IU Food Project report on Slow Food Nations in Denver
I attended Slow Food Nations in Denver over the July 14-16 weekend. It was a spectacular affair. Following up on the San Francisco Slow Food Nation of 2008 (for some reason it has now become plural), this new initiative aims, as I understand it, to become a biannual tradition along the lines of Slow Food’s Terra Madre Salone del Gusto in Turin. At the very least SFN was a successful food festival bringing together chefs, producers, journalists, food activists, consumers, and even a scholar or two from around the country and the world. But SFN aims to be much more than that, and the future of Slow Food depends to a great extent on just what that more is and will be.
There were several Slow Food causes on display in Denver. On Friday SF delegates were treated to a lunch that was both delightful and a call to arms: “School Lunch as an Academic Subject.” Conceived and organized by Alice Waters and her Edible Schoolyard Project, the lunch featured the Zapotec “three sisters” (corn, beans and squash). As preparation for a school lunch students would have already studied the tradition from which that particular foodway derives (and the model can of course be expanded to any food tradition); paper placemats illustrated the theme. The execution was ingenious as five hundred diners were seated at 8-top tables under a tent in Civic Center Park. Running along one side of the tent were serving tables each laden with the requisite number of bowls or platters containing one of the several lunch items: tamales, beans, squash, salad, fruit. Each dining table assigned its own servers and at a signal they got up, fetched one of the items from the serving tables, and brought it back to their place. The entire tent was served within 5 minutes, a miracle of efficiency. All of this could be done in any school that has a kitchen and a free school lunch program. And that is indeed the goal of the exercise: to promote universal free lunch programs in American schools (and beyond) using sustainably grown foods supplied by local farmers. Lunch that way becomes, yes, an academic subject but also an exercise in community building. Waters discussed this program with us during her spring 2017 visit to Bloomington, and my plan for the coming year is to involve university, city, and school administrators, as well as interested community members and students, in organizing and hosting a “School Lunch is an Academic Subject” event, ideally in a Bloomington school cafeteria.
Carlo Petrini, the founder of Slow Food, was also in Denver. In particular he discussed his recent trip to China. China is at an ecological crossroads as it continues to expand economically and is poised to either go down the western road of industrial agriculture and monocultures or else embrace a more agroecological model that prizes biodiversity and small farms. Ironically, just as the current US administration turns away from the Paris Climate Accord and proposes to reduce efforts to protect the environment, China is waking up to the need to address ecological degradation in its vast territory. Petrini and Slow Food proposes identifying 1000 villages where SF best practices can be promoted: small farmers producing a variety of crops and animals primarily for local consumption. An international Slow Food congress is scheduled at Chengdu next Sept. 29-Oct. 1.
With regard to Slow Food itself, Petrini urged that we concentrate on ideas - like this grand one for China or school lunch as an academic subject - and not worry too much about structure. And I think that is how we can move ahead and collaborate with SF in Bloomington. Although the Bloomington chapter has been inactive for several years, I think we can engage with the SF brand in advancing local initiatives. We might do better to collaborate with other chapters – Indianapolis looks to be the only one in the state at the moment – rather than worry too much about whether we can sustain a membership and regular meetings in Bloomington.
I met Ron Finley in Denver. He is the self-described “gangsta gardener” who has brought community gardens and hope to south central LA. While south Indiana differs a lot from south LA, the model of community building through gardening is one that transcends geography, class and race. It would be exciting to have Ron come speak at IU at some point. In the meantime, I hope to organize a showing of Can You Dig This Film, the award-winning 2015 documentary that describes Finley’s work, sometime this coming year. Ron is pictured here with Gabriela Camara, owner of Contremar in Mexico City and Cala Restaurant in San Francisco. Driven in part by social consciousness and in part by the difficulty of finding service workers in high-rent San Francisco, Camara employs ex-cons as servers, people for whom a restaurant job is not a means to an end but a life changer.
I also had the pleasure of meeting Wes Jackson, legendary founder of the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. Among other things, Jackson participated as co-author at a book presentation with Alice Waters, Rick Bayless, and Ben Burkett. They and many others contributed to Letters to a Young Farmer (published by Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture). Waters and Bayless both described how starting in the 1970s and 80s they found their way to local farmers and indeed created networks of them to supply their restaurants in Berkeley and Chicago, while Burckett offered reflections about farming and family. Still, it was Jackson’s intervention that struck me most. As wonderful as the encouragement of local ag has been by institutions like La Frontera and Chez Panisse, one can’t overlook that during these same past 40 years industrial agriculture has flourished and farming communities across the US (and the world) have been devastated. Jackson pointed out that between Denver, where we were sitting, and Topeka, Kansas, a 550-mile stretch that includes his own Salina, courthouse squares in all the small towns are shuttered up as businesses have closed and traditional farms, farms that grew food, have vanished. Instead we find massive industrial operations that produce GMO corn and soy - not food really but fuel for cars, CAFO’s, and the processed food industry – and depressed economies where big box stores offer the rare opportunity for both subsistence employment and food purchasing. Jackson offered: “if you are asking questions that have answers, then you are not asking the right questions.” A message both hopeful and distressing at the same time.
In the spirit of Slow Food, my Denver experience wasn’t all work (maybe not even mostly work). I enjoyed an excellent dinner at Potager which included a delightful salad of cucumbers and fresh herbs followed by roast chicken with collard greens and Colorado peaches. I’ve hardly been to Colorado before and didn’t realize their peaches were so spectacular. It’s hard to imagine that meal was not in part inspired by The Art of Simple Food (whose author was the host). Less simple was the stunning meal prepared by chef Alon Shaya. Shaya’s resume takes him from Philadelphia to Italy to New Orleans where he has recently opened a namesake Israeli restaurant. Shaya’s Israeli cuisine is akin to Za’hav or Ottolenghi and really concedes nothing to those longer-established eateries. Shaya produced a dazzling array of vegetarian dishes, maybe 15 – alas I neglected to save the menu – that ranged from the creamiest humus to smoky baba ganoush to a rich shakshouka. We also enjoyed a reception hosted by the Good Food Awards at a local distillery that not only makes high quality spirits but has minimized its carbon footprint and drastically cut water usage relative to traditional operations.
There was indeed much more to Slow Food Nations. Sessions ran morning to night Saturday and Sunday and ranged from sourdough starters and whole hog butchering to food policy, race and farming and food sovereignty. I met people promoting the cultivation of heirloom wheat in Colorado and heirloom corn in Mexico, activists promoting food workers’ rights, and of course farmers. I spoke with olive oil people from California and the manager of a NYC cooking school whose instructors are all recent immigrants. Dizzying really; I hope to be back in 2019.