February 26, 2007
By CYRUS LEVESQUE
BRISTOL — The Slow Food movement — as a counter to the “fast food” movement — isn’t about slow service in the same way that “fast food” is about the speedy delivery of mass produced foods. But it is about producing foods with local products, celebrating local kitchen culture, and observing the importance of quality foods in our lives.
At a recent gathering in Mary’s at Baldwin’s Creek, a Bristol restaurant, invited guests relished an evening of dining produced primarily from locally-raised foods at a reunion of people devoted to the cause of slow food.
According to John Elder of Bristol, Middlebury College professor of environmental studies and maple sugar maker, Slow Food International “celebrates and promotes the value of traditional food in local cultures.”
The group’s goal is to promote the pleasures of the table, preserve distinct local flavors, and make sure that culinary traditions don’t get lost to globalization and similar influences, he said.
Slow Food International grew out of an Italian organization called Arcigola in 1989 as a reaction to what founders saw as a growing fast food culture that was weakening long-standing regional traditions, harms local economies, and reduces the variety of food options available to people.
Made up of representatives of all parts of the food industry and organized in regional chapters called “convivia,” from a Latin word for feasting, it touts a local, decentralized model of food production as having a wide range of benefits, from healthier people to stronger economies.
“It’s a belief in the mission of producing, growing, and eating food that’s grown locally where you know where it’s come from,” said Linda Harmon, a chef at Mary’s and a member of Slow Food International.
Harmon compared Slow Food International to both the Localvore movement and the Vermont Fresh Network, two efforts to encourage people to eat locally grown food when possible. But as an international organization, Slow Foods offers a number of unique opportunities, such as the Terra Madre, an annual conference held in October.
In 2006, about 5,000 people attended Terra Madre, an Italian name which translates to “Mother Earth.” At least 30 of them were from Vermont, including Elder and Harmon. Exact numbers were not available, but Elder thought that California and New York were the only states to send more delegates than Vermont. “There’s a lot of little local connections to this,” Harmon said.
The gathering at Mary’s at Baldwin’s Creek on Feb. 8 was the first meeting of the Slow Food delegates since Terra Madre, with several other attendees hoping to hear about their experiences and compare notes on what members had learned at various seminars and sessions.
“It was really great to see people that we had met over there, and meet people who went from this area that we didn’t see,” Elder said. “It was a great place to meet people who are participating in the next chapter of agriculture in Vermont.”
Will Stephens, of Golden Russet Farms in Shoreham, also attended Terra Madre. He said that a lot of the support for the slow food movement came from cultural issues. For example, he met a group of Native American delegates to Terra Madre who were concerned about the growing use of genetically modified corn, which would interfere with a major part of their culture. “It’s an economic issue as well as a social issue,” he said.
Slow Food organizes other events in Vermont as well, all with a theme of more traditional approaches to food. Hen of the Woods, a Waterbury restaurant, will host a dinner of grass-fed beef on March 20.
And a maple dinner is planned for Middlebury College in April. The exact date has not yet been set, according to Vermont convivium leader Susan Buchanan, but plans include a dinner at which all dishes will use maple sugar or maple syrup in the recipe.
The group tends to be interested in more environmental and healthy styles of food production, like organic, but that is secondary to their main goal of supporting local and traditional production methods. “Just because you’re buying organic from China isn’t what we’d want,” Harmon said. “Food is an important thing, like the environment.”