Thoughts on Slow Food Nation: Politics vs. taste, competition vs. cooperation

I’m a bad, guilty blogger these days. I spent Friday and Saturday of Slow Food Nation just taking it all in — the stupendous design of the Taste Pavilion, that glittering temple to good food constructed of recycled pallets, vegetable bins, and canning-jar lids; the crowded green bounty of the Victory Garden, which shamed me and my scraggly little sunburned backyard plants; the back-to-back panel discussions in airless Herbst Theater through which the fog of self-congratulation occasionally parted to let loose a shaft of genuinely inspiring rhetoric; the homespun Powerpoint presentations of Changemakers Day (I crashed it). On Saturday night, 25 writer/blogger friends and acquaintances from all around the country converged at Essencia, an organic Peruvian restaurant in the Civic Center, for a chaotic, crazy dinner of local halibut ceviche and Argentinian grassfed beef washed down with (mostly) California wine.

In short, I was too busy eating, listening, talking, and walking to blog. And now I am writing this on a plane to England, en route to a sorely needed two-week vacation in Hove (East Sussex, near Brighton), then London (Maida Vale), then York, for which I have barely packed, let alone planned. (I would love UK readers’ recommendations for restaurants, farmers markets, and farms in those areas.)

Yet I’m still thinking about Slow Food Nation. I’ve been to several sustainable food conferences in the past two years — WK Kellogg’s Food and Society (twice), Eco-Farm, the Sustainable Institute at Monterey Bay Aquarium — and SFN stands out in sheer scale and spectacle. Which is not to say I don’t have a few quibbles with it. I agree with Kerry over at Eating Liberally: there should have been more simple fruit and vegetables featured at Taste, given the season — why not a tomato pavilion? or a stone fruit, or a leafy greens one, in addition to the charcuterie and cheese? Pickled vegetables are wonderful, but so are fresh. And while it was heartening to see the ethnic and generational diversity of people touring the Victory Garden and the farmers’ market showcase, I was hard pressed to find a nonwhite face in the grazers at the $65 per ticket Taste Pavilion, except behind the food counters, or at any of the Food for Thought lectures I attended.

Eric Schlosser, author of “Fast Food Nation,” made this point forcefully in the closing Food for Thought session, delivering a recap of his “rant” from an earlier session on labor (see Elanor’s post). Responding to Slow Food Nation’s slogan, “Come to the Table,” he pointed out that the people who picked and packed and processed all that lovely lovely food had not been invited, and that most conscious eaters in the audience were probably more concerned with animal rights than human. “Workers need to have a place at the table,” he said. “I don’t care if the tomato is heirloom, if it’s a product of slavery.”

A tension between the taste faction and the politics faction permeated Slow Food Nation. I will never forget a Slow Food leadership meeting I attended in 2006, in which one attendee said, “My biggest problem with the food-politics people is that the food they serve at their events is usually terrible.” As values, taste and ethics don’t have to be mutually exclusive — Stone Barns chef Dan Barber talked in one session, as he has elsewhere, about a foie-gras farmer in Spain whose naturally gavaging “field gras” flocks are so well-treated that wild geese voluntarily join them. Yet Slow Food’s reputation has mostly leaned toward privileging provenance and uniqueness over fighting for things like farmworkers’ rights, community food justice, and land reform.

But as Michael Pollan was quoted as saying in John Birdsall’s excellent, blunt discussion in this month’s San Francisco magazine of how Slow Food Nation came to be — or rather, almost didn’t — Slow Food USA is a gangly adolescent of a movement. It’s got a lot of growing up left to do. And Slow Food Nation was its first-ever big event. I’d hate for what it got right to get lost amongst enumerating what it didn’t.

Many of those things were articulated in the closing Food for Thought session, when speakers discussed the actions that we, the audience, need to take. My laptop battery’s dying, and my brain’s running on empty, so I apologize for the fragmented nature of these summaries of what they had to say:

Michael Pollan: We’ve been eating oil for 40 years but the era of cheap food is over. We need a “sun food agenda.” What would it look like? Farms would return to diversified agriculture (polycultures, with animals to close the nutrient cycle), and farmers would be rewarded for the number of days their fields are green, soaking up the sun. We also have to “resolarize” the farm economy — create places farmers can sell locally — and rebuild our food culture as a nation. But all of that depends on recruiting millions of new farmers, ennobling farming so more people want to do it, and making it possible for them to make a decent living at it. We can also help them out, and learn about what’s involved, by trying to grow some of our own food. “Planting a garden is a really important thing to do,” Pollan said. “If you do that, you will find that things change.” You will cook, you will share food with your neighbors, “and a whole long trail of wonderful things will follow.”

Vandana Shiva: Everything is connected, and America’s “eat local” solutions need more global consciousness. We must protect seeds, which belong as a public good, from being blockaded by intellectual property laws, and keep enough people on the land in the Global South (staving off land speculators) to allow those countries to feed themselves. “The Gates Foundation is the biggest problem for meeting our agenda. It’s doing everything wrong and crippling our efforts,” she said, speaking of the Foundation’s push to bring agrochemicals and GM seeds to Africa in a second green revolution. “I think they are being criminal and they need to be stopped if we are to get this movement of the ground.” We also need a real politics of antitrust in this country, stopping U.S. corporations like Monsanto and Cargill from squelching real competition.

Eric Schlosser: He would add ADM and Exxon Mobile to Shiva’s list. We cannot underestimate the power of the forces resisting the changes she is talking about. “I don’t want to be a broken record, but my solution is to create a real movement by broadening this one.” Change will only come when Slow Food Nation is held in Des Moines, Iowa, and when farmworkers are at the table. And if we can change things in America, the ripple effect will be felt worldwide.

Wendell Berry: All of those issues are the byproducts of a system built on competition rather than cooperation. “I’m not enthusiastic about any presidential candidate…on principle, because there’s too little we can expect from them. If we get a large enough voice, they’ll do the right thing because they have to,” said the poet-philosopher-farmer who “started this whole [movement] thing,” as Schlosser teased him on stage. We should seek out things that rely on the cooperative principle instead, like farmers markets and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs. “If you trade with your local hardware store rather than going to Wal-Mart, you’ll be saying, ‘I want you to exist. You and I are neighbors, and I accept responsibility for that connection.’”

Alice Waters: Quoting Gandhi, we need to be the change we want to see in the world. And that Victory Garden out in front of the Civic Center has expressed what we believe in. Americans are very disconnected from the experience of growing and cooking food that our parents had, at least the ones born before World War II. “That’s the reason I think we need to feed our politicians.…we need a garden on the White House lawn.…I am rushing in the pursuit of hopefulness.”

Carlo Petrini: We have to revolutionize our own actions. “Let’s get rid of this heavy coat of being a consumer. Because it’s destroying our lives…We need to be ‘coproducers,’ in an active way.” Corporations are always creating new needs for us, we have to run behind them. Let’s think about what we actually need and consume a little less of it. Let’s all start wasting less as well. “Our refrigerators are like tombs…let’s free us ourselves from this consumptive disease.”

The thing I had been most looking forward to about Slow Food Nation was the chance to hear my hero Wendell Berry speak. He did not disappoint. Now I’ve been feeling pretty tired and sorry for myself lately, and I’ve only been doing this writing-activist stuff for a couple of years! I can’t imagine how Berry, who’s been farming as well as documenting what’s wrong with agriculture (and other culture) in this country since the ’70s, has managed to stay engaged despite the steadily downward spiral of our food system.

Well, it turns out he’s had his dark moments too. “I gave up on this movement about 1990,” he said. He figured he, his brother, and a few other mavericks like Gene Logsdon would just keep on doing that they did, isolated voices in the wilderness as America shopped itself into a stupor. “But then about about 1994, 1995 I began to look at myself in the mirror and say, ‘Wendell, there are people out there doing what you want them to do! You better go and help them.’” And by “people” he meant regular folks, people “who are farming well, or purchasing intelligently and cooperatively.”  While the people on stage with him had acted as catalysts, it’s been virtually a leaderless movement, he pointed out approvingly.

Berry refers often to his Christian faith when he writes, but usually in pragmatic rather than dogmatic terms. He ended with his “favorite joke from the Sermon on the Mount — I always love the Gospels for their humor,” the idea that “to love thy neighbor as thyself” is an act of selflessness. Rather, he said, a person becomes a “neighbor” not just because they live next to you, but because they can help you and you them.

While he meant this to apply to individual actions — or as he put it, “people asking each other, ‘What can I do for you today?’” — I think it applies equally well to the food movement. Slow Food Nation was an extraordinary four-day festival of cooperation. It was months in the making and of course, some people were asked for too much help and others for none, hurting feelings on both sides. Next time Slow Food Nation happens — and I really hope there will be a next time — the table must get bigger and more inclusive. To reach critical mass as a movement that can really begin to affect policies for climate change, energy, workers’ rights, farm livelihoods, and public health, we need to find away to bring everyone from Slow Food to school food to pesticide action to policy groups together.

But all in all, I for one enjoyed the meal at America’s first-ever Slow Food Nation. Here’s to the “chefs” who cooked up the menu — and the thousands of volunteers, farmers, vendors, designers, architects, event planners, and nonprofit groups who got it to the table in one piece.

8 Responsesto “Thoughts on Slow Food Nation: Politics vs. taste, competition vs. cooperation”

  1. Hazel says:

    Thank you so much for this review of Slow Food Nation.  It reinforces the message we work to send to our readers.  Good work!

  2. Cinda says:

    Thanks so much for all you do and write about. I wish Marion Nestle’s comments could have been included. She spoke in my area last February and someone in the audience asked her thoughts on this movement being “elitist.” She pointed out that most of the social change that happens in this country starts with the elite. For example, the right to vote. The women who spearheaded the movement were not the mill workers but the wealthy women who had the time to devote to the cause. We all need to be aware of the need to spread good food to everyone but we need to have a little patience while the seed grows.

  3. Tea says:

    Thanks for this, Bonnie. I’ve heard a lot of criticism–some quite valid, I am sure–but at the end of the day it was quite an undertaking. Slow Food USA seems to become so divisive for people, when I feel like most of us are after the same thing.
    Hope you have a great vacation!

  4. I totally agree that fruits & veggies should have been served at the Taste Pavilions. Kind of baffling given their love of Michael “eat mostly plants” Pollan, you know? Among the other reasons that I wanted fruits & veggies there, was the fact that the foods available gave me a huge stomachache. Especially as a vegetarian who couldn’t have the meat, because it meant walking around for 4 hours gorging on beer, ice cream, and chocolate. (I posted pics of all the food I had over on if you want to see ‘em.)
    I agree with Schlosser that I don’t want to eat any tomato, no matter how good, picked by anyone in slave conditions. I love all of the efforts to make slaughterhouses more humane for the animals but I have big problems with the way the workers in the slaughterhouses are treated, and the way the animals are treated during their lives leading up to their last day. Good on Eric Schlosser for calling attention to human rights.

  5. tony sturm says:

    I flew there from Wisconsin to check it out. I hope no one took in the pavilion by itself, without going to the Civic Center.  That was swimming in produce, and provided a balance to the (all shelf stable) offerings of the pavilion.  It was the local food complement to the ‘let’s celebrate the unique value added products that are available across the country’ at the pavilion Maybe I could have appreciated some agua frescas or something to cut the decadence, but it made me aware of all the great foods I can enjoy anytime, not just in summer.

  6. Bruce Cole says:

    At last nite’s Slow Food Considered panel in Berkeley (featuring Fred Kirschenmann, Raj Patel, Michael Pollan, and Vandana Shiva, moderated by Richard Walker), the question posed to all was, “what was missing at Slow Food Nation?”
    The sustainable movement’s rock star, Fred Kirschenmann, was the most erudite (as usual), and he pointed out (in a long comprehensive dialogue that, due to my lesser-than efficient note taking technique,  can’t be repeated here…note to self: “must practice Bonnie’s hunt-and-peck on the laptop technique”) that there was no real discussion of how to change the food system once the era cheap energy ends (and it’s coming sooner than later).
    Fred mentioned the synergy of the Slow Food Movement with the “Blessed Unrest” espoused by Paul Hawken, and noted that the change (in the commodity food system) is going to happen, but we need to be able to direct that change to where we want it to go. Slow Food is uniquely positioned to marshall these “changemakers”, and ensuring that a new food system, one that connects farmers and consumers with a common agenda, is vital to the success of the movement.
    And then Raj Patel went on to connect the dots between Red Bull energy drink and capitalism, and how capitalism is about making the most ridiculous things into food, i.e Red Bull, which he described as being pretty close to carbonated piss, and Red Bull is just a drink that works for capitalism because it gets you through the work day (and he confessed to drinking it night and day to get through his Ph.D), and then I just quit taking notes, right then and there.

  7. azurite says:

    According to his website, Gary Paul Nabhan was going to give a talk at the Herbst auditorium.   I’ve thought alot of him & what he does ever since I read his book, “Coming Home to Eat, The Pleasures & Politics of Local Foods”, published in 2002.  He’s done alot of work (with other people) on seed saving, etc.  and he is an ethnobotanist.   “Coming Home to Eat” isn’t as well known as one or two of his later books (he’s an editor of a recent book that’s fairly well known but whose title I can’t remember).  He has never seemed at all elitist to me, which I can’t say about some of the other people there like Alice Waters (who used to have produce from a specific grower further south in CA flown up to her restaurant so it’d be really fresh).   I know she’s done alot for the school yard program, but–other people [ushed & started gardens at schools before she did or simultaneously.  Including some of the Master Gardeners where I live (as for cooking, I like Deborah Madison’s cookbooks more).
    For those who have the time, the Agricultural Extension Service’s Master Gardener program can be a good way of learning more about gardening, meeting some expert gardeners, making some friends & perhaps influencing a few people via the community service projects that are required (at least here) for certification (in addition to course work).   I believe there are extension service offices in most parts of the US–they’re not restricted to rural areas (there is one in Nassau County on the north shore of LI, NY, & that area hasn’t been what you’d call rural in 40 years).   Oregon’s MG program seems to be incorporating more & more organic & sustainable ideas & povs since I took the course, although I had (& I assume people still have to) learn about proper application of chemical pesticides, etc. & be willing to tell people about their existence if they asked.  But you could recommend other methods of pest control first.   Oregon’s program includes an annual (or bi-annual?) mini-college where you can meet MGers from all over the state while attending some interesting short courses/seminars over a 2 day period.

  8. My first take on Slow Food Nation is posted on Grist, at
    Along with a tomato recipe (provided by Brother Bruce, above!)
    I’m sure we’ll all have much to say on the subject in the days and weeks to come, but there are just my first thoughts