Is slow food slowly changing?

Farmers and food artisans discuss the future of the slow food movement at the biennial Terra Madre.

Giuseppe Cacace/AFP Photo/Newscom
Contrasts: Hams and Peruvian sweet potato products, right, were exhibited at Terra Madre.
Lisa Abend

Somewhere between the exquisite vial of 25-year-old balsamic vinegar, fermented in cherry wood, that Modena's Acetaia del Cristo sells for roughly $150 and the few dusty potatoes that Ann Petroni hawks on a blanket she brought with her from Burundi, lies the future of Slow Food, founded in 1989 to counteract the pernicious effects of fast food.

Along with vinegar and potatoes, the accomplishments and contradictions of the organization were also on display last month at Terra Madre, a biennial gathering that brings hundreds of small farmers and food artisans from around the globe to Turin, Italy, to exchange advice, share experiences, and display products they've lovingly grown or made. The convention is the main event on the Slow Food calendar.

While it is certainly a glorious celebration of sustainable agriculture and eating, Terra Madre also embodies many of the tensions inherent in Slow Food itself. As the looming global recession gave added punch to customary complaints of elitism, attendees alternated between promoting a progressive political agenda and gorging on fine-cured meats and pastries.

"I can't stand gourmets anymore," said Carlo Petrini at a press conference midway through the five-day extravaganza. "People who sniff a cheese and talk about how it has the most wonderful aroma of horse sweat. Think how incredibly boring we would be if we were still just a gastronomic society." Those are provocative words from the founder of the international Slow Food movement, which started as a small club of Italians determined to protect their cuisine from the encroachments of McDonald's.

But at Terra Madre, it was clear that Slow Food is no longer primarily about taste. Experts lectured about the dangers of genetically modified crops and spoke on the need to devise policies that entice young people to become farmers. The organization issued a manifesto on climate change and agriculture. After activist Vandana Shiva spoke of how organic farming could mitigate global warming, autograph-seeking fans crowded around her as if she were a rock star.

Newly elected Slow Food USA president Josh Viertel told a meeting of the US delegation – which, with 800 members, was the largest to attend Terra Madre – that the organization had to do a better job of addressing issues of social justice. "That's been a weakness for us," he admitted. "The problems in our food system disproportionately hurt poor people, and the solutions that the sustainable agriculture community has come up with are not accessible to everyone. We can't just say that people should pay more for food that is good, clean, and fair."

Along with the high-minded discourse, there were other sources of inspiration. From the lunch tables at which delegates from Bolivia in bowlers and embroidered vests sat down to eat pasta salad with women in saris to the enthusiastic youth workshops where college students exchanged ideas for a Teach for America-style program that would encourage young farmers, many attendees took hope from the gathering. Titu Buitu Kimolo from Tanzania couldn't contain his enthusiasm. "It's my first time at Terra Madre, but I've learned so much," the 23-year-old farmer said. "From talking with people here, I got the idea to go home and start a project planting fruit trees at the local school."

But others worried that the Terra Madre did little to alleviate the by now familiar charge that Slow Food is for elites. Posting on The Ethicurean blog a few days after she returned from Turin, Debra Eschmeyer wrote, "In my current state of mind of trying to figure out how young people are supposed to make a living farming, I left very bitter with a fire in my belly. None of my farming friends could afford that trip and when they asked me if it was worth it, I had to say no."

The physical layout of the convention played up discrepancies. In the hangarlike building where Terra Madre was held, Malawi farmers and Thai craftspeople, most in traditional dress, sold goods on the floor. That was a far cry from the massive Salone de Gusto, where French cheesemakers and Italian bakers sold exquisite artisanal goods from attractive booths. For the first time, the two buildings were physically connected by a corridor lined with kebab stands and gelato carts, but that connection didn't quite bridge the gap in tone and cost between the two venues. "No, I haven't been over there," said Ms. Petroni, the Burundian potato seller, in reference to the Salone. "I couldn't afford to buy anything anyway."

The Salone also raised the question of whether Slow Food was getting too big. Organizers announced an initiative to begin branding Slow Food-approved products with a logo. And some of the convention's sponsors – such as the coffee company Lavazza, which maintained a sleek booth where black-clad baristas turned out perfect espressos – could hardly be considered small producers. "It's good that the movement is growing," said Brian Bouchon, who was serving slices from Irish raw-milk cheeses. "But you worry that it will become too successful. This edition [of Terra Madre] is already a lot more commercial than the last one. It's lost some of its intimacy."

It's a fine line to draw, of course, between too commercial and doing what's necessary to keep small producers in business. One of Slow Food's most successful ventures has been to create what it calls presidia – loose organizations designed to protect and promote individual products that would otherwise be in danger of extinction. At Terra Madre, it was easy to find producers grateful for the aid that the presidia has offered. At a booth displaying cookies and breads made from the Galician black corn called millo corvo, Victoria Martínez explained the benefits: "This corn was nearly extinct, and with it part of our region's biodiversity, part of our way of life," she said. "We haven't seen economic benefits from the presidium yet, but we've gotten a lot of publicity from it."

For Juan Jara Ruíz of Cajamarca, Peru, the benefits of Slow Food were even more obvious. "This used to just grow wild," he said, peeling the papery leaves from a small fruit to reveal an orange orb that he uses to make jams. "We started planting it and within one year, Slow Food started helping up commercialize the fruit. Now I make enough to learn a living just from growing them."

Two women from Cape Verde interrupted Mr. Jara to ask the fruit's name. When he told them "tomatillo," they giggled. "In our country, its called 'capucho.' We make jam from it, too."

And that, despite its flaws, may be Terra Madre's greatest accomplishment – the space it creates for farmers from around the world to come together and exchange ideas. It certainly was the greatest benefit for Petroni, from Burundi. Although she was pleased to have sold several bags of potatoes, she was most excited by what she learned from a Romanian she met at lunch one day. "He told me that if we could start growing bananas, they would buy them from us and export them. I'm going to go home and do that!"

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