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.
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