Tooth and snail

A man serves minestrone soup from a shopping cart at the Slow Food biennial in Turin, Italy.

A man serves minestrone soup from a shopping cart at the Slow Food biennial in Turin, Italy.

Photo By Ari LeVaux

At the recent Slow Food biennial convention in Turin, Italy, I joined food lovers from around the world as they perused a vast indoor market stocked with some of the tastiest morsels to be coaxed from the land anywhere. Samples were flowing in the great hall, dubbed the Salone del Gusto (Salon of Taste). Rows of stalls filled the 324,000-square-foot exhibition space, offering delicacies like prosciutto from acorn-fed pigs, bread baked on maple leaves, blue-tinged Persian salt, brewed beans gathered from the wild coffee forests of Ethiopia, Sicilian spleen sandwiches, and countless other gastronomic treasures.

A foodie encounter of a different sort was taking place in the building next door. There, 6,400 farmers, fishermen, cooks, food activists, teachers and students from 161 countries were engaged in three days of intense dialog. This was the other half of the Slow Food convention, called Terra Madre, Italian for “Mother Earth.”

In addition to talking shop on a variety of issues related to food production, Terra Madre participants gave presentations to their colleagues on many subjects. One, on the importance of the moringa tree in Kenya, might not seem relevant to, say, the Amazonian Guarani tribal members in attendance. But the Guarani’s Juçara tree, which produces palm hearts and açaí, fills a similarly central role in their culture and faces analogous threats from environmental destruction. Other presentations covered topics like sustainable seafood, seed patents, and farming in arid climates.

Slow Food began in 1986 when Carlo Petrini, a journalist, staged a protest against a McDonald’s on the Spanish Steps of Rome. Since then, the movement has turned into an organization that’s been through many transformations, and is currently working to shed its image as a pleasure-based club of a privileged few.

“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,’” said Petrini at a press conference during the 2008 Slow Food convention. He started Terra Madre in 2004 to help bring Slow Food in line with its mission of supporting food that’s “good, clean and fair.”

Unlike the Salone del Gusto, Terra Madre wasn’t open to the public. The participants were selected via an application process, and those chosen as delegates had their expenses paid by Slow Food.

“Terra Madre is a moment when people can realize that they’re not alone. It profoundly changes how people live their lives,” said Josh Viertel, president of Slow Food USA.

One morning, Viertel led an energetic gathering of more than 700 delegates from the United States, and the stereotypical Slow Food image of leisurely indulgence was nowhere to be found. One of the many resolutions agreed upon was that each chapter of Slow Food USA would partner with a chapter in Africa, with the first priority to do what they could to help their African counterparts grow gardens.

Viertel, invoking the pace of Slow Food’s mascot, the snail, reminded the group that “It’s only taken 60 years to screw up our food system. If it takes another 60 years to fix it, that’s OK.” Petrini spoke next, emphasizing transformation, whereby old ideas that still work can be maintained, as preferable to revolution, where the good is sometimes tossed out with the bad. Nonetheless, the revolutionary spirit in the room was palpable. There was chanting, clapping, and stomping, and the energy recalled that of other social movements.

“Food and food culture [has] become an expression of power,” said Petrini. “[It has] become a rediscovery of people’s relationship with the landscape. … We’re not just talking about food and agriculture, we’re talking about spirituality.”