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Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2007 03:57 am

The pleasure principle

The Slow Food movement gains a foothold in the capital city

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Untitled Document Slow food 'slo 'fЯd n 1 : the opposite of fast food 2 : capitalized an international organization that promotes the pleasures of the table while protecting and defending local, traditional ingredients and preparations threatened to the verge of extinction by the ever-expanding incursions of industrial farming methods, fast-food conglomerates, and the governmental institutions and regulations that support them.
Here’s a typical meal in Anytown, U.S.A.: a paper cup full of carbonated water, ice, high-fructose corn syrup, food coloring, and flavoring; frozen potatoes with chemical additives, reheated in hydrogenated oil and salted; and a frozen hamburger patty — containing meat from hundreds of cattle, usually from several countries, ground in giant vats at distant processing plants — reheated on an automatic grill; the whole thing, more often than not, is wolfed down in a car.
It’s fast, but is it food? To Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, today’s fast food has more in common with toaster ovens or heat lamps than with home-cooked meals — “an industrial commodity, assembled by machines out of parts shipped from various factories,” he writes.
Contrast that with a recent lunch at Leslie Cooperband and Wes Jarrell’s Prairie Fruits Farm in Urbana, where the guest of honor was Italian Carlo Petrini, founder of the international Slow Food movement. In the U.S. to promote his newest book, Slow Food Nation: Why Our Food Should Be Good, Clean and Fair, Petrini sat down with            40 other guests for a convivial afternoon of eating, drinking, and lively conversation. Prairie Fruits Farm is the only producer of farmstead cheese in Illinois. (Farmstead cheese is made on the premises with milk from the farm’s own animals.) Long tables were set in the shade between the log farmhouse and barn. Specky, Cooperband’s unusually sociable Speckled Sussex hen, clucked and pecked her way around the guests. Baby goats playfully butted heads; others rushed up to the fence whenever humans approached, pleading to be petted. A Chicago chef had brought lamb prosciutto that he’d cured himself, but most of the food was local: pizzas made by Cooperband with her own fresh chПvre, Triple S Farms bratwurst grilled by owner Stan Schutte, and an abundance of salads, vegetables, and fruit desserts.
As the leisurely afternoon ended, Petrini — a warm and witty man for whom the word “genial” might have been coined — thanked his hosts and complimented everyone who’d contributed to the feast. “If there’s an afterlife,” Petrini declared, “I want to come back as a goat at Prairie Fruits Farm.”
Petrini had long been involved in left-wing political causes but found that many of his comrades were a grim, dour bunch, suspicious of anyone who enjoyed himself or herself too much. Sensual pleasures were bourgeois and decadent. This was Italy, however, and Petrini had grown up enjoying with family and friends the abundant, delicious local foods they produced, including white truffles, cheeses, nuts, fruits, honeys, and renowned Barolo wines. There were laughter, jokes, and work songs accompanied by accordions at harvest parties. What was the point of not enjoying such things?
“I came to understand that those who suffer for others do more damage to humanity than those who enjoy themselves,” Petrini says. “Pleasure is a way of being at one with yourself and others.”
He and a few like-minded friends began holding dinners combining gustatory pleasures with learning that often lasted until dawn. Flying in the face of traditionally stuffy and exclusive men-only gourmet societies, the dinners were open to all, even those who couldn’t normally afford such things. But even though Petrini’s group had little use for elitist clubs, he says, they also disdained “moralistic revolutionaries” and especially “anyone who doesn’t laugh.”
They began holding seminars and publishing wine and restaurant guides. Petrini wrote articles and made radio broadcasts. The loose association gradually became more organized, with the goal “to draw strong connections between pleasure and where food came from and the rural life behind it,” writes Corby Kummer, author of The Pleasures of Slow Food.
Like the rest of the world, Italians had taken their culinary traditions for granted, but Petrini and his comrades were beginning to make them realize how important those traditions were — and how fast they were disappearing in the face of modern industrialization and globalization. Then, in 1989, a galvanizing catalyst defined for Petrini and his followers what was destroying their national culinary identity and what they must oppose to sustain it: the opening of a McDonald’s in one of Italy’s most beloved, most historic spots, a place that symbolized the very essence of Italy: the Piazza di Spagna, at the foot of the Spanish Steps in Rome. Multiple protests were staged, but Petrini’s group chose a different route than the usual placards and raised fists: They set up a long table in front of the new McDonald’s and sat down to enjoy bowls of pasta and bottles of red wine, inviting everyone to share in the feast. But it was clear that more than demonstrations — whatever their form — against a single event were necessary. Kummer writes: “McDonald’s symbolized a disturbing global split. On the one side of the gulf were rich consumers who looked for good, genuine products cultivated by poor people — who only got poorer by continuing their traditional practices. On the other were poor people constrained to buy bad food at cheap prices made possible by immensely potent industrial producers.”
A call for action spread throughout Italy and beyond, and, in 1989, delegates from 15 countries formed a new organization. They christened it Slow Food and adopted a snail — “a small, cosmopolitan, and prudent” being, an “amulet against speed” — as its logo. Over time, Slow Food developed the Presidia, which would promote and protect local foods and culinary traditions; an organizational structure based on local chapters, called convivia; the Ark of Taste, an international directory of endangered foods and preparations that members could rescue from extinction by using and enjoying them; and a host of other initiatives. Some were local, whereas others — such as the Slow Food Award — were intended to promote international biodiversity and bring agricultural artisans and activists recognition and assistance. Eighteen years later, Slow Food is a global institution with 80,000 members in more than 130 countries. Its headquarters remain in Italy, where, in 2003, it established the University of Gastronomic Sciences, a unique degree-granting institution for the study of not only the pleasures of food but also its environmental, anthropological, economic, political, and sociological aspects.
Every even-numbered year, Slow Food hosts two concurrent events in Turin, Italy: the Salone del Gusto, a huge public exhibition featuring artisanal producers and foods from around the world; and Terra Madre, a conference for food producers, educators, and cooks. Terra Madre 2006 drew 7,000 delegates from 150 countries, including 800 U.S. participants. Cooperband and Schutte were Illinois’ food-producer delegates to that conference. Cooperband found meetings with fellow cheesemakers worthwhile, but the Salone del Gusto was almost too much: “It was really sensory overload,” she says. “There were four long aisles just with cheeses, then more aisles with sausages, and breads . . . it went on and on.” For Cooperband, the highlight of the trip was a visit to a small goat farm in the Italian Alps: “They made everything themselves — their own cheeses [and] liqueurs infused with local herbs,” she says. “The husband was a butcher and cured his own meats. Even though much of what they made used age-old traditions, the similarities to what we’re doing were really profound.”
For Schutte, named the 2006 Farmer of the Year by the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service, Terra Madre was overwhelming in a different way. It was his first trip abroad, and the logistics of negotiating a huge conference in a foreign country proved a bit daunting, not least because the Illinois delegation had to be housed in a monastery-turned-hotel more than an hour-and-a-half away. “I’d never even been on a public bus before,” says the rural eastern-Illinois native with a laugh. “I was just in awe of everything I saw. Like Cooperband, however, what was most significant to Schutte were similarities, not differences: “I came away with the realization that all of us, all the farmers from around the world, we all have the same problems and issues.”

Slow Food eventually made its way to the U.S., though its early days here are somewhat murky. “Portland, Ore., claims to have formed the first U.S. convivium,” says Deena Goldman, director of membership and communications for Slow Food USA, “but there’s some controversy about that.” The confusion resulted because those first convivia, established through Slow Food’s Italian headquarters, experienced inevitable problems with language barriers, but by 2000 membership had grown to the degree that a subsidiary organization, Slow Food USA, was formed and a national office opened in New York. Today Slow Food USA has more than 14,000 members in 170 local convivia. Acclaimed educator, author, and former chef Deborah Madison has been involved with Slow Food for more than a decade. Two of her cookbooks have won the Julia Child Cookbook of the Year Award, presented by the International Association of Culinary Professionals. She’s also received a James Beard Award and a host of other honors. For Madison, Slow Food was a natural: “When I first heard about Slow Food, it completely resonated with my own thoughts and feelings about food and culture, where we’re going and where we might prefer to go: away from fast food, the horrible sameness of industrial foods (not to mention their lack of integrity as food) toward foods that are connected to people, culture, and tradition.”
Slow Food USA supports the organization’s international initiatives but also develops independent projects. RAFT, Renewing America’s Food Traditions, brings together seven national education, food, and conservation organizations to document and help restore American agricultural biodiversity and food traditions, from artisanal food products such as Creole cream cheese in Louisiana to heritage animal breeds such as Red Bourbon turkeys and Buckeye chickens. Slow Food in Schools sponsors Garden-to-Table programs. Individual projects are based on a school’s specific circumstances and can range from after-school student cooking classes to creating an organic garden on the school grounds that students plant and maintain as an integral part of their curriculum. The gardens aren’t just used to teach children how to grow food; they also offer a wealth of opportunities for lessons in such areas as biology, ecology, science, math, and even art.
Slow Food on Campus is a new initiative that’s creating a lot of excitement, says Jerusha Klemperer, Slow Food USA assistant executive director. Campus Convivia chapters are established and run by a cross-section of college students who are passionate about food-system and food-justice issues and want to educate their fellow students about the pleasures of the table and garden.
At the local level, convivia activities vary according to region and the size of the membership and community in which the convivium is located. Slow Food Chicago offers walking tours in some of the city’s ethnic areas, such as the Mexican Little Village neighborhood and the Southeast Asian Argyle Street district; dinners at top restaurants featuring products from Chicago’s Green Market; and other activities. The group has also published a guidebook listing restaurants, markets, shops, and other resources, as have convivia in cities such as San Francisco and New York. Here, the Slow Food movement began in earnest in 2006. Slow Food Springfield has sponsored tours of area farms that produce organic/sustainable fruits and vegetables, meats, and dairy products; restaurant dinners; and potlucks to which members bring dishes made from locally grown ingredients. Convivium leader Deanna Glosser doesn’t have a food or farming background. She became interested in Slow Food after taking a university class from a food anthropologist. For Glosser, discovering locally grown, seasonal food was a revelation she wanted to share: “People who’ve never had these things — they have no idea what food can be until they smell a just-picked, tree-ripened apple.” Glosser believes that food can be a means of communication. She’s especially enthusiastic about a Nov. 10 event, “Meet Your Local Producers.” More than 20 area producers of produce, pork, beef, eggs, and more will be on hand 10 a.m.-2 p.m. at the Lincoln Park Pavilion, on Fifth Street, to discuss where to find their products, how they’re raised, and how to purchase them.
Slow Food wants everyone everywhere to be able to enjoy experiences such as that lunch at Prairie Fruits Farm. Critics, however, charge that industrial farming methods are necessary to feed a starving world and that the sustainable, traditional products espoused by Slow Food are expensive; consequently, they label Slow Food elitist.
“I get very tired of that particular criticism,” says Madison, “and I’m not even sure people know what they mean when they say it.”
Some of those charges are based on common misperceptions. In fact, world food production is capable of feeding almost twice as many people as there are on Earth. Famine is a distribution, not a production, problem, and it usually arises as a result of political chaos, drought, or other natural or human-made catastrophes. Moreover, multiple studies have shown that small farms with a diversity of crops and animals actually produce more per acre than do monoculture farms that grow only one or two crops such as corn or soybeans. Charges that sustainably produced food is expensive can be harder to refute, especially in the U.S., where the cost of food in proportion to income is lower than almost anywhere else in the world and many take extremely cheap food for granted.  The proponents of Slow Food want people to understand the real cost of cheap food and take time to embrace food that’s not only tastier but also better for them and the world in which they live. They argue that food should be good (delicious), clean (environmentally sustainable), and fair (affordable for consumers while generating a living wage for producers). Slow Food adherents believe that for too many the pleasures of real food have been lost — or never even discovered — in an onslaught of artificially flavored foods that deaden the palate and harm the body with excesses of empty fats and calories that have led to epidemics of obesity, heart disease, and a host of other ills. They assert that cheap food is the product of industrial farming practices and distribution methods that are inhumane and are creating an environmental catastrophe, saturating the earth with chemicals and compounds that are destroying its ability to sustain life. They say that food is made cheap by impoverishing small farmers and farm workers, driving many off the land their families have worked for generations. They ask people to understand that “expensive” is a relative term: that an 8-ounce glass of tangy seasonal cider can be had for the same 89 cents as a monstrous 64-ounce soda or that a pastured, exceptionally flavorful, healthful chicken can be bought for the same price as a “family pack” of growth-hormone-, antibiotic-, and Salmonella-laden tasteless chicken breasts at a big-box store. One of Petrini’s most important insights is that consumers need to change their thinking about themselves in relation to their food. Slow Food USA’s Web site states it succinctly: “We consider ourselves co-producers, not consumers, because by being informed about how our food is produced, and actively supporting those who produce it, we become part of, and a partner in, the process.”
Discovering ways to participate in that process is what Slow Food is all about. “In the end, Slow Food is not a dining club or a wine-and-cheese club,” says Madison. “It’s basically an educational group, and education can take place in a number of ways.”
All of which, Petrini would surely add, should be pleasurable and delicious.
For information about Springfield Slow Food,   contact Deanna Glosser at 217-627-8948 or        e-mail dglosser@insightbb.com.
To learn more about Slow Food USA, go to www.slowfoodusa.org.
Stan Schutte of Triple S Farms sells produce, pork, beef, chicken, and eggs on Wednesdays at the farmers’ market in downtown Springfield and makes monthly Springfield deliveries to members of his buying club the rest of the year. Reach him at 217-895-3652 or triplsfarm@stewstras.net.
Julianne Glatz writes about food for Illinois Times. Contact her at realcuisine@insightbb.com
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