In America, the fast food backlash has begun. We are increasingly suspicious of hormones, trans fats and foods concocted in the laboratory. Food scares and lawsuits make us wary of pre-washed, pre-packaged, pre-probed foods. We are finding ways of incorporating organic or farmer’s market produce, meat and eggs into our diets. We are enjoying the rituals of inspecting produce, talking with the people who grow our food, staying in tune with the seasons, and discovering what tastes yummiest when.
We are meanwhile reminding ourselves that food isn’t just a way to stoke our engines. Every meal has the potential to be a social occasion. In caveman days, men would hunt together and women would cook together because it was efficient, but historically humans have also eaten together because it’s just more fun. A combination of fear and nostalgia is encouraging the growth of a slow food movement in the United States.
The term “slow food” comes from an organization began in Italy by Carlo Petrini in 1986. Slow Food International concerns itself with sustainable agriculture, cultural diversity in our food, and the innate integrity/dignity/value in cultivating, cooking and enjoying food. It is popular in Europe, where the specter of E.U. homogenization has combined with a natural interest in green movements and local food pride to produce a thriving movement.
In America it is catching on, both through official local “convivia” where Slow Foodies can come together, and as a mindset. Buy local. Know where your food comes from. Take pride in your culinary heritage. Eat what’s in season. Turn off the TV and eat with your friends or your thoughts.
In high school Sandy Calin cooked an 8-layer Hungarian dobos torte for her classmates. It was her first really complicated dish, and the time and care she took to make it is certainly part of why friends still remember the cake and talk about it. Now an attorney, former baker, Synagogue president and single mom, Sandy still manages to have a “slow” relationship with food.
Sandy’s story weaves many slow food threads. She makes strudel like her grandmother. She helps with synagogue cook-offs and flips pancakes at fundraisers. She demonstrates making apple challah at the local farmer’s market. She used to sell biscotti and matzo brei granola at markets. “I’ve never bought a breadmaker,” she says of the single mom-professional’s home food secret.
But she talks about her relationship with food in an unpretentious way. She’s figured out how to blend food into her life, keeping things fresh and immediate, and planning meals around what’s in her cupboard. She cooks to relax, and now her daughter does too.
Arthur Greenwald, who chairs a Slow Food convivium in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, describes slowing down as sometimes as simple as refusing to multitask while you eat. Put the Chinese takeout on a plate, use a cloth napkin, and sit at a table. Have a glass of wine if you like. Think about the way the food smells, the way it feels in your mouth. Observe your taste buds reacting to the flavor story that your mouthful tells as you bite, chew, swallow, rest. Gourmands particularly appreciate a slower approach to food, but others can benefit as well. “Dieters shouldn’t do other things while eating,” he says, echoing the common sense advice from the recent bestseller French Women Don’t Get Fat: pay attention and you enjoy what you’re eating, pay attention and you will not stuff yourself.
As far as making time for home cooking, one of Arthur’s standbys is an artisan bread recipe that doesn’t require kneading. He prepares it the day before, and bakes it while he works. Slowing down can also be cultivating a garden, enjoying this process, but also cooking with the successes in your kitchen.
One of the reasons to go to Cafe Carolina in Encino, California is to eat the cremaschi. Owner Giuseppe Dossi grew up the town of Crema near Milan, where his birthday treat was ravioli filled—intriguingly—with a local cookie specialty. This birthday tradition created another, day-after tradition: Giuseppe’s race to beat his brother down the stairs to scarf down the leftovers.
When Giuseppe opened his restaurant, he wanted to personalize his place, to bring his interest in local organic growers in, and to tell the story behind his food. He named the restaurant after his daughter, and a special gnocchi after his son. He joined a local farm, where membership meant a bag of seasonal produce once a month that helped inspire the seasonal direction of his menu. He took steps to become a green restaurateur. He also set out to recreate the cremaschi out of California ingredients…raisins, Parmesan, eggs, nutmeg, Marsala, and citron. His childhood is part of the dish, and it’s a unique taste not available in many places outside of Italy. You certainly won’t find cremaschi at the Olive Garden.
Robert Spano, audio engineer by day and semipro chocolatier by accident, came to chocolate not through its taste but from his love for the story behind it. He concocted a university class on the history of chocolate, and became a sort of self-taught expert on chocolate and its history in the process. Whenever his busy schedule permits, he makes chocolates for special events, and makes truffles for the Studio City’s Artisan Cheese Gallery. Each customer who purchases a sandwich there gets a truffle to seal the deal: “a little bagatelle, a joke that plays in your mouth.”
He points out that Ecuadorian chocolate makes a nice filling, its fruity acidity working well with the flavorings and delicious inside a full-bodied Venezuelan chocolate coating. He tweaks his fillings to be quirky and complex (a maple caramel cream with hints of tangerine or passion fruit) and uses butter as a base because its chemistry allows the tiny chocolate to have a little flavor timeline as you bite, chew, savor, swallow and remember.
He never forgets that—above all—chocolate should taste like chocolate. This sentiment is the heart of slow food. Food needs to taste like food.
People who enjoy a slow food lifestyle do it for a number of reasons, because it’s eco-conscious, because it keeps our food heritage lively for another generation, and because it allows them to take time out—several times a day—to live in the present, and enjoy something for the taste and the ritual. But it all comes down to the quality of the food experience, from cultivation to digestion. Carol Penn-Romine, another Slow Food member, puts it simply: “It’s not so much that I want to do it slow as that I want to do it good.”
Juliane Crump, who was tickled to discover that her home territory of the San Fernando Valley, world-famous for its single-origin traffic and sustainable porn industry, has a budding Slow Food ecosystem of its own.
Slow Food USA
Slow Food USA Advisory Board Member and author of Fast Food Nation, interviewed by a great local bookstore, Powell’s (Portland, OR)
Author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, who has taken on Big Organic = Whole Foods
The Edible Schoolyard
Alice Waters teaches ecoliteracy at an urban middle school
“Local Eating for Global Change”
What is Sustainable Agriculture?
An accessible article from UC Davis
Underground gourmet dining…coming to your town soon
The Hungry Passport
A Slow Food member takes “food tourists” to Ireland