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MARCH 2013: Its mantra is "good, clean, fair food for all," but its vision goes further, encompassing the way we live.

Slow Food, the Movement
Stop and smell the roses... er, cheese

If you follow food, you may have heard of the grassroots organization Slow Food, which was founded by the Italian Carlo Petrini nearly a quarter century ago. You may even feel a vague kinship with it. But how much do you know about it, really?

I bet not much. Both the organization and the worldwide movement it spawned are anti everything quick and easily digestible—including sound bites about Slow Food itself.

So, don't try to guess from the name. Otherwise, you might think Slow Food is about spending long hours in the kitchen, which would be wrong (or at least miss the point). And forget about divining the meaning from the logo. The snail is darling but hardly enlightening.

Instead, get comfortable, mute your phone and give yourself permission to spend time reading up on it. Now, recognize how unusual the moment is. Don't be mindful of it in a Buddhist sort of way. Savor it, Italian style.

Ecco! You've gotten your first taste of the unhurried and appreciative approach to life that characterizes all things "Slow."

But Slow Food doesn't just promote stopping to smell the roses. It also advocates preserving the different varieties of rose—and the different traditions for cultivating and enjoying them around the world. Except instead of roses, think edible things.

Slow Food says bah to the standardization of food and hurrah to regional diversity. It seeks to identify and protect indigenous food species and foods in danger of disappearing and it supports the small-scale producers and purveyors that keep them alive. Also on its yea/yay list are animal welfare, sustainable fishing and healthy meals in workplace and school cafeterias. On its nay list? Agribusiness, GMOs, food waste, climate change and—as goes without saying—fast food.

The agenda is clearly environmental. However, its impetus comes not from a love of wilderness or nature, but from a passion for the culture of places as embodied in their food. Call it the flavor of place for short.

Or better yet, call it la dolce vita. For ultimately, Slow Food is about preserving the sweet life—that priceless thing so vulnerable to the global economy precisely because it can't be quantified. It's also about food, flat out—real, whole, well-prepared, good-tasting food—and the "sensual gourmandise pleasures" that come from leisurely eating it, as the Slow Food Manifesto recommends.

I'm all for it.

Though America has nothing that quite compares to the regional cuisines of Italy, we do have many authentic regional foods and food species. They once dominated local tables in their communities, but have virtually (or totally) disappeared in recent decades, displaced by the standardized products of industrial farms and food processors.

Take Manoomin, one of the American species that Slow Food USA is attempting to help save from human threats ranging from genetic modification to dams and mining. Indigenous to the Great Lakes region, Manoomin is a true wild rice that grows in the shallows of the region's many small lakes and rivers, unlike the misleadingly named wild rice most of us know, which is cultivated in rice paddies.

Manoomin is a traditional food of the Anishnaabeg (the name Ojibwe people use for themselves), who have hand-harvested it for centuries and continue to do so today on the White Earth Indian Reservation. This nutritious grain (low in calories and high in minerals) is prized by the Anishnaabeg for its earthy flavor, said to carry notes of mushrooms and wood smoke. But its importance to them goes beyond such virtues. In their oral history, Manoomin figures as a special gift from the Creator. It is not just their heritage, but their spiritual inheritance.

Saving Manoomin—and other heirloom food varieties that sustained their people in the past—is not just about preserving "the sweet life" but the Anishnaabe way of life. It is a matter of food sovereignty, the right of peoples and communities—rather than the marketplace—to make the decisions about their own food systems and the foods they get to eat.

In the fight to save Manoomin, the Anishnaabeg are the leaders, but Slow Food USA provides backing through its Presidia program, which organizes and funds local projects that defend agricultural biodiversity and gastronomic traditions. Other endangered American foods supported by Slow Food Presidia are the Cape May Salt Oyster (Delaware Bay/New Jersey), Makah Ozette Potato (Northwest Washington), Navajo-Churro Sheep (Navajo Nation lands in Arizona and New Mexico) and the Sebastopol Gravenstein Apple (Sonoma County, California). There is also a presidium organized along non-regional lines that supports artisanal raw milk cheese production across the United States.

Not every distinctive American food that is threatened has a Presidium defending it, but Slow Food USA does try to identify and raise awareness of each as part of its Ark of Taste. Among the more than 200 foods in the Ark are Handmade Filé (a powder made from the Sassafras Tree, used in Creole and Cajun cooking), the Nevada Single Leaf Pinyon (a nut harvested from the Nevada State Tree), the Bourbon Red Turkey (originally bred in Bourbon County, Kentucky) and American Rye Whiskey. You can find local sources for many of the foods on the Ark of Taste on Slow Food's Local Harvest page.

Some people charge Slow Food with being an elitist organization just for foodies. Well, maybe some individual chapters are. A global, grassroots movement with 100,000 members can't be the same everywhere. But I think the organization is pursuing serious, worthwhile goals and raising problems with modern life that resonate with people the world over.

Here's how to get involved in the U.S.:
For information on Slow Food elsewhere, visit the international Slow Food website.

And don't forget to slow down, smell the roses and eat well.

—Sheryl Eisenberg


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On This Topic


Have a regional recipe made with local ingredients? Share it on This Green Blog!


Slow Food snail sign
A SNAIL WAS CHOSEN as the symbol of Slow Food for two reasons. One is that the snail "moves slowly and calmly eats its way through life"; the other, that it's a specialty of the northern Italian city of Bra, where the movement was born.

The snail above was spotted and photographed outside a restaurant in Santorini, Greece.



Spanish Steps
THE IDEA FOR SLOW FOOD grew out of a protest in 1986 against the opening of the second McDonald's in Italy at the Spanish Steps in Rome, a place awash in the life and history of the city. You may remember it from that fairy tale of a movie, Roman Holiday.





MANOOMIN: THE SACRED FOOD is a short documentary that tells the creation and migration stories of the Anishnaabeg relating to the wild rice they are fighting to preserve. A winner of the 2006 Berlinale/Terra Madre Short Film Competition sponsored by the Berlin Film Festival & Slow Food, it also shows the traditional technique still used by the Anishnaabeg to harvest the grain.



Ark of Taste Foods
FOODS IN THE U.S. ARK OF TASTE include (top to bottom) Pawpaw, Bourbon Red Turkey and Alaea.



Resources


Slow Food
Global Organization
U.S. Branch
Foundation for Biodiversity

Local Harvest
Sources for Ark of Taste Foods

NRDC
Good Food Essentials
Frugal Feasts

Grace Communications Foundation
Eat Well Guide

Midwest Living
Ojibwe Wild Rice Gathering

Anishnaabe Seed Project
Seed Sovereignty



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Sheryl Eisenberg is a writer, web developer and long-time advisor to NRDC. With her firm, Mixit Productions (mixitproductions.com), she brought NRDC online in 1996, designed NRDC's first websites, and continues to develop special web features for NRDC. She created and, for several years, wrote the Union of Concerned Scientists' green living column, Greentips, and has designed and contributed content to many nonprofit sites. Sheryl makes her home in Tribeca (NYC), where—along with her children, Sophie and Gabe, and husband, Peter—she tries to put her environmental principles into practice. No fooling.