All Hail Slow Food

The Slow Food revolution began in 1986 when Carlo Petrini organized a protest against the first McDonald's restaurant in Italy, unfortunately located on the Spanish Steps of Rome.

There are now over 65,000 members in Slow Food International, with 500 chapters, known as convivia, around the world. The organization has its hands in many different pots, from activism to celebration to publication. They've created an endangered-foods Ark Project to celebrate forgotten foods and spread them to members world wide. Slow Food International's Salone del Gusto draws hundreds of thousands of food lovers for a long weekend of education and appreciation. The group publishes "The Snail," a magazine-length newsletter that includes events and recipes, and spotlights local food producers.

At 31 years of age, Patrick Martins, director of Slow Food USA, has a lot of experience under his belt. He started working with Carlo Petrini in 1998 in Italy, and two years later he moved to New York City with his wife to launch Slow Food USA. In the past three years, SFUSA has grown to include over 10,000 members and 134 member-organized convivia. The organization has launched a hugely successful Heritage Turkey program to save endangered species of turkey.

Can you sum up for me the ethos of Slow Food?

Martins: Well, Slow Food is basically an organization dedicated to preserving and celebrating the regional cuisines and products from around the world. It's also firmly committed to reacquainting people with the rituals of the table and trying to introduce the idea of ecogastronomy, which symbolizes the fact that we think gastronomes are gluttonous if they don't have a concern about the environment and where their food came from. And environmentalists are very boring if they don't understand that pleasure has to be a side of food and the environment.

So in some ways it's reconciling the pleasure of eating with environmentalism.

Martins: Exactly. It's basically showing that it's OK to consume, it's OK to have pleasure.

In addition to the heritage turkey program, what are some activities Slow Food is involved in?

Martins: We started a raw milk cheese consortium to save raw milk cheeses [which are endangered by FDA regulations]. We've tried to send coffee around the world that is produced in the appropriate way and pays a proper premium to the producers. We basically try to create markets for products that are endangered from lack of awareness of them.

At a slow food luncheon here in Berkeley last month, you said, "If Slow Food is explained correctly, it cannot be argued with." I'm curious about what are some the arguments people have against Slow Food and how you counter them.

Martins: Well, there's one somewhat legitimate argument, which is that Slow Food is elitist. Basically our response to that is just because a small percentage of the population has embraced Slow Food doesn't make what we believe in wrong. To be embraced by more people it's important that we grow. It's through expansion that we'll become more accessible.

The question to ask is whether Slow Food is doing the right thing or not, and believes in the right thing. If people think it's right, then they should embrace it and help us to expand to different socioeconomic levels and regions.

We live in a time when small producers make niche, healthy, good, delicious products for the rich, but remain very poor. And meanwhile we have very rich companies that produce mediocre, unhealthy food for the poor and get very rich, and that's a gap that Slow Food is trying to bridge.

There's another thing, which is that Slow Food is trying to defend biodiversity in the food world, and a lot of these products are endangered in that they are expensive, they are in a way like boutique items. But maintaining a diverse genetic pool in the food supply is crucial, so in that respect, and in all those respects, the elitist argument does real damage to us and to the causes that we're fighting for.

A problem that every movement runs into is at some point you get this momentum -- people are flocking to it, and it's easy to lose sight of the original goals. How do you keep the movement going and also stay true to its original principles, while trying to incorporate new members?

Martins: We grow through chapter events, through the media that covers us, and through people picking up our newsletter ("The Snail") and reading about it. It's through organic methods like that.

If people do want to get involved with Slow Food, whether by joining, attending events, or starting a convivium, what does that entail?

Martins: They should contact the national office here in New York and ask for a kit on starting a convivium. Membership is $60 a year and we are very good about opening chapters; we work with people to open as many chapters as possible.

We try to encourage people to events and programs through their convivia. Some convivia have started school gardens. We've done some work on the national level with prisons and projects to start green spaces, green areas in New York City, but we basically try to outreach through our events and members, through education and schools.

It appears that some corporations are starting to embrace the concepts of slow food and sustainability. The fast-food burrito chain Chipotle, for instance, which is owned 80 percent by McDonald's, has started offering sustainably farmed Niman Ranch pork in their burritos. Do you think it's possible for slow food and fast food to coexist? Is there a way to produce slow food on a mass-market level?

Martins: You mean, can you industrialize that kind of an organic concept? I think you can, I think that it's not enough to just do it, I don't think consumers should just be satisfied by seeing Niman Ranch on the menu. The question is who's doing it, how's it being done? I think questions need to be asked, and traceability needs to be achieved.

That being said, I do think it's possible, and while any idea that is taken to the mass level will not necessarily be as pure and energetic and as organic and as virtuous as a place that's just one restaurant or something like that, I do think you can franchise the slow food concept. But a lot of things need to be done, and the most important and the hardest to define is the ideal behind it, the mission that goes behind it.

When you say 'traceability,' are there any companies that are traceable in their claims that they are traceable or organic or slow food?

Martins: One good example would be anyone at a farmer's market, restaurants that put the supplying farms' names on their menu, some big companies like Starbucks, even. They trace some of their coffees to shade-grown, organic fields in South America. So the traceability issues comes with declaring and showing and as much information as possible, providing knowledge about the places where they obtain their food, and how they produce it.

The other aspect of that, like Starbucks made a big production when they introduced their line of fair-trade coffees, but nine times out of 10 if you go into a Starbucks they won't have any fair-trade coffee brewed for customers.

Martins: That's an example of a company that does a lot of work to promote it, and they say "this is what we do," but in the end, are they really committed?

And there's also the idea of dual production methods, like Starbucks has both -- they have bad coffee and good coffee, so they promote the good coffee when in reality the vast majority of it is bad.

Is there a way to get consumers aware that there are good options and to raise the desirability of them?

Martins: That's what Slow Food does -- we try to create energy and cachet around slow foods and we try to raise membership and do events and get into the press to educate consumers that there are other options available.

As an international organization, Slow Food promotes many products and ideas from around the world. How does this tie into your concept of "virtuous globalization?"

Martins: Virtuous globalization says that globalization isn't necessarily a bad thing. It can also be a good thing, if you're keeping regional networks intact, supporting traditional practices of producing food. To bring that on a global level is fine, it's not black or white. Slow food complicates the issue a little bit by promoting a globalization, but of the virtuous variety.

In what ways can people apply slow food principles in their daily lives, especially if they're busy with jobs or raising a family or if they just don't have a lot of money?

Martins: Slow Food can be done through going to the farmer's market, or once a week cooking with family and friends. On Thanksgiving by buying a Heritage Turkey or heirloom foods. It can be done by drinking good beer rather than mediocre beer and supporting your local brewer. It can be buying local wines. Basically slowing down, at the very least, and eating with family and friends. At the most, whenever you can, whenever you have the time or whenever it's affordable, to go and support local foods, shop at your local market, keep local businesses and local farms viable.

Matt Wheeland is a freelance writer based in Berkeley, Calif.

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