For 25 years, Slow Food USA has been an organization on the cutting edge of making change in our food systems. Successes include building links between local and international, tradition and innovation.
Denver is the only U.S City to host an annual event (for the past three years) that celebrates the movement that began in Italy, founded by Carlo Petrini in 1986. The movement has since spread worldwide in over 160 countries.
I was lucky to attend the Slow Food Nations festival at Larimer Square this year since it is just down the road from Weld County where I live. There I spent some time attending fabulous workshops, sampling locally sourced food, and talking to an old friend Richard McCarthy from New Orleans.
Richard McCarthy, executive director of Slow Food USA, started his career in this field in the 1990s in New Orleans when he initiated and directed the first New Orleans Farmers Market. He did this through the Twomey Center for Peace and Justice at Loyola University New Orleans (where we both worked). At first, a university may seem like an unlikely place to incubate such an innovative idea but it totally tied into Loyola’s and the Twomey Center’s mission of social justice. I am very proud that Richard’s Crescent City Farmers Market began there.
In a way, New Orleans has always known what slow food is. Cooking red beans and rice was a tradition in homes and restaurants at least as early as the 1800s. Monday was traditionally “wash day” which in the old days was an all-day affair and putting a pot of beans on the stove to simmer all day was an easy way to have dinner ready at the end of the wash day. The same idea applied to gumbo of various sorts, seafood and chicken/sausage being two of the most popular. These delectable one pot meals were made with all fresh ingredients from back yard farms and the seafood bounty of the Gulf of Mexico. They too were best simmered all day, sometimes for several days, on the stove top, to elicit the best flavors. Walking through the French Quarter and other neighborhoods, one can still smell the tantalizing aromas of these slow-cooking foods which remain traditions to this day.
With its French influence, early New Orleanians learned to love their coffee. Unlike the drive-through to-go coffee houses of today, coffee was sipped at leisure in everyone’s home and also at early coffee houses like Café du Monde and Morning Call. Steaming pots of frothy milk were poured into cups at the same time as deep, rich coffee, often with chicory, and the flavors “married” in the air as they dripped into the cup. This delicious drink was enjoyed, at leisure, over conversation in open air markets, long before “lattes” became vogue. At the same time, all the fancy restaurants that served the gumbos and turtle soups, oysters Rockefeller, trout almandine and other bounties of the sea, ended their meals with deep, rich coffee. Sitting down to enjoy a long, fresh cooked leisurely meal, followed by a good cup of coffee, is an example of slow food vs. fast food “take out” and eating processed food “on the go.”
New Orleans, with its slower paced lifestyle, was indeed a forerunner of slow food, though unknowingly perhaps and not in the organized way that the Slow Food Movement has resurrected this idea.
Likewise, other cultures like French, Spanish, Italian, and Mediterranean, have long cooked with fresh local ingredients and people regularly took their time to gather food, cook it, and enjoy it with leisure. In America, as 20th century life picked up to a faster and faster pace, this way of living was lost along the way. In the 1950s, busy stay at home moms grasped on to the convenience of canned and frozen foods, and ultimately pre-packaged “tv dinners” to make their lives easier. Slowly over years, accepted food portions grew as did the amount of sugar, salt, and non-food ingredients that were chemical and nature began to creep into our food source. Pounds began to creep around waistlines and today, an inordinate number of Americans are overweight as a result.
As Richard and I enjoyed sampling Camellia red beans and rice, as well as pinto beans and rice, cooked by local chefs, we chatted about slow food. “Food is a currency useful in culture and economic development,” he said.” Slow food embellishes traditional practices like hunting and fishing, baking and canning, growing our own food or buying from local farmers. We value things we cannot digitize like the taste of something fresh.”
One of many highlights of my time at the festival was hearing Poppy Tooker, a New Orleans food personality, and Ben Burkette, a 4th generation farmer who farmed 40 acres in Mississippi with a mule, brought his fare to sell at the Crescent City Farmers Market, and became world renowned for his work in the slow food movement. Poppy and Ben sat on a very interesting panel discussing the role of food in natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, which we all went through.
The Slow Food movement is an effort to return us to some of our old ways of gathering food locally, cooking “real” food and not food in cans or that has been overly processed. It’s a healthier way of enjoying eating and our lives. Yea Richard, Poppy and Ben, Slow Foods USA, Slow Food Nations Festival in Denver! Join the movement! Check out www.slowfoodusa.org.