For Evan Kleiman, it all began more than 30 years ago - long before there was a real movement. As a teenager traveling in Italy, she fell in love with all things Italian - the culture, traditions, land, and food. Especially the food. The gentle rhythm of preparing and eating it. The slowness of it all.
It wasn't until 1998, however, as the successful chef of Angeli Caffe, her own Italian restaurant in Los Angeles, that Ms. Kleiman learned of the Slow Food movement - an international group of some 60,000 members in 35 countries.
Dedicated to slowing down the culinary pace of a fast-food-frenzied world and protecting the treasures of regional foods increasingly threatened by the homogenizing impact of agribusiness, Slow Food was started - where else? - in Italy, in the mid-1980s as a response to - what else? - the opening of the first McDonald's restaurant at the foot of Rome's famous Spanish Steps.
"It completely inspired me," says Kleiman, who went to one of Slow Food's main events - the Salone di Gusto, a food fair held in Italy every two years, that features produce and products of small, artisan-type food producers from around the world.
"There was a political message that's sort of inherent in Slow Food that was completely appealing to me," she says. "It's about how we perceive our culture, the idea that if we want to protect our culture and our humanity, then we will protect our food."
Kleiman was won over immediately by Slow Food and happily agreed to start a Los Angeles "convivium," a local chapter of the organization, which was just starting to spread to the United States.
Today, Slow Food has a national office in New York, with some 4,000 members participating in 50 convivia across the country. In Los Angeles, Kleiman has shepherded some 150 members through a what's-what list of food experiences: everything from learning how to pick and cure olives, to a wine-and cheese-tasting tour, to an extravagant dinner that paired prominent chefs with the farmers whose produce they buy, to a pit-roasted wild-boar dinner held earlier this month on the grounds of an organic farm just outside Sequoia National Park, some 200 miles north of Los Angeles.
In every case, the point is to put people in touch with food and the farmers who produce it - both to help build connections between consumers and regional producers and also to teach something of the traditions and culture that surround the foods.
"I see it as a kind of food activism," says Jordan Vannini, a member of the Los Angeles convivium who helped organize the wild boar dinner at Flora Bella Farm. "I'm excited about the idea that there's a counterforce out there to a society that has become dependent and interdependent on mass food production."
At the Flora Bella dinner, some 70 participants paid $85 each for a menu that included boar, Umbrian griddle bread, a traditional Italian pasta with boar ragout, a variety of vegetables grown on the farm - including a special sprouting broccoli, russet potatoes, and black kale - and homemade cannoli. Guests stayed overnight at nearby motels and returned for breakfast and a tour of Flora Bella, a certified organic farm.
"I like the idea that they have an interest in small farmers and good food, and that they're into preserving old varieties of produce," says James Birch, who farms about 50 acres and sells much of his produce at farmers' markets in Los Angeles, as well as to wholesalers and restaurants. "It's a wonderful thing the slow-food movement is doing."
Founded by an Italian named Carlo Petrini, Slow Food has grown increasingly activist in the 15 years since it started. The group's $60 membership fee includes a subscription to Slow, a lush quarterly magazine that is something of a National Geographic of food history and culture.
In addition to the Salone di Gusto, which began in 1996 as a way to showcase the wares of traditional food artisans, Slow Food has started the honorary Ark of Taste as a way to bring attention to foods that are in danger of extinction, such as the Sun Crest Peach or the red abalone - and to try to help build a market for them. At last year's Salone di Gusto, it also introduced special Slow Food awards - given to individuals making remarkable contributions to preserving traditional methods of food production.
Last year's winners - chosen by a jury of 400 Slow Food participants - included a woman in Mauritania whose work in camel breeding and camel milk has helped local nomads maintain their way of life, a Turkish man who has helped preserve traditional methods of honeymaking in his homeland, and a Mexican man who has helped maintain the traditional vanilla crop in the remote Chinantla forest region.
The goal, says Patrick Martins, head of Slow Food's national office, is to create "a little mini-economy," through which Slow Food members help support small local producers by buying their products directly.
Although no one is claiming that Slow Food's efforts will turn back the global tide of agribusiness, many small farmers say they've felt the group's impact. David Mas Masumoto, a third-generation Japanese-American farmer who grows the exceptionally juicy but rare Sun Crest Peach, says that once his fruit was listed in the Ark of Taste, he started selling more of it.
Prior to that listing, he says, he'd been pulling out peach trees each year and planting more profitable grape vines, and was down to a crop of about 3,000 23-pound boxes each year. Now, that trend is reversed: He's started planting more peach trees and sells 4,000 boxes a year, which, he says, is about all that he can handle.
"It wasn't like making the evening news," says Mr. Masumoto, of being listed in the Ark. "But I sensed there were key communities of people around the country who pay attention to these kinds of things. We started selling more and more peaches. I know there's a direct correlation. For me, it's important. The Ark helps me tell the story of these peaches. It's the best promotional tool ... I could do. I just love what the Slow Food movement is doing." says Masumoto, who wrote a book called "Epitaph for a Peach."
According to sociologist Jill Stein, who teaches at the University of California, Los Angeles, the Slow Food ethic dovetails neatly with a variety of social forces in today's culture - everything from environmentalism to the increasing attention individuals are paying to health and quality of life. In addition, she says, Slow Food's message is particularly appealing to individuals who are searching for a way out of the "McDonaldization" of everyday life.
"We all experience this world where everything is bur- eaucratized and mechanized," she says. "We all want to feel a sense of individuality, we don't want to be just this nameless, faceless anonymous part of a mass. [Slow Food] is a way of exercising choice and freedom, and expressing our preferences, making an identity that's separate from what's imposed on us by the corporate commercial bureaucratic enterprises that are out there."
Kleiman agrees. She says that the Los Angeles convivium members - who range in age from mid-20s to mid-80s - are eager for hands-on experiences with food and learning about the links between specific foods and culture. "One of the few ways you have of controlling your life is how you deal with feeding yourself," she says. "In this culture, you can choose to eat processed food, you can choose to have takeout food every night for dinner, and as a restaurateur, I'm happy a lot of people choose to do that. But you can also choose to learn how to cook, and you can choose to go to farmers' markets to buy your food. I think that's what appeals to people."
Even if you're not a cooking fanatic, or one of those fortunate people who lives in a town where farmers' markets flourish - or if you're a working mother who's just too pressed to put a home-cooked meal on the table every night - Slow Food devotees say there are still all kinds of ways to partake in the movement's philosophy.
"It's not like it needs to be a 12-course dinner," says Mr. Martins. "It could be as simple as having an unusual variety of apple in the morning, as opposed to eating a generic Red Delicious. Slow Food is about respecting the rhythms of the table, about slowing down, about taking the time to sit down and taste the food."
For more information on Slow Food, call the national office at 877-756-9366, or visit the group's website, www.slowfood.com.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society