Flash in the Pan 

The slow boat to Italy

Ciao, from Turin, Italy. I’m at the official Slow Food biennial meeting, which includes two events: Salone del Gusto (Taste Fair) and Terra Madre (Mother Earth).

Slow Food began as a protest against the building of a McDonald’s near the Spanish steps of Rome in the late 1980s. Today the official movement counts over 100,000 members from 132 countries.

Slow Food members look at food as more than caloric gas with which to fill a physiologic tank. They believe food should be savored and that the production, preparation and consumption of food are all sacred.

The Salone del Gusto is overwhelming. I wander the immense hall consuming a bewildering array of samples from around the world: an egg from a hen living on a goat milk-based diet, soft-boiled and served with white truffle shavings; sheep’s milk cheese aged in pig bladder; Peruvian tomatillo marmalade; Transylvanian pickle; 20-year-old mead; 25-year-old balsamic vinegar; wild strawberry jam with rose petals; sausage made from pig head with lemon and orange; smoked fat from 3-year-old free-range pigs (most pigs live about 8 months); garlic flowers marinated in artichoke oil; honey made from acacia, rhododendron, lime, dandelion, thyme and chestnut flowers; truffle salami; and proscuitto everywhere, all of which is so much better than what you can get back home. And at every turn—vino, vino, vino.

Thousands of people mill about, stuffing their faces and getting their collective buzz on. It’s a beautiful thing, which is why I was surprised to hear Slow Food’s founder, Carlo Petrini, tell me:

“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.’ No more cooking shows, please. No more stirring pots on television.”

This comment embodies a shift in Slow Food’s focus. While the movement started as a healthy response to fast food, it’s often criticized as an esoteric supper club for people with the means and the time to have long, drawn-out dinners together. While many Slow Foodies are aware of the environmental and social consequences of food production, these topics have generally served more as dinner conversation than rallying cry. But now there is a focused effort to make social, political and environmental activism part of the agenda.

While the Salone del Gusto maintains the traditional Slow Food values of good and clean food, the adjoining Terra Madre brings together 8,000 farmers, businesses, educators, students and activists for discussions and workshops on responsible, sustainable and fair food production practices. The passageways connecting the two events are lined with stands celebrating the street food of the world, with dishes like tripe sandwiches, deep-fried risotto balls stuffed with meat and cheese, shish kebab and fried calamari.

This year, there is also a new emphasis on textiles and music.

“Natural fibers are part of the farm economy, so they need to be here,” says Petrini. “Agriculture is not just an economic sector, like steel. It’s much more. It’s life. Rapport with the land. It’s social and sacred. This is about identity. That’s why we didn’t want professional musicians playing so-called ‘world music’ that’s stolen from farmers. We wanted real farmers playing real farm music.”

This widening shift in focus will serve the movement well. Personally, I’ve never felt the need to join Slow Food because I don’t need a club to help me be a food snob. I already obsess about where my food comes from. I already sit down for epic feasts with my friends.

But an organization that takes an active role in making good food a right and not a privilege, that seeks not only to comprehend the full consequences of our food choices, but also to do something about them on a large scale—that’s an organization that can gain my support.

Less than a week into his term as Slow Food USA’s new president, Josh Viertel addressed the 800 members of his organization who made the trip to Turin.

“The problems in our food system disproportionately hurt poor people and people of color,” he announced. “These are the people who are less able to access the benefits of Slow Food. I’m going to change this organization so that it’s not just about pleasure. We are going to become a social justice organization. I want to live in a world where the food is good for the people who eat it, the environment and the people who grow it.”

Viertel told me that, in addition to becoming more activist and less pleasure-centered, he’s determined to bring more young people into the movement. He thinks that the shift toward activism will do that by tapping into the natural idealism of youth.

“Young people are the ones who don’t want to inherit the world as it is, who have a stake in making it better. Youth are leading the sustainable food movement.”

Next week: In my second report from Turin, I share a spleen sandwich with Alice Waters, the chef, author and matriarch of American Slow Food long before it had that proper name. Plus: a conversation with 15-year-old Slow Food prodigy Sam Levin.

Ask Ari: Juicing it up

Q: Hi Ari,

I hear through the grapevine that you have a great way of making grape juice by canning whole grapes. We have a lot of Concords and I wanted to make juice without a juicer. Any tips?

—Grappling with Grapes

A: Here in Italy people would think you’re crazy for not turning those grapes into wine. Unfortunately, it takes a long time to make wine at home—and it will probably be disgusting. Grape juice, on the other hand, is delicious. So I’m with you, GG.

For the method you’re referring to, fill a quart jar a third to a half way with grapes. Pour in boiling water—slowly, so the jar doesn’t crack—until the jar is full. Then water bath for an hour (or pressure can for it for 15 minutes).

Then, put the jars on the shelf and wait for a few months, until the grapes in your jar collapse and the water turns purple. There’s your juice.

After you drink the juice, you can refill the jar with cold water, cap it, shake vigorously and put it in the fridge. After a few hours, the jar will again be full of grape juice, albeit in weaker form.

This year I had too many grapes to do it that way—it would have taken too many jars. Instead, I borrowed a friend’s steam juicer, which uses steam to extract the juice. Then we cooked the juice down into a concentrate, allowing us to store more juice in less space.

Speaking of purple things, Montana is a so-called purple state, which means on Election Day it could go either red (Republican) or blue (Democratic).

Flash in the Pan is endorsing Sen. Barack Obama. He’s got the juice we need to lead our country. With Obama as president, we’d all have a lot less to wine about.

Send your food and garden queries to flash@flashinthepan.net.
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