¡Viva Slow Food Nation!

by | Sep 10, 2008

Over Labor Day weekend, San Francisco was host to Slow Food Nation (SFN), a fundamentally gastronomic event that bills itself as “the largest celebration of food in American history.” With attendance peaking at 60,000 (10,000 more than anticipated) over the course of a four-day festival, it is difficult to argue otherwise.

SFN is the first event of its kind in the United States, a subsidiary of Slow Food USA and part of the Slow Food movement. Slow Food was founded in Italy in the late 1980s by Carlo Petrini as a way of combating the encroachment of fast food upon traditional cuisines. As such, the movement is largely political, but is founded primarily upon the principle of gustatory pleasure. Slow Food has dubbed “eco-gastronomy – a recognition of the strong connections between plate and planet.”

The weekend showcased this principle with literally dozens of activities ranging from political discussions in the Food for Thought speaker series to Taste Pavilions highlighting sustainable growing practices. SFN also hosted a Marketplace, the Slow Food Rocks music festival, Slow hikes, farm tours, Slow dinners, a potluck and the planting and harvesting of the SFN Victory Garden in front of San Franicsco’s City Hall, to name a few.

There is little doubt that SFN was an incredibly ambitious endeavor. For example, the Food for Thought seminar series at the Herbst Theater was designed as a sit-down conversation among sustainable food advocates and icons like Alice Waters, Michael Pollan, Marion Nestle and Wendell Berry. Taste Pavilions at Fort Mason allowed visitors to sample artisan cheese, bread, coffee, wine, charcuterie, spirits, honey, gelato and more from across the globe. The Green Kitchen offered simple cooking demonstrations by chefs from local powerhouse restaurants like The French Laundry and Chez Panisse, as well as cooks from as far away as Ireland. Taste Workshops included lessons on how to pair chocolate with coffee and how to live the Slow Food lifestyle on a budget.

But for all that was offered, SFN critics hone in on the same condemnation that has plagued the movement from its inception: elitism. The San Francisco Chronicle’s very own blog on the event is a virtual disparagement forum with angry comments like, “Funny how all the limousine liberals won’t do anything about the homeless until faced with the possibility of having to eat among them.” Such comments are evidence that the Slow Food movement’s efforts have done little to assuage their image as a bunch of upper-class foodies with too much time and money on their hands.

At first glance, it is not difficult to see how this impression was formed. Tickets to SFN were not cheap, and were at times staggering. A charity dinner that kicked off the event set the tone at $500 per plate. Each individual Food for Thought session (there were seven) cost $20, Taste Pavilion tickets were $65 and Slow Food Rocks admission started at $69 per day. Indeed, taking part in all the activities would put a hefty dent in anyone’s wallet.

But to point at ticket prices and denounce the event as elitist is to miss the purpose of SFN. First, many of the events were free and even those that were ticketed had a student discount price or other sliding scale option. The prix-fixe Slow Dinners at local restaurants had a range of prices, some of which were as low as $22. Also, many of the dinners were specifically designed to raise money and the proceeds were donated to various causes. Does it count as elitist if it is charity?

Most important, however, was the tone of the dialogue at SFN, which clearly set the goal of extending the accessibility of Slow Food to all individuals across the globe. The Food for Thought sessions (with titles such as “The World Food Crisis” and “A New, Fair Food System”) were expressly designed to begin a discussion about how to responsibly extend the methods of Slow Food to fight global food-related issues that have come to dominate industrialized and even non-industrialized cultures.

Thus, the overarching purpose of SFN was not to elevate the palates of average consumers to appreciate fine wines and cheeses, but to teach that Slow Food is a way of thinking and a way of life that we are all capable of embracing. Perhaps the most telling hint as to the intentions of the SFN founders was from the tremendous effort put forth at each of the activities to have visitors sign the Food Declaration (fooddeclaration.org), a visionary statement to help correct 21st century food, farm and agriculture policy. The idea behind the declaration is that the basic tenets of our national food policy contribute substantially to the global food crisis and that these issues must be addressed on a countrywide level if the problems are to be resolved. Ultimately the petition will be presented to Congress.

Call it what you will, but an earnest participant at SFN would deem the event a triumph of political activism, culinary brilliance and community enrichment. But it is critical to remember that Slow Food is just beginning here in the United States and will be ineffective unless it is able to touch the lives of ordinary people. To accomplish real change, the movement needs to shift into the hands of community members who participate by making daily decisions that contribute to the health of themselves, their families and the environment.

If you are interested in making a difference, a great way to start is by voting with your fork and choosing local, organic and sustainable food.

This article can also be found in Synapse.

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2 Responses to “¡Viva Slow Food Nation!”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Let’s also not forget the irony of calling access to fresh, locally grown produce “elitist.” Prior to the modernization of farming in this country, that was the norm. Only with the advent of industrial farming methods and massive government subsidies to encourage them has the ability to get seasonal, home-grown, nutritious food become the providence of the upper-class alone. In many ways, Slow Food is a return to the middle class eating habits that existed here and abroad for hundreds of years before the invention of high fructose corn syrup. Is it really blue-collar-traditional-values to put billions of dollars into the hands of internal fast-food conglomerate executives and elitist to support small, local farmers producing healthy food? Everybody wins from the Slow Food movement. The only people who want the public to view this movement as elitist are a small group of highly influential, extremely wealthy individuals who benefit from the status quo. They are the real elitists. Viva Slow Food Nation!

  2. Jed Wolpaw says:

    Whatever is difficult to do becomes a symbol of status and thus elitism. 500 years ago only the rich could get enough calories to be fat, so being fat was desirable and a mark of the elite. Now getting fat is easy, the default. To be fit takes hard work. And to eat well, when stopping for a big mac is so easy, is also difficult. So healthy food is becoming elitist.But if history is a guide, this is a good thing. The plate full of finely prepared chard with pistachios will be the “must have” dinner option. And who knows, maybe in 20 years the clerk at McDonald’s will be asking “would you like edamame with that?”

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