SLOW FOOD ISN'T ABOUT SERVICE OR SNAILS 


I love food. Which is the main reason that I hate food movements – raw food, macrobiotics, veganism, low-fat, low-carb, dairy-free – they all seem to constrict the world of food. The truth is, I love food, but I don't like to obsess about it. Not the number values in it, anyway. I don't want to think about how many carbs or calories or fat grams are in my chocolate cake. I just want to eat. What excites me about food is that it simultaneously expresses culture and our symbiotic relationship with nature.

So I was weary when a friend handed me a pamphlet last winter and asked, "Have you heard about the Slow Food movement?"

I rolled my eyes. But something caught my attention: "Dedicated to the revival of the kitchen and the table as centers of pleasure, culture and community." Relieved to find out they weren't trying to clean my colon or reduce my intake of saturated fat, I kept reading.

The Slow Food movement (www.slowfood.com) is a response to the fast world we live in. Carlo Petrini, a Piedmontese food writer and activist, founded the movement in 1986 when a McDonald's was scheduled to open in the historic Piazza Spagna in Rome. Since then, Petrini's organization has gone international, with more than 65,000 members in 45 countries.

The organization has lofty goals – to teach people how to resist the corporate homogeneity of the food supply and how to savor the sensation of taste. They want us to be "living a slower, more harmonious rhythm of life." Forget about the momentary gratification of gulping down whatever's in front of you and instead think about how the food came to us for enjoyment and nourishment. Was it grown by an organic farmer, bicycled to market by a distributor and lovingly bought and cooked by someone special? Or was it produced in a factory that cheats its employees and succumbs to lower quality in order to cut costs, and then made available to you via a can opener?

Petrini's approach doesn't so much tell you what to eat as it educates you about choices that suitably preserve traditional food ways and stimulate sensory satisfaction. Slow Food advocates for artisanal food providers (cottage industries where the focus is on quality and not increasing profits) and fervently upholds the practice of sustainability (whatever the industry, the process can be continued without sucking dry natural resources). Most importantly, Slow Food reminds us that a meal can be the only rejuvenating break in someone's otherwise grueling daily life.

HAS ORLANDO SLOWED DOWN YET?

Slow Food operates on the local level in groups called "conviviums." There are more than 200 conviviums worldwide, covering ground in almost every first-world country and several third-world countries, as well. Almost every major metropolitan center in the United States has a convivium. Orlando doesn't have one yet, but we are gearing up to jump on the bandwagon.

A couple of visionary foodies, Lynn Tomlinson and Craig Saper, are working on starting a local convivium (you can get in touch with them at summerkitchen@cfl.rr.com). Having been members of Slow Food for one year, they are passionate believers. Saper, a professor and the coordinator of the Texts and Technology Ph.D. program at UCF, is interested in "expanding slow food into slow lifestyle" and using Slow Food as a starting point for community outreach programs related to UCF for college credit. When asked what they most want out of a local convivium, Tomlinson says that she is most excited about connecting people – "connecting restaurants with producers with distributors with enjoyers." They are also excited about the prospects of bringing outreach and educational events to the area. Unfortunately, the couple has had some difficulty connecting with other people in the community.

"Like-minded people are out there," says Tomlinson. "It's just hard to get them to see why they should join a movement to support the beliefs." Slow Food requires at least 10 unified members in a geographical area before they'll expend their resources to start a convivium. But it's essentially an ethical movement, and there aren't many people who are willing to pay $60 a year to stand up for these beliefs.

"The benefits pay off," Tomlinson contends. "It could create new pathways for growth in the community."

ECO-GASTRONOMIC DIGESTION

Most of us have extremely busy lives. Taking time to sit down and eat a long, slow meal for the sake of a platform can seem quite a luxury. And when it comes to the increased costs of specialty foods, ferreting out and affording artisanal products can seem more self-indulgence than necessity. The main critique of the Slow Food movement is that it encourages bourgeois tendencies. Some feel that only the affluent can afford the gratification of daily indulgences. Not so, says the Slow Food doctrine. While they acknowledge that the products they endorse come with a price, they do not believe these products are accessible only to the wealthy. Slow Food contends that current statistics show more money is being spent on entertainment and luxury goods than in the past, and that less is spent on food, setting into motion a society that values industry more than agriculture. Slow Food is working to reverse this trend. They want consumers to demand higher standards of quality for their food, and not to settle for cheap quantity.

"Slow Food is for everyone," says Sara Firebaugh, the assistant director of Slow Food USA. "Anyone can participate in our eco-gastronomic movement."

Eco-gastronomic movement? If not invented by Slow Food, this term is certainly promoted by them, as it refers to both the epicurean and political aspects of eating. In fact, buying food is one of the most political acts most of us engage in on a regular basis. The purchase of a tomato, for instance, has implications far beyond just eating that tomato. Where did the tomato come from? Did it require an excessive use of fossil fuel to be grown and harvested? Why are tomatoes from down the street more expensive than ones from halfway around the world? Are the farmers who produced it fairly compensated? Were chemicals used in its production? Who ultimately pays for my nourishment? And that's just for one tomato.

What about when you eat something regulated by corporations? Let's take a Luna Bar, for instance. Who grows the soy? Does it have ingredients that required lobbying and legislation in order for it to be approved for public use? Who is responsible for giving the public full disclosure on the safety of the ingredients? Who makes all the unpronounceable ingredients? Why are they in there? There's a lot to think about when choosing what to eat, if you want to be a responsible citizen of the world.

Slow Food serves as a link between consumers tired of the bottom-line industrialization of the marketplace and conscientious producers who craft high-quality products. The money we sacrifice up front, suggests Slow Food, is an investment in the future. In the long run, they say, these meager investments will "raise the quality of life for everyone" by providing "healthier, tastier food for all."

SLOW FOOD IN ACTION

Slow Food is largely an educational initiative to restore true taste and quality to food culture. They currently participate in several programs aimed at teaching children, including Slow Food in Schools and The Edible Schoolyard. The programs engage children in planting seeds, harvesting and preparing meals together. The Edible Schoolyard incorporates a student-operated organic garden into school lunch programs.

The mission of the Ark of Taste program is to "preserve endangered tastes" by using its own public relations and media events to help out providers lacking self-promotion resources. The program also helps people place food items into their unique context in the food chain. At an Ark of Taste media event for North American native wild rice, hosted by Winona LaDuke, I learned that wild rice is not rice but an aquatic grass with fragile harvesting conditions, and that harvesting wild rice is an ancient craft. The rice is parched over hardwood fires and then danced over to separate the grains from the chaff. Every time I eat wild rice, I remember that I'm eating hundreds of years of tradition. Ark of Taste currently has a backlog of such diverse products as animal breeds, fruits, vegetables, cured meats, cheese, cereals, pastas and sweets from all over the world.

Although there is no formal Slow Food convivium in town, there are many things going on in the community that follow the guiding principles. The College Park Grower's Market, 6 p.m.-9 p.m. Thursdays on Edgewater Drive, between Princeton and Vassar streets, allows only local growers committed to selling regionally produced food (often organic, too). Orlando's Simple Living Institute (www.simplelivinginstitute.org) is looking for volunteers for its urban garden projects. Over at Primo, a restaurant in the new JW Marriott Orlando Grande Lakes, chef de cuisine Kathleen Blake is dedicated to sourcing her food from local providers and has been given space by the hotel for her own garden patch. Pack a picnic (sans the bread) and drive over to the Yalaha Country Bakery in Lake County, which makes bread in the traditional German way – it's as much a gathering place as a bakery.

An expression of Slow Food can be as simple as a homemade meal delivered to friends or even just eating something you love and savoring it with pleasure – not guilty pleasure. Who wouldn't want to sign up?


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