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Illustration by Alfonso Kellenberger

Slow Down and Eat

Fast food, move over. A growing number of devotees switch to the movement known as Slow Food, saving heirloom varieties of vegetables and rare species by devouring them, one appreciative bite at a time.

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What does cookery mean? It means the knowledge of Medea and of Circe, and of Calypso, and Sheba. It means knowledge of all herbs, and fruits, and balms and spices. It means the economy of your great-grandmother and the science of modern chemistry, and French art, and Arabian hospitality. It means, in fine, that you are to see imperatively that everyone has something nice to eat.
John Ruskin (1819-1900)

The destiny of nations depends on the manner in which they feed themselves.
Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, 'The Physiology of Taste' (1825)


JESSE ZIFF COOL'S European-style organic bistro, the Flea Street Café, sits on Alameda de las Pulgas where the opulent townships of Menlo Park, Atherton and Woodside fade into each other like the shoreline and the sea. On a languid Sunday evening, 56 gastronomes of all shapes and sizes arrive, slowly, as Edith Piaf music emanates from the background stereo. Eclectic as it gets, Flea Street consists of a homey series of sleek but serene dining rooms. Unusual plants and trinkets abound. It feels like Italy or France.

Armed with local wines, a good portion of the diners belong to Slow Food Silicon Valley, a local chapter of Slow Food International, which boasts more than 72,000 members worldwide in 48 different countries. Tonight, the Silicon Valley chapter is celebrating its fifth anniversary with a $65-per-head feast, an event that embraces food as both art and science--where the gathering, preparation, serving and eating of food evince copious care and mindfulness and absolutely luxurious gobs of time.

By advocating the preservation of indigenous cuisines and protecting our rights to pleasure and taste, Slow Food International hopes to establish an alternative to the global acceleration of food preparation and service and the ever-growing homogenization spread by the fast food industry.

When I arrive, three appetizers are already making the rounds: Niman Ranch speck (smoked pork) with tomato pear chutney, white prawns with ginger toasts, and white beans cooked with pork guanciale, an Italian term referring to the cheek and jowl of the hog, both cured for months in a mixture of chile pepper, sugar, salt and spices.

A representative of Page Mill Winery in Los Altos Hills, whose motto is "Peace through wine, one glass at a time," stands patiently behind a table at the front of the restaurant, passing out glasses of a crisp 2000 Santa Cruz Mountain chardonnay. After one full hour of appetizing and socializing, I sit down with David Eastis, founder and current head of the Slow Food Silicon Valley "convivium," along with head-table members Gary and Jean Rummelhoff and David Forer.

A waitress lovingly sets down a basket of steaming fresh bread; its aroma drenches the entire table in fragrant ecstasy. Forer opens a bottle of wine from an Atherton-based winery--literally from right down the street. Topics of conversation include favorite South Bay Indian restaurants, Santa Cruz Mountain winery tours and how Silicon Valley is starting, in its dotcom hangover days, to slow down.

Twenty minutes later, the antipasto plates arrive, served family style: Niman Ranch pancetta, Midnight Moon and Humboldt Fog goat cheeses, deep-fried lemons and chipotle aioli, smoked beef and grilled artichokes, squash and slices of watermelon radish--bizarre magenta-colored slivers that taste awesome raw.

"This is spectacular," Eastis enthuses while slowly devouring a piece of Humboldt Fog goat cheese on his plate.

Niman Ranch, which famously claims to produce the finest-tasting meat in the world by following strict codes of animal husbandry and food production, is sponsoring the leisurely feast, so owner Bill Niman himself is present. So is John McChesney from NPR Radio, electronic-music composer Robert Rich and Massimo Caporale, president of Gelato Paradiso in Santa Cruz. The atmosphere is familylike.

Eastis welcomes the attendees before introducing Jesse Cool and then Bill Niman. "The only thing I apologize for is not putting beef in the dessert," Niman quips.

After eavesdropping on a conversation about caraway seeds, I dive into the main course of Niman Ranch pork osso bucco in red wine juniper berry au jus. The meat is so tender that it falls off the bone at the slightest little tease of the fork.

"There's no way you can leave any meat on your plate when you're done with this," pronounces Gary Rummelhoff.

"To eat this dish quickly would be absolutely ridiculous," I add. "It must be done slowly."

Owner Jesse Cool, author of five cookbooks herself, visits our table quite a few times throughout the course of the entire event, which is beginning to feel like a Fellini movie, in its incipient decadence. "How is everything?" She asks. The entire table falls into a gushing chorus in praise of the aromas and tastes.

After a palate-watering salad made with Heirloom Farms bitter salad greens, olive oil balsamic vinaigrette, Sonoma Vella Asiago cheese, turnips and spiced walnuts, comes the dessert, sponsored by Massimo Caporale himself: Coconut and vanilla gelato with organic strawberries and polenta cookies.

With my shoulders shrugged and my hands in the air, palms facing upward, I utter a statement disguised as a question: "And people think there's more to life than this?" Eastis slams me a high-five across the table, nearly knocking over the liter of Bénédictine I brought to the feast with me.

At a Snail's Pace

"We are enslaved by speed and have all succumbed to the same insidious virus: Fast Life, which disrupts our habits, pervades the privacy of our homes and forces us to eat Fast Foods," declares the Slow Food Manifesto. "May suitable doses of guaranteed sensual pleasure and slow, long-lasting enjoyment preserve us from the contagion of the multitude who mistake frenzy for efficiency. ... Let us rediscover the flavors and savors of regional cooking and banish the degrading effects of Fast Food."

Carlo Petrini, a journalist and pioneer of independent radio in Italy, founded the Slow Food movement as a response to the opening of a McDonald's in Rome's historic Piazza di Spagna in 1986. He realized that the proliferation of fast food chains and the industrialization of food was standardizing taste and leading to the annihilation of thousands of indigenous food varieties and flavors.

Concerned that the world was quickly reaching a point of no return, Petrini wanted to reach out to consumers and demonstrate to them that they have choices over fast food and supermarket homogenization. After rallying his friends and speaking out at every available opportunity, he officially launched the movement. Three years later, in Paris, the constitution for the International Slow Food Movement was signed by more than 20 visiting delegations from around the world.

Local chapters, or "convivia," of Slow Food International have since popped up around the globe, all heralding a new, leisurely era of guaranteed sensual pleasure and the preservation of regional wines and foods. The movement's symbol is, of course, the snail, and its projects include the Ark of Taste, a metaphor for cataloging endangered foods and livestock.

"Onto this symbolic ship," declares its website, "Slow Food intends to load gastronomic products threatened by industrial standardization, hyperhygienist legislation, the rules of the large-scale retail trade and the deterioration of the environment."

A form of self-pampering activism, Slow Food's message couldn't be simpler: combat the explosion of bland, mass-produced unhealthy food by savoring authentic, locally grown fare you can actually taste, while preserving the culinary, viticultural and artisanal traditions of your locality in the process.

"We foodies are the Greenpeace of gastronomy," Eastis declares.

After all, cry Silicon Valley Slow Food members, why wolf down plastic-tasting slices of "imitation pasteurized process cheese food" when you can savor handmade organic goat cheese from the Santa Cruz Mountains or a fine Sonoma Asiago and support local artisans at the same time?

Michael Pollan, author of the bestselling Botany of Desire, wrote in Mother Jones recently that by preserving endangered local products and cultures by finding a global market for them, Slow Food has the potential for making a real difference: "[The movement is ] demonstrating how global trade and mass communication can be turned into powerful tools for rescuing cultural and biological diversity--from precisely those perils of global trade and mass communication. Think of it as a form of economic jujitsu."

Alice Waters, founder of the renowned Chez Panisse in Berkeley and member of the Slow Food International board of governors, started the Berkeley Slow Food convivium. "It's about beauty," she told the Commonwealth Club in May of 2001. "This is about a kind of joie de vivre. And I appreciate that spirit being infused into the whole understanding of eating. It's about pleasure. ... How can you marvel at the world and then feed yourself in a completely unmarvelous way? I think it's because we don't learn the vital relationship of food to agriculture and of food to culture and how food affects the quality of our everyday lives. To me, food is the one central thing about human experience that can open up both our senses and our consciousness to our place in the world."

Waters has been a spokesperson for Slow Food since its inception, and Eastis launched the Silicon Valley convivium five years ago.

"I first learned of Slow Food while on a trip to Italy in 1996," he recalls. "The owner of the Sassicaia Winery in Bolgheri invited us out for lunch, and we thought we might be with him for an hour or so. But over this incredible three-hour lunch, about midway through, he pulled out a membership card with a big snail logo on it and proceeded to tell us about Slow Food. And at that time, the movement was virtually unknown in the United States. My entire family became Slow Food devotees after learning about the benefits to support farmers markets and local vintners and to preserve regional heirlooms in danger of becoming extinct, not to mention the fun we have enjoying each other's company at the table, slowly."

Recent Slow Food Silicon Valley events include dinners at Emile's and Eulipia in downtown San Jose and at Aldo's in Los Gatos, places where the chefs prepare the meals themselves, and the owners--Emile Mooser, Steve Borkenhagen and Aldo Maresca, respectively--are great supporters of the movement.

This is not to say, however, that the convivium's events are limited to expensive dinners. Other events include wine and chocolate tastings, pasta-making sessions, cheap picnics and potluck gatherings. One particular outing on the Stanford Campus featured Sicilian cheeses made by Giuseppe Licitra, Ph.D., with slides of the cheese-making process and tastings of 12-month old Ragusano, Piacentino, Pecorino, Siciliano and Maiorchino, served with Sicilian wines. Another featured an exploration of Harley Farms goat cheese and outdoor oven-roasted peaches from Frog Hollow Farms.

Mighty High Dining

Critics of Slow Food posit that its followers are elitist snobs with way too much money and time on their hands, basking in their own decadence, and that normal people who can't afford long expensive dinners get left out in the cold. Indeed, members are used to being accused of living on another planet, of being dreamers and of shaping an imaginary shell for themselves--a shell they can withdraw into at their own leisure in order to fantasize about some utopian world where everyone has the time and money to engage in three-hour dinners that happen to support biodiversity, small farmers and vanity vineyards.

But Patrick Martins, who runs Slow Food USA's national office in New York City, vehemently rejects this criticism. "Just because [the movement] is being embraced by wealthier people doesn't make it wrong," he spells out over the phone from the Big Apple, with manifestolike dynamism. "This is all just the first step. All of this work--to get more organic foods out there, more heritage breeds out there or more artisanal products out there--the goal of all that is for it to become less expensive, of course, for it to become more readily available and therefore cost less. For instance, we recently saved four breeds of turkeys from the brink of extinction. We got farmers to raise them. We created a market for them, and now they've been taken off the critical list of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. And now they're less expensive. And that makes total sense."

So, if you're stuck on that industrialized broad-breasted white turkey meat, think again. Maybe an American Bronze, a Bourbon Red or a Narragansett might actually taste better.

Continuing slowly, Martins adds, "What slow food is about is taking the first step in a long journey to save our food heritage. At the beginning, it costs more, but in time it costs less. To say we're elitist is a shortsighted criticism in the end, because what we're trying to do is create real change in the way we eat as Americans. And that's a long, arduous process."

After all, poor farmers are actually the ones producing the majority of the fare that Slow Food promotes. Martins explains, "What we're trying to save are the small family farms of these struggling farmers who are making these niche products for the rich but staying really poor. In a way, you can view Slow Food as its own form of support for the disenfranchised people that are on the outskirts."

So, at one extreme, poor producers are giving niche products to the rich and remaining poor in the process, and at the other extreme, big conglomerates are producing homogenized, mediocre food for the poor and getting rich off of it.

"We're trying to bridge that gap," Martins tells me.

Eastis likewise shrugs off the criticism, ever so humbly: "In our convivium, anyone is welcome to come to the events. Some convivia limit memberships to a small amount in order to keep it intimate, but our feeling is that everyone is welcome. That along with the fact that we have a diversity of events: some things are potluck, some are picnics, and there are cooking classes where you bring your own flour and your own wine, events which aren't entirely free but [are] very reasonable to attend. We've got single people, married people, young, old. And at the picnics, people can bring their kids. I don't think it's the typical gourmet, wine-snob type of group at all."

Ron Pardini, executive director of Urban Village Farmers' Market Association in Fremont, agrees. "Protecting and preserving food traditions is about as down to the roots as you can get," he says. "It's more of a ritual now for people to go to farmers markets and do their shopping at them, and we encourage people to eat fresh and eat seasonally. It's far away from being elitist. I mean, there are upscale markets that sell rather trendy items, maybe, but I don't even know about that, really. There's nothing trendy or elitist about homegrown and home-cooked food and entrepreneurs making it fresh."

Amen.

The Slow Valley

Since the fast-paced dotcom hysteria of Silicon Valley is deader than a lamb at the slaughter, local Slow Foodies suggest that now is the perfect time to implement a strategy of slowness. Opines Jesse Cool: "I believe that now that we're slowing down and paying a bit more attention, it's getting people back to some pretty basic values about eating, drinking and taking the time to talk to each other and enjoy the quality of life."

"With all the speed, you don't end up arriving any faster," explains Martins. "Part of the dotcom thing is that it wasn't sustainable. It went too much, too fast, and it didn't have any slowness or long-term vision to it. And it could have used a little dose of the slow life, obviously."

Eastis adds: "Although there is less traffic in this valley than there used to be, there is a rise in unemployment here, and in some ways people are having to work harder. People are having to spend more time at work making a profit, and so, in many regards, they have less time, so fast food might be more conducive for them. But I think that's exactly why slow food is still extremely appealing when people are first introduced to it."

"We're not a religion," Martins says. "We're not saying you've got to be eating five-hour meals of organic food every day. But if people start doing it once a month, that's fine. What we're really trying to tackle right now is Thanksgiving. We want Thanksgiving Day. We'd really like that day to be known as a Slow Food Day."

Pardini says he's actually benefiting from the economic downturn: "Certainly our farmers markets are not hurting. I think that in these challenging economic times more and more people are buying fresh and cooking at home a lot more. Even the restaurateurs will tell you that."

Mindful of the Moment

At Flea Street Café, several folks over the years have suggested that Jesse remodel the place, an act she equates with speeding up, which is blasphemy, so she refuses to do so.

"The people who love the restaurant think, 'Oh God, no,' [don't remodel], because it's still real," she said. "It's still warm. It's European. We're not fast all the time. Everything isn't perfect and contrived. It's human. It has a human touch. People who come in here seem to feel like they are so glad to be in a softer, more nurturing, genuine place, where you can tell somebody's cooking the food with love and care. I don't think people paid attention to that as much before. This atmosphere brings out [the Slow Food lifestyle] in people."

Slow Food International's website breaks it all down to redefining the relationship between work and rest, that is, devoting at least as much time to leisure as to professional activities. Acknowledging the fantastic aspect of it all, they consider the grog-swilling monks of Thélème Abbey in François Rabelais' debaucherous Renaissance classic, Gargantua and Pantagruel--monks who ate, drank, worked and slept whenever they felt like it--to be true role models: "Slow Food is the ground on which not one but hundreds of Thélème Abbeys may rise, a terrain whose one essential lifeblood is the freedom that nurtures all its members. Nothing is more relaxing and pleasant than fantasizing about a better world, clearly outlining its customs and enjoying a feeling of togetherness, whether drinking or playing, relaxing or reading."

"It's all about conviviality," concludes Eastis. "Typically, at our events, we have people greeting people, and from the first moment you walk in, you just feel like you can leave everything fast-paced at the door and just enjoy yourself."

As the movement's founder, Carlo Petrini, himself said, "We all end up in the same place anyway, so we might as well go there slowly."

The next Slow Food Silicon Valley event takes place Saturday, June 28, at the Cool Café in the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Center for the Visual Arts at Stanford University. It will be an exploration of Santa Cruz Mountain wines and local cheeses. A $60 annual membership in Slow Food ($75 for couples) includes a membership card and a yearly subscription to the group's quarterly journal, Slow, International Herald of Taste and Culture, published in five languages.

Members in the United States also receive a subscription to the Snail. Sociological, journalistic, scientific and historical viewpoints of the Slow Food philosophy are presented in both publications. So if you don't have the time or money to attend their events, you can at least become a member and read eclectic articles about Japanese table arranging, goats in Chianti, Vietnamese poultry or how cheese gets its flavor.


For more info on Slow Food Silicon Valley, go to: www.slowfoodsv.com or write Slow Food Silicon Valley Convivium, P.O. Box 32730, San Jose 95152-2730.


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From the May 1-7, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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