No wonder restaurants now emphasize local, seasonal and sustainable ingredients on their menus. That’s what customers want, and we got a first-hand look at how badly they want them on Labor Day weekend, when 60,000 people turned out for the inaugural Slow Food Nation in San Francisco. The event turned out to be the largest celebration of food in America—ever—despite being devoid of superstar chefs, Food Network hosts, Top Chef contestants, competitive eaters or any of the other food world quasi-celebrities who typically bring in the crowds. At this one, food and food alone was the star. We’re not sure why they needed hip-hop acts like Gnarls Barkley (pictured) to spice things up at night, but what the heck. For an inaugural event, this was a smash hit.
Slow Food is a worldwide movement that aims to preserve cultural foodways in an era when, its 83,000 members claim, the vast corporate resources of agribusiness and the fast food part of the restaurant industry are focused on destroying them. Here’s how the group describes itself:
“Slow Food is a non-profit, eco-gastronomic member-supported organization. Founded in 1989, we work to counteract fast food and fast life, the disappearance of local food traditions, and people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat. We educate about where food comes from, how it tastes, and how our food choices affect the rest of the world. Slow Food makes a ‘case for taste’ and works to preserve culinary traditions threatened by mass production and globalization.”
Admirable goals, indeed. However, many prominent Slow Food members are seen by outsiders as elitist food snobs too eager to tell others why their eating and food purchasing habits are wrong. If you want to see what extreme political, environmental and nutritional correctness looks like when applied to the simple act of preparing a meal, go to your local Slow Food meeting.
Elitist or not, the practices that Slow Food espouses—buy local fresh food, in season, from sustainable sources—have spread through the U.S. like wildfire. They are particularly popular in the restaurant world, where offering local, seasonal and sustainable fare has become almost a given, for both ideological and business-building reasons. Recognizing this, the Slow Food USA organization decided to make a move that would help bring their food beliefs further into the mainstream.
It did so via a festival that took place across multiple venues in San Francisco during the Labor Day weekend. Slow Food Nation, as it was called, was billed as “a celebration of environmentally sustainable healthy food.”
So what kind of programming did they come up with? Here were the events, some of which required a paid admission (almost all tickets sold out in advance), others of which were free.
TASTE. Think of this one as world-class grazing. For $45-$65, festival-goers could sample the wares of food artisans galore and watch chef demos in the Green Kitchen, all of it taking place in a 50,000-sq.-ft. “Taste Pavilion” at Fort Mason.
MARKETPLACE. Those who didn’t have the cash to get into the “Taste” event could head to Civic Center Plaza for this free event, where they could buy many of the artisan foods that were being sampled out at Fort Mason. It was the rough equivalent of a Farmer’s Market on steroids.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT SPEAKER SERIES. Admission for this two-day program at the Civic Center went for between $5 and $25, which gave ticket-holders access to leading thinkers, community organizers, journalists and activists discussing current food issues, from policy and planning to education and climate change. Speakers included Wendell Berry, Marion Nestle, Carlo Petrini, Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser, Vandana Shiva and Alice Waters. Chez Panisse restaurateur Waters is a founder of Slow Food Nation. You can see videos of the proceedings at http://slowfoodnation.org/videos/. Be aware that these are 90-minute panel discussions and some of it is slow going.
SLOW FOOD ROCKS. We’re not sure of the exact connection smokin’ tunes have to sustainably grown local food, but at least the organizers had the smarts to bring in some high-impact bands to add pep to their event. Audience members who came expecting to perhaps hear Joan Baez sing anti-agribusiness protest songs were instead greeted by a lineup of on-the-edge acts. Hip-hoppers Gnarls Barkley topped the bill, and supporting bands included the New Pornographers, Ozomatli, G. Love & Special Sauce, and Medeski, Martin & Wood. The two-day concert took place outdoors in the Great Meadow at Fort Mason, part of Golden Gate National Park. Reserved seats were $160 for the two-day package.
VICTORY GARDEN. While most of the other elements of Slow Food Nation have been done before at other food festivals, this aspect was unique. Slow Food Nation heralded the era of self- sufficiency through the creation of an ornamental edible garden in the heart of San Francisco’s Civic Center. Planted on the same site as 60 years ago during World War II, the Slow Food Nation Victory Garden aimed to demonstrate the potential of a truly local agriculture practice by bringing together and promoting Bay Area urban gardening organizations, while producing high quality food for those in need. Mayor Gavin Newsom and Alice Waters spoke at the opening. This one was free.
ACTIVISM. The festivities kicked off on the Thursday prior to Labor Day in the Rotunda at San Francisco’s City Hall. Slow Food Nation launched a petition drive there that calls for a “New Vision for a 21st Century Food, Farm and Agriculture Policy.” Attendees throughout the weekend were invited to sign it. Backers expect momentum for this movement to build so that by spring of 2009, Slow Food USA and its allies will present the petition to Congress and demand action.
Here in part, is how the petition reads:
“We, the undersigned, believe that a healthy food system is necessary to meet the urgent challenges of our time. Behind us stands a half-century of industrial food production, underwritten by cheap fossil fuels, abundant land and water resources, and a drive to maximize the global harvest of cheap calories. Ahead lie rising energy and food costs, a changing climate, declining water supplies, a growing population, and the paradox of widespread hunger and obesity.
“These realities call for a radically different approach to food and agriculture. We believe that the food system must be reorganized on a foundation of health: for our communities, for people, for animals, and for the natural world. The quality of food, and not just its quantity, ought to guide our agriculture. The ways we grow, distribute, and prepare food should celebrate our various cultures and our shared humanity, providing not only sustenance, but justice, beauty and pleasure.
“Governments have a duty to protect people from malnutrition, unsafe food, and exploitation, and to protect the land and water on which we depend from degradation. Individuals, producers, and organizations have a duty to create regional systems that can provide healthy food for their communities. We all have a duty to respect and honor the laborers of the land without whom we could not survive. The changes we call for here have begun, but the time has come to accelerate the transformation of our food and agriculture and make its benefits available to all.”
There’s more, and you can read the rest, and sign the petition if you so desire, by heading to www.fooddeclaration.org.
We admire the group’s spirit in thinking that a petition will change the hearts and minds of Congress. Here’s our advice: take the profits from Slow Food Nation—it made money—and hire a lobbyist.
But at least they’ll kick-start the debate—and in the meantime, create more awareness of the fresh, local and seasonal ingredients now featured on so many full-service restaurant menus. And, in the process, more customers for you.