Special series: The Alibi’s resident food columnist Ari LeVaux reports from Italy for a few issues. First up, he covers the biennial Slow Food convention held Oct. 21 through 25 in Turin. Buon appetito!
As wine glasses were swirled and the souls of 10,000 stinky cheeses were searched, I joined food lovers from around the world in a vast indoor market. Held every two years in Turin, Italy, the Slow Food convention is stocked with some of the tastiest morsels to be coaxed from the land anywhere, and this year was no exception. Rows of stalls filled a 324,000-square-foot exhibition space dubbed the Salone del Gusto (Salon of Taste), from which countless samples flowed freely. Booths offered prosciutto from acorn-fed pigs, bread baked on maple leaves, brewed beans gathered from the wild coffee forests of Ethiopia, and Sicilian spleen sandwiches.
A foodie encounter of a different sort was taking place in the building next door. Instead of feasting on gastronomic treasures, more than six thousand people—farmers, fishermen, cooks, food activists, teachers and students—had assembled to engage in three days of intense dialog. And unlike the Salone del Gusto, it wasn't open to the public. This was the other half of the convention, called Terra Madre—Italian for Mother Earth.
Although Terra Madre’s delegates came from 161 countries and dramatically different contexts, each was working on his or her own piece of the same, larger puzzle. They wanted to know how to the save landscapes and cultures that produced what was being savored across the way at the Salone del Gusto.
"I'm sick of masturbatory gourmets, people who smell a glass of Bordeaux for half an hour and speak divinely, as if they are priests, 'Oh, it has the wonderful smell of horse sweat.' ”
Carlo Petrini, founder of the Slow Food movement
Slow Food began in 1986 when Carlo Petrini, a journalist, staged a successful protest against plans to build a McDonald's on the Spanish Steps of Rome. It’s currently trying to shed its image as a pleasure-based club for people who can afford to to linger for hours at the dining table.
"I'm sick of masturbatory gourmets, people who smell a glass of Bordeaux for half an hour and speak divinely, as if they are priests, 'Oh, it has the wonderful smell of horse sweat,' ” Petrini emphasized at a press conference during the 2008 convention. He started Terra Madre in 2004 to help bring Slow Food in line with its mission of supporting food that's "good, clean and fair."
In addition to talking shop on food production, Terra Madre participants—who were selected through an application process and had their expenses paid for by Slow Food—gave presentations to their colleagues. The importance of, say, the moringa tree in Kenya might not have seemed immediately relevant to the Amazonian Guarani tribal members in attendance. But the Guarani's Juçara tree, which produces palm hearts, fills a similarly central role in their culture and faces analogous threats from environmental destruction.
Terra Madre can be chaotic and at times difficult to grasp. One journalist I met complained that he wasn't learning anything he didn't already know. I wondered if he already knew how to prepare a wedding feast from moringa leaves. I suggested to him that Terra Madre isn't for food journalists. It's for people with hard, dirty hands; a place for them to meet and share ideas for solutions to the obstacles they face in trying to produce good food on healthy land.
“Terra Madre is a moment when people can realize that they're not alone,” Josh Viertel, president of Slow Food USA, said at the conference. “It profoundly changes how people live their lives afterwards."
"It's only taken 60 years to screw up our food system. If it takes another 60 years to fix it, that's OK."
Josh Viertel, president of Slow Food USA
One morning, Viertel led an energetic gathering of more than 700 delegates from the U.S. The stereotypical Slow Food image of leisurely indulgence was nowhere to be found in that packed room. One of the many resolutions agreed upon was that each chapter of Slow Food USA would partner with a chapter in Africa. Helping their African counterparts grow gardens would be priority No. 1.
"It's only taken 60 years to screw up our food system, ” Viertel told the group, invoking the pace of Slow Food's snail mascot. “If it takes another 60 years to fix it, that's OK." Petrini spoke next. He emphasized transformation, whereby old ideas that still work are maintained, as preferable to revolution, where the good is sometimes tossed out with the bad. Nonetheless, the revolutionary spirit in the room was palpable. There was chanting, clapping and stomping.
A subgroup of young activists at Terra Madre, called Youth Food, was the most energetic. Farmers in their early 20s talked about creating a program in South Africa that's trained thousands of teenagers in organic farming. Others described establishing a honey industry in Southern Brazil that provides an economic incentive to save the local caatinga forest.
In one mentoring workshop, elders of the sustainable farming movement were paired with aspiring farmers. Discussions about buying land on a farmer's income led to ideas about developing relationships with chefs. Topics on running a good CSA, setting up a proper bee hive and protecting basil from the wind weren’t far behind. The discussions weren’t only practical, they were an inspirational tool to both elders and youth.
Petrini spoke to the group about how food and the culture that surrounds it has become an expression of power and a “rediscovery of people's relationship with the landscape.”
“We're not just talking about food and agriculture,” he told them. “We're talking about spirituality."
The snail may still be the Slow Food mascot, but I left Terra Madre believing that what happened there will quicken the pace of real, positive change in the world’s food systems.