This afternoon, as one of three guests of a good friend who lives in Davis, California, I attended “The Village Feast,” an event sponsored by Slow Food Yolo & Davis Farm to School Connection to raise money for, in part, “the addition of local seasonal produce in the school lunch program.” We had to bring our own plates, cutlery, and cloth napkins. More than one hundred people sat down at tables arranged in a square in the city’s main park. Servers distributed bottles of wine, pitchers of delicious, refreshing watermelon juice, and water to the tables, people milled looking at the items up for silent auction, and some nibbled on olives, nuts and endive leaves dipped in cheese dip. When the staff placed platters of food on the table to be shared family-style, those of us who have been eating tomatoes all summer shrugged. We weren’t impressed. The grilled vegetables, accompanied by small tureens of hollandaise sauce, encouraged us. Plates of cold fingerling potatoes came next, followed by a bowl of hard-boiled free-range eggs. Again, we shrugged. Then, servers delivered to our table platters of good lamb meat cooked in various ways. I, who have been eating lamb non-stop for over a month, alone shrugged. Dessert came in the form of fruit tarts in a tasteless, fat-less crust.
The one bright spot throughout the meal was the Yolo County wine. Rominger West Winery makes a crisp, delightful white that they don’t call Sauvignon Blanc but would satisfy anyone who was looking for one in hot weather. I enjoyed their Syrah as well. Matchbook Winery from Dunnigan Hills in Graton, made a table red that was good.
I grew increasingly perplexed about the point of the event — apart from the fundraising aspect. That was easy to understand. By their nature, fundraisers tend to involve preaching to the converted. This event was meant also to celebrate the local produce, meat, and wine, which it did as far as it went. But Iit started me thinking about how the Slow Food movement in this country goes about reaching its goals. Alice Waters, the most visible face associated with Slow Food in this country, has been in the news frequently. She wants to influence the food that is served to children in schools and the way it arrives on our tables. Not for the first time, I wondered if, at this rate, the Slow Food movement would ever extend beyond the small sliver of the population that could afford to pay $5 a pound for heirloom tomatoes in farmers’ markets throughout the country. Slow Food strikes me as a very urban, very middle-class, and a menacingly apolitical phenomenon. But that’s not how it started or how its founder sees it.
Carlo Petrini, the Italian founder of Slow Food Editore, the publisher of green travel guides and the guiding spirit of the international movement, has found reasons to be optimistic about food culture in the United States. In an editorial that appeared in La Repubblica on August 13 he takes the growing number of farmers’ markets, microbreweries, and the popularity of books like Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, to be signs of a rising resistance to agribusiness and of a new appreciation for “ruralità” — an Italian abstract noun he coined to mean something like “rural life” — that will foster a reconciliation between the city with the countryside. He hopes these movements will inspire the youth of America to defend the earth and its fruits. (You can find the piece on Italy’s slow food website. Look for the link, “More quality, less waste: how new consumers fight corporations.”) It is hard to believe that Petrini can be as naïve as he appears in his editorial.
Here in the United States, we have Alice Waters to champion the Slow Food movement and Slow Food USA to channel the energies of its proponents. Slow Food Nation ’08, a “celebration” of locally produced food and cooking, consists of a series events during the last two weekends in August. At first, second, and third glance, I blanched when I saw the prices. To gain admission to the Saturday evening’s August 30 Taste Pavilion at Fort Mason in San Francisco, you pay $65 for four hours. And that price of admission does not gain you entrance, once you’re inside, to the workshops, each of which cost another $20 to $40. The Slow Food Sacramento chapter is holding a fundraiser, “The Good Life Garden,” at UC Davis on September 27. Tickets cost $75. Their last big event on May 31, “Slow Down on the Delta” (tickets were also $75), was well-attended, to judge by the photos. The tickets for today’s event in Davis were also $75. Slow Food events have managed to attract people who are willing to pay the cost of a rather expensive restaurant meal for one person to sample good locally produced food.
For all the good work Slow Food USA carries out in schools, communities, and industry, it perpetuates the old hide-bound, class-subscribed forms of events, whose attendees are overwhelmingly white, that the charity balls used to perform and in some elevated circles of society still do. Few couples or families in this country and in this recession can afford $150 for a chance to nibble on artisanal cheese and heirloom tomatoes. Certainly not the significant proportion of people of color in this country who live below the poverty level. On paper and to judge by today’s festivities, these events are meant for rich people. I make a decent salary and I’m about as likely to spend $100 on a ticket to the Taste Pavilion as I am on a Oscar de la Renta gown for a $500-a-seat charity ball.
Of course, there is a places for fund-raising events like today’s. And I am in basic agreement with Michael Pollan that, in general, those of us who can afford to do so must be willing to pay more for food whose production has made a smaller dent in the environment than industrially produced food does. But if $75 is the standard cost of a widely-publicized event like Slow Food Nation ’08, then something is seriously wrong with the Slow Food movement in this country. Converts are already on board. How do we convince those who clearly are not welcome at events like Slow Food Nation ’08 because they can’t afford to get it that it’s in their interests to support the Slow Food movement? Events like today’s and the ones in San Francisco over the upcoming Labor Day weekend are about as realistic as Petrini’s vision of a rural America. They do nothing to contribute to the structural changes the Slow Food movement works for in other arenas. If anything, events like these undermine them.
Someone has to start thinking in a radically different way about how to make this movement work and reach far beyond the upscale middle-class of American cities. The current leaders of Slow Food don’t seem to be able to change gears as quickly and sharply as the situation demands. An event that emerges from the cooperation among various communities and constituencies, one that takes into account income-discrepancies, cultural difference, and the intersection of race, poverty and malnourishment, is perhaps as hard to realize as a strictly locavore diet. Maybe. Then again, I doubted I’d ever see a black man or a woman of any color get elected…
Having the vision is the easy part. Genius blossoms only in the realization of a vision. Who can do it?