behind the concept. After a few years of slowly building up steam, Slow Food was formed as a nonprofit organization in 1989, and had its first Slow Food International Congress in 1990; events in Switzerland, Germany, and Italy followed. Slow Food came to the U.S. in 2000, with a New York City office and a mandate to spread the Slow Food gospel all over the country. The organization now spans 850 individual chapters (called “convivia”) worldwide, and boasts more than 80,000 members.
Part of that gospel is Slow Food’s commitment to the environment as an organization. “Slow food” doesn’t necessarily mean “organic.” While the organization is in favor of the principles behind organic agriculture, it feels that the “organic” label doesn’t go far enough. In that vein, the organization has created a series of “presidia,” or small projects dedicated to assisting artisan food producers. Some current projects include promoting Canadian Red Fife wheat, developing Moroccan Argan oil, and promoting Oosterschedle lobster from the Netherlands. By bringing producers and consumers together, establishing strict producing standards, and (most important) creating awareness of artisanal foods, Slow Food acts as kind of an international food game warden, trying to keep great foods from going extinct.
Christopher O’Hara’s most recent book, Great American Beer, won a “Man at His Best” award from Esquire Magazine.
Q&A with Jerusha Klemperer of Slow Food USA
canvas: What is Slow Food? How would you describe it to someone who is clueless?
JK: When we say “slow food” we are talking about a movement, and the international organization that grew out of that movement. Slow Food is the opposite of fast food. It is food that is good, clean, and fair. That is to say, it tastes delicious, it is ecologically sustainable, and the people who grew it and produced it are compensated fairly for their work.
canvas: Does being a Slow Food person mean you are “green”? What’s the connection to the larger “sustainability” movement?
JK: Slow Food is eco-gastronomy. Slow Food comes at ecology from the perspective of taste and pleasure—understanding that sustainable food is the most delicious. In addition, we know that if we continue to degrade the earth with our industrialized, commercialized food system, there will be no earth left. Recent studies (including the UN’s millennium environmental study) have shown that the industrialized food system (including the raising of livestock and the shipping of food around the globe) is causing more pollution than any other system. In addition, the depletion of our earth’s biodiversity is a major problem. The industrial food system tends to narrow the field by focusing on single varieties (an example being the ubiquitous but flavorless Butterball turkey). As a result, there are many, many disappearing breeds and seeds. The loss of these heirloom and heritage varieties represents not just a loss to our ecosystems, but usually a loss at the table as well.
canvas: What is a great Slow Food dish someone could make to get acquainted with the philosophy?
JK: There really isn’t any such thing as a Slow Food dish. A start would be to buy ingredients from a farmers’ market, or at least to know where the food comes from. The next step would be to cook it yourself, and to share it with friends and family around the table. Food should be a community-building event—a way to celebrate your heritage and your region and hopefully the bounty of your food community. Buy fresh Long Island seafood straight from the fisherman, buy Long Island wines straight from the vineyard. Get to know your local farmer, and get acquainted with your kitchen!
canvas: Where can I get involved with a Slow Food meeting? Is there a local Long Island convivium I can join? Are there fees? Why would I join?
JK: There is a Slow Food convivium [chapter] on the East End of Long Island (slowfoodlongisland.org). They organize dinners, farm visits, educational events, food tours, and pig roasts. It is usually possible to attend these events without being a member of Slow Food, though there are usually discounted prices for members. Joining the national organization is a way to show your support for the organization and the work we do in taste education, defending biodiversity, and building food communities. In addition, you get our quarterly magazine, The Snail, as well as our monthly email newsletter, The Food Chain. Finally, you’ll be connected to your local membership chapter and kept abreast of their local events.
canvas: How about events? What’s the best one to go to get an idea about the movement?
JK: I would recommend a farm visit as the best way to get to know the movement. There is no better way to understand where your food comes from than to follow it to the source. Building relationships among farmers, chefs, and eaters is an essential part of what Slow Food does. In addition, family farms are an endangered breed right now, being squeezed out of the market by large-scale industrial growers. Long Islanders are lucky to have many wonderful small farms nearby; the best way to ensure their survival is to support them.
For more information, contact:
Slow Food USA
20 Jay Street, Suite 313
Brooklyn, NY 11201
Slow Food Long Island
East End Events Calendar
Slow Food Huntington
Huntington, NY 11743