Slow is Beautiful (and delicious)

In response to the blanding or world cuisine, Italy's Slow Food movement is now sweeping the United States.

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Slow Food, a movement launched in Italy, is now sweeping the United States with the message that fast food and factory farming lack taste

Ami Lax is waging a food fight. She wants to teach people to savor instead of scarf. In our speed-obsessed age, the true pleasure of eating has been lost. Flavor, freshness, nutritional value, the special knowledge about where our food comes from--even the primal experience of breaking bread with family and friends--have become less important than convenience. We've been hamburglared, McMuffined.

But for every wave, there's a backlash.

Enter Slow Food, an international lobby devoted to reawakening our taste buds and preserving regional cuisine. 'May suitable doses of guaranteed sensual pleasure and slow, long-lasting enjoyment preserve us from the contagion of the multitude who mistake frenzy for efficiency,' says its manifesto.

Lax is leading the charge for a rethinking of our relationship with food in Madison, Wisconsin, one of the movement's most active centers. 'People have forgotten how to taste,' laments Lax, who recently opened Harvest, a new local restaurant featuring regional cuisine. 'Slow Food is really about reawakening the senses.' The movement originated in Italy, where fast food has been less than successful at puncturing long-standing culinary traditions; fast food accounts for only 5 percent of food eaten away from home in Italy, compared to 25 percent in the rest of Europe and 50 percent in the United States. Founded in 1989, Slow Food is the brainchild of Carlo Petrini, an activist who began preaching his lefty food views back in the '70s via pirate radio and organized protests against the first McDonald's in Rome. Today, he presides over a burgeoning international phenomenon with 60,000 members in 42 countries.

The movement made little splash in America until last March, when a New York office opened; since then interest around the country has mushroomed. Media attention and endorsements from notable chefs such as Alice Waters of the Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley spawned a flurry of eating groups, or as Slow Foodies call them, 'convivia' (from the Latin word for festive), which sponsor meals, lectures, and trips to farms and other regional food producers. Already there are over 2,500 members and 30 convivia in the United States. For $60 a year, Slow Food members receive the movement's handsome journal, Slow, invitations to international events, and the satisfaction of contributing to the spread of joyful meals across the land. The movement's Academy of Taste program, for example, develops education programs in grade schools to teach kids about food, and its Fraternal Tables project is helping farmers in Nicaragua recover agricultural land.

In Madison, Slow Food has caught on faster than hot potatoes. The 60 members--everyone from college students to surgeons to farmers--dedicate themselves to promoting fresh and local food, including the products of Wisconsin's famous small breweries and artisanal cheese makers. Lax, who grew up on a farm near Green Bay, spent many childhood days foraging for wild edibles and exploring the contents of her grandmother's well-stocked root cellar. She is an expert on local Midwestern food. Looking for black kale? Hen of the woods mushrooms? She knows where to find them. As a food scout for Madison's L'Etoile restaurant, she made a name for herself by connecting local growers to area chefs. When she first heard about Slow Food last year, starting a chapter seemed like a natural step. 'People are living too fast to realize what's happening,' says Lax. 'Regional food traditions are disappearing as our palates become homogenized.'

When was the last time you ate a biricaccolo, she asks? It's an ancient plum/apple. Ever reached into the crisper and pulled out a bunch of alegria? Probably not. This sturdy green, similar to kale, was a staple food of the Aztecs. Today these two foods are practically extinct.

According to Cary Fowler and Pat Mooney in Shattering: Food, Politics and the Loss of Genetic Diversity (Arizona 1990), fewer than 30 species of plants supply 95 percent of the world's food. Grocery stores want durable produce--fruit that won't bruise, greens that won't wilt. Consumers have fewer choices than in the past.

Heirloom crops and traditional methods of small-scale food production are collapsing as a result of industrialized farming and food production, along with biotechnology. 'People read in the paper about genetically engineered food, and it scares them, but they don't know what to do,' says Lax. 'Slow Food provides an outlet.'

The Madison convivia's first Slow Food event, an apple tasting, took place at Weston's Antique Apple Orchard, a third-generation orchard outside New Berlin, Wisconsin. 'Most people are only familiar with Red Delicious and Granny Smith apples,' says Lax. 'At the apple tasting, we tried 50 different varieties, some of which aren't grown anywhere else in the world.' Lax hopes that events like this will encourage people to buy from Weston's and other local growers, thus promoting different apple varieties--and assuring the orchard's and the rare species' survival.

Just as the environmental movement works to save animals in danger of extinction, the Slow Food movement is bent on saving endangered fruits and vegetables. You might even call them the Greenpeace of gastronomy.

Slow Food recently launched a project called the Ark of Taste, which, la Noah's Ark, shelters endangered species--foods and beverages--from encroaching extinction. 'The Ark project distinguishes certain products worthy of protection,' explains Patrick Martins, head of Slow Food's New York office. Across the country, rare and threatened varieties like the Blenheim apricot and the Gilfeather turnip are being reintroduced to consumers through the movement's presence in the media and at food fairs. California's extraordinary Sun-Crest peach was featured in a Time magazine story last May. Four Wisconsin products were inducted into the Ark this year: New Glarus Brewery's Wisconsin Belgian Red Ale (made with Door County cherries), Fantome Farm's Fresh Goat's Milk Cheese, Mossholder's Brick Style Semi-Soft Cheese, and LoveTree Farm's Trade Lake Cedar Cheese.

New Glarus cherry ale flowed freely as revelers celebrated these foods at a special Slow Food dinner in Madison in June. The dinner featured local delicacies: warm white asparagus with shallot mousseline, pea vine risotto. During the cheese course, Lax explained, 'These are the last three farmstead cheeses remaining in Wisconsin. That means the cheese makers use milk produced on the farm. They don't use any outside suppliers. There used to be about 2,000 farmstead cheeses in Wisconsin at the turn of the century; now all but these three have died out.

'People pooh-pooh American cheeses because they don't stand up to European varieties,' she adds, 'but there are good ones out there. We have around 60 artisanal cheese makers in Wisconsin. Many of them are so small that they don't have the funds to promote themselves, and grocery stores ignore them because buyers are used to buying huge quantities of yellow, shrink-wrapped cheese.'

For Mary Falk, who owns LoveTree Farmstead Cheese with her husband, Dave, induction into the Ark couldn't come at a better time. Her cheese, which is a raw milk (unpasteurized) cheese made from a breed of small sheep called Trade Lake Sheep, is in danger of being outlawed. 'Big industry is trying to put the kibosh on raw milk cheese by saying that it's dangerous,' says Falk. Despite its having been produced this way for centuries, the big producers are trying to claim that cheese made from unpasteurized milk is unsanitary. The specialty cheese industry--in particular, imported farmstead cheeses from Europe--is taking over the high-end cheese market in the United States, and the big companies don't like it, says Falk.

If the National Cheese Institute succeeds in its strategy to ban raw milk cheeses, Falk and her husband will no longer be able to sell the unique artisanal cheeses they have spent 14 years perfecting.

Trade Lake Cedar Cheese is aged on cedar boughs in a cave the couple built on their 200-acre farm near Grantsburg, Wisconsin. They breed hardy dairy sheep that thrive on native grasses and produce milk with a high butterfat content, and from this they have developed a cheese enhanced by their northern climate. 'The Trade Lake Cedar Cheese is distinct because the cave [where the cheese ripens] has fresh air vents that bring in the toolie fog,' says Mary Falk.

'In the late spring, the ground heats up but the evening air is cool, creating a fog,' Falk explains. 'Toolie just refers to a wet, marshy area.' The vents in the cave allow the fog to settle on the cheeses, distributing pollen and wild molds. This aids in forming the rind and lends a north woods flavor reminiscent of wild lilac, evergreen, mustard grass, and clover. The Trade Lake Cedar comes of age after just two and a half months, usually in mid-July. The unique flavor has impressed chefs at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Chicago and Picholine in New York, where it's been added to the menu.

While Slow Food has been lauded for its radical defense of great-tasting food, its 'sensual correctness' has also been criticized for breeding elitist appetites. In an article for Slow, University of Maryland sociologist George Ritzer points a greasy finger at Slow Food's upper-crust bastions: 'The upper classes already find themselves best able to avoid or resist McDonaldization. The Slow Food movement needs to find a way to attract middle- and lower-class supporters.'

Rink DaVee, a Slow Food member and Wisconsin organic farmer, admits, 'That's the side [of Slow Food] that turns me off.' Staying down to earth will be Slow Food's challenge, he says. It's easy for city folk to embrace Slow Food's philosophies with a kind of intellectual hedonism and forget that Slow Food, at heart, is about countering the idea that food is nothing more than a product. DaVee's philosophy is simple: 'Drinking some local beer, eating some fresh radishes. Nothing fancy.'

Slow Food's Patrick Martins contests the accusation: 'We're anti-elitist,' he says. 'We're not about supper clubs and wine-and-cheese parties.' Slow Food gives a voice to small farmers, whose products may be more expensive than supermarket products. Let's face it: It costs more to produce a cave-ripened cheese than to mass-produce Kraft Singles.

'We're trying to make good food accessible to everyone,' Lax says. 'That's why the first Slow Food event I planned was an apple tasting. It was casual, people brought kids, we had a potluck.' It's all part of imbuing pleasure, educating the palate, and spreading the message: Slow down, eat, enjoy.

From the Madison, Wisconsin, alternative weekly Isthmus (July 14, 2000). Subscriptions: $30/yr. (52 issues) from 101 King St., Madison, WI 53703.