­­Coming to the table at Slow Food Nations

Contributor Simran Sethi reports on the inaugural Slow Foods Nations, a festival “to taste and explore the world of good, clean and fair food for all” that took place this year in Denver, Colorado.

“Welcome to the family dinner table that is Denver” was the official greeting by Adam Schlegel, co-founder of Snooze, at the opening reception of Slow Food Nations’ inaugural event this year. The prosaic remark was the perfect metaphor for a conference of this scale, featuring 305 speakers and 70 exhibitors, built on the Slow Food organization’s tenets of good, clean and fair food.

Originally launched in 1986 by Italian writer Carlo Petrini and other local activists, Slow Food was a response to news that McDonald’s was opening an outpost in Rome’s Piazza di Spagna, adjacent to the Spanish Steps. Petrini and his colleagues took a stand against global industrialization and homogenization of food by handing out symbolic bowls of pasta to remind fellow Italians of their longstanding culinary heritage, regional traditions and flavors they wanted to preserve. “We don’t want fast food,” they said, “we want slow food!”

Carlo Petrini, founder of the Slow Food movement. (Photo by Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung)

Thirty years later, the organization has grown to over 1,500 global chapters known as convivia, including 150 chapters in the United States that are part of Slow Food USA, which is headquartered in New York City. However, one challenge the organization has faced is that it does not adequately address the inequities inherent within our food system. To extend the metaphor, Slow Food has been criticized for not bringing to the table a diverse array of voices involved in food justice and advocacy. The criticism isn’t solely directed at this particular group; it’s an issue that has dogged a number of institutions trying to reform our food system.

The good news is it is being addressed now.

Ricardo Salvador, from the Union of Concerned Scientists, gave the opening keynote speech for the Slow Food Nations delegate conference. His remarks preceded a larger public event that highlighted how our food system is built on exploitation of land and labor, and that in order to achieve fairness and justice, we must commit to a redistribution of wealth within the system. In a later session aimed at aligning the good food and food justice movements, urban farmer Chanowk Ysrael, of Yisrael Family Farm, cited Chicago as a case study. He drew attention to the fact that communities of color have the least access to nutritional food and suffer the highest crime rates and greatest number of school closures. Food, he explained, is not separate from the bigger landscape of justice and injustice.

The Delegate lunch with Alice Waters explored “School Lunch as an Academic Subject.” Local flowers adorned tables covered with placemats that highlighted the ingredients that made up the meal. (Photo by Simran Sethi)

Over a vegan lunch of tamales made from the “Zapotec three sisters” of corn, beans, and squash that ended with a dessert of local cherries and apricots (served with the assistance of students at the Marie L.Greenwood Academy), Alice Waters stated that 85 percent of children in the United States do not have family meals. In her session, “School Lunch as an Academic Subject,” she explained: “This is the big idea I want you to digest … Fast food values have taken over our lives. I want you to find the time and attention to digest the values of slow food.”

Alice Waters with 11-year-old Ashley Paz, a student at the Marie L. Greenwood Academy in Denver. Students from the academy helped prep and serve the meal that Waters created. (Photo by Simran Sethi)

This participation can take many forms, as was reflected in the range of events scheduled throughout the weekend: a class on cooking with insects, a heritage breed pig butchering demonstration and a tortilla-making workshop that explored the cultural significance of native corn varieties from Michoácan. There were also discussions of how — and why — industrial agriculture is reliant on antibiotics, food sovereignty and the role of power and culture through food systems, and exchanges about indigenous food traditions from around the world. In his keynote, Carlo Petrini reminded attendees, “We were born fighting McDonald’s. But today McDonald’s is nothing. There are much greater concentration[s] of power … power that is exerted violently, power that is greater than some sovereign states.” The food movement must be inclusive, he stressed. “Participatory democracy begins with participatory food production.”

The free public event, “Love the Earth, Defend the Future: Taking Action to Protect Our Food,” featured Ron Finley, Michel Nischan, Alice Waters and Jack Johnson. (Photo by John Hinman)

Of course, embedded in these ideas of participation are questions of inclusion, appropriation and attribution — and that’s where the actual work and opportunities for dialogue and gatherings such as this lie. But there is more to the question than simply asking who is at the table; it requires an understanding of who is being recognized, and why, and who is actually being fed through these ongoing exchanges. While chef Alon Shaya dismissed the notion of cultural appropriation of food as “bullsh–,” remarking that “privilege is just going to exist” and that “authenticity when it comes to food is empty,” in a session entitled, “There’s No Such Thing as ‘American’ Food: How Diverse Cultures Influence Our Cuisine,” other speakers offered far more nuanced and thoughtful perspectives, addressing power dynamics and emphasizing the deep origins of what we consume. “People emphasize the French influence of Louisiana’s cuisine,” explained Slow Food Governor of the Gulf South States Gary Granata in a discussion comparing and contrasting the vanishing foodways of Louisiana and Vietnam. “But our food is [also] built on the foods and culinary traditions of indigenous people and also of enslaved Africans.”

Seed saver and storyteller John Coykendall has been collecting heirloom seeds for four decades. (Photo by Sarah Weldon Hackenberg)

These entangled culinary histories reveal an interdependence that continues to this day. No country is self-sufficient in the food resources required to sustain ourselves; we feed each other. And this nourishment is multiple, as I was reminded in my session with seed saver John Coykendall, a farmer who  has been collecting heirloom seeds over the past four decades and documenting the histories and narratives behind them in a series of beautifully illustrated handwritten journals.

The Ark of Taste display in Denver’s Larimer Square showcased some of the endangered crops being cultivated in North America. (Photo by John Hinman)

Nearly every historic fruit and vegetable variety that once flourished in the United States has disappeared, which is why efforts such as Slow Food’s Ark of Taste (an event showcased at the conference) are so essential. The Ark of Taste is a global catalogue of over 3,500 heritage foods from more than 150 countries that are grown and produced in distinct regions throughout the world, typified by small-scale quality production, biodiversity and an awareness that these species are on the verge of disappearing. This loss, I summarized, is not limited to the seeds we sow; it is an erosion of our own culture and identity. Each seed holds a story about the people and places that sustained it; both are vital to our self-preservation.

Overall, Slow Food Nations served up a delicious and thought-provoking repast of the many stories beyond the plate. But it also serves as a reminder of the work that remains to be done. We must keep exploring “how to be dignified in our slow food,” concluded Kyle Lemle, a former community project manager for Friends of the Urban Forest, in a session exploring food as a creative response to trauma. A homogenized, assimilated food system that fails to recognize and support the people and lands that have contributed to the sustenance, joy, and healing that comes from food is unjust and incomplete. The conversations and actions that ensue must confront these hard truths and answer the question of how increased awareness for a limited few can support good, clean and fair food for all. Together, we must build a bigger table.

Watch the trailer for “Deeply Rooted,” a documentary about seed saver John Coykendall, directed and produced by Christina Melton.

Photo of entrance to Slow Food Nations in Denver’s Larimer Square (top) by John Hinman

This project made possible with support from KCRW’s Independent Producer Project.