Slow Food Nation

September 1, 2008

The first US Slow Food Nation event was this weekend, and I must report mostly disappointment. As many of us feared, it was an elitist food-porn extravaganza rather than a celebration of real American foodways or a call to action on better food for all. In its own way, Slow Food Nation ended up being the most powerful argument that a middle ground is NOT possible, and that Morris’s “swinish luxury of the rich” is incompatible with the true needs of the masses.

I visited both the Tasting Pavilions, at Fort Mason, and the more populist marketplace and garden in Civic Center Plaza. Let me note that pricing everywhere was bizarrely uneven and at times offensively so. The Tasting Pavilions cost $65, which entitled you to entrance and 20 units in “food dough” or scrip. You could buy more scrip at the rate of $10 to 5 faux dough. Prices inside were basically the opposite of the real world, in that expensive commodities (booze, coffee, tea) were less than 2 scrip, cheese and meat and ice cream were 3 scrip for decent to large quantities, and preserves were an outrageous 2 scrip — $6.50! — for a dab of jam or a couple scraps of dill pickle. Even in the marketplace, there were reasonable deals (Scott Peacock’s biscuits with country ham for $6, or a 10 lb flat of Frog Hollow Farm peaches for $20) as well as total ripoffs (cup of New Orleans iced coffee for $5.95).

Generally each booth at the tasting pavilions was a work of art (except for the completely lackluster wine booth), using materials and layouts that tried to highlight and suggest the beauty of each ingredient — wood-fired ovens for bread, antique beehives for honey, rows of different colored olive oils, floating black-and-white curtains for tea. Organization and line management were generally abysmal, especially in that you had no opportunity to ask any questions or see what you were getting until you were already at the head of the line; and they wasted way too much manpower having individual stations of servers, none of whom had time to talk to you anyway. The sole exception was the cheese pavilion, which was amusingly bovine: it was almost entirely staffed by middle-aged women, and they intelligently herded together all their offerings on a single plate which freed up the actual cheesemakers to roam the line giving out free samples and answering people’s questions. It was the only pavilion in which I saw true interaction between the producers and the consumers (or coproducers in Slow Food Nation parlance).

A striking thing about the tasting pavilions was how little of the offerings were actually American in the letter or the spirit of the term. The coffees and chocolates were all grown outside the country, and they were deliberately downplaying the processing part in favor of the growing part. The spirits were with one exception (Square One Vodka) all foreign made. The teas obviously were all from Asia. The cheeses and meats and ice creams were all produced in the country, but in almost every case (except country ham) they were deliberately trying to ape the products of Europe with their prosciuttos and gelatos and Edams.

There was also almost no ethnic or class diversity on display at Fort Mason for the paying guests. There was one Native American booth, but it was lightly visited; and I think there was one guy making naan. The pickle stand offered no kimchi or real chutney, which in India means something more like pickled veg or fruit (e.g. lime or mango pickle). Needless to say there were no stands featuring African-American or Latino foodways… although all the people I saw sorting recycling from garbage by hand were African-American.

The Civic Center outpost was supposed to be more populist and inclusive and educational. The gardening exhibit was the one attempt I saw to improve the daily diet of the common citizen. It was also the only vegetable-oriented thing in the whole place — the market vendors were all fruit or sweets or cheese purveyors. But let’s get real: how many people in the Bay Area are going to grow their own vegetables? Almost everyone lacks the time, space, or both. I salute the crap out of organizations like City Slicker Farms, a community gardening group in Oakland — but how are they not the token group in service to poor Black people that every San Franciscan needs to assuage the guilt of enjoying the epicurean life?

I personally think the biggest problem with American food — which affects everyone, rich and poor and middle-class — is that very few people seem to know how to cook vegetables in ways that are truly delicious. If you don’t want to eat vegetables in the first place, you won’t grow them in your garden or seek them out in the farmer’s market or look forward to their seasonal arrivals. You certainly won’t eat enough vegetables, and your health will suffer. Meat is good, cheese is delicious, fruit is yummy, good bread is a miracle… but I think vegetables are the key. I would have loved to see someone like Scott Peacock — who learned everything he knows from Edna Lewis — talk about Southern vegetable dishes, which are truly American, affordable, and appealing to all — as well as very very slow! I would have enjoyed meeting farmers from a CSA, and hearing them talk about how they manage to fill their members’ boxes every week with a variety of vegetables. I would have liked seeing a tasting pavilion dedicated to corn or beans or tomatoes. If Slow Food Nation doesn’t do those things, if they succumb to the allure of celebrity chefs and food-stylist layouts, then who will?