Friday, December 17, 2004
The way we eat — 101
Early this summer my wife Annette and I were honored to be selected as delegates from Massachusetts to the Slow Foods' Terre Madre conference on farming and food. About 5,000 small producers from all over the world (every corner, in fact) gathered in Turin, Italy for four days in mid-October to talk about what we love doing — food production and education. We were farmers, ranchers, fishers, herders, cheese-makers, wine-makers, every stripe of agriculturist imaginable, all assembled in one huge palazzo, the Palazzo di Lavoro — a veritable U.N. of food. We brought a myriad of languages and expectations, some delegates having never before left their villages. Some had traveled for days. Most had received full funding for this expedition from a variety of funding sources. All were concerned about the long-term viability of their local agricultural practice in the face of global competition. Also of concern was retaining their traditional lifestyles and markets, and whether farmers were still respected in their communities.
Although Slow Food as a movement was not well known here in America until recently, there has been a remarkable parallel movement here away from the McDonald's culture and towards what might be called "artisanal" foods. American farmers (as opposed to agri-businessmen) are beginning to remake the connection between producer and consumer. We see this movement in the explosion of farmers' markets in the last five years, CSAs (Consumer Supported Agriculture), region-specific restaurants, the explosion of artisanal cheese makers in this country and the recognition that many produce world-quality products. Small wine-makers are cropping up here and there making very good wines and marketing them successfully to a very local market. What we are seeing is a relationship developing where the consumer is becoming co-producer or co-operator and, therefore, becoming more interested, concerned and supportive of local agriculture. We are establishing intersecting arcs of support arising from a mutuality of understanding.
Artisanal does not necessarily mean expensive or gourmet. The Slow Food concept protects, conserves and enhances the viability of all small producers: protects them from the economic depredations of global agri-business, conserves as it educates the larger local, national and world markets about unique products and enhances the viability of these producers by helping them form stable economic units.
Workshops, food and conversation
So, here we were, nearly all of us in a foreign country, which was likely to pose a communication conundrum once outside the walls of the palazzo. There were delegates from 130 countries who were organized by about one hundred young and energetic twenty to thirty-year-olds. There was simultaneous translation in seven languages plus itinerant translators versed in every other language imaginable and able to translate into one of the principal lingua francas.
Participants in the conference assigned themselves to any number of interesting workshops from using ducks to harvest weeds in paddy rice to saving certain types of trees because they protect other agronomic crops in desert regions. There were also affinity meetings where, for instance, herders from Afghanistan, Spain, Somalia, Lapland, Armenia and other places sat down to discuss how they might help each other with such issues as herd management, market development and lifestyle preservation. Farmers inclined toward educational issues were able to trade ideas for promoting more healthy meals in our schools, school gardens and other ideas.
Commuting on the bus
Morning and evening we were collected and scattered by a big bus. On our bus were four Americans, four Canadians, eight Indonesians, a half dozen Sri Lankans and about a dozen people from Chad. No one knew what the others spoke because all of the introductions and preliminary instructions were made in the respective languages. The barriers came down quickly as secondary languages were discovered, and over the four days of commuting together all but the delegates from Chad had learned to joke and tease and talk about what we do. No one seemed to know how to talk to the Chadians, nor they to the rest of us. They were quiet, intense, erect and forbidding. They always sat in the front of the bus and exchanges of greetings morning and evening did not seem to make much of an impression. By the third day all the other groups on the bus no longer needed to sit in their own groups. Invitations to visit were being exchanged.
Every morning we compared notes on the ride back to the conference: food, family, what we did or experienced outside of the meetings. Every day lunch at the conference was prepared from local foods and harvest in the Piedmont region, and all 5,000 delegates were treated to a seasonally appropriate traditional Italian meal.
A truly old-world experience
On the last evening, we gathered together with our host families at the local castle for what can only be imagined as a truly old-world experience. While the palazzo was small by some standards, it was perched on the highest hillock and overlooked all of the surrounding area. We were ushered into a large hall on the top floor where we were greeted by be-ribboned local dignitaries and entertained by a troupe of youthful thespians, a local band and speeches. They gave speeches, we gave speeches. Translation was limited, but good will was in abundance. We received gifts representative of the area. Everyone felt appreciated — Canadians, Americans, Indonesians, Sri Lankans and (we hoped) the people from Chad. Then there was the food to build memories and bind us together: homemade wines, baked goods, cheeses, everything under the sun.
As the night wore on and people headed to the doors, one of the Chadians rose and asked to speak. A most erect and imposing gentleman in his native garb, he stood in the middle of the room and spoke in absolutely flawless French about what an important and enlightening experience this had been. The room was absolutely hushed in a respectful silence until he finished to rapt applause and smiles of recognition at last.
On this cheerful note, we all scattered to our farmsteads and returned ultimately to our known universes with a much broader understanding of how the world works and our place in it. This was a life-affirming experience for both of us and gave us a certain pride in our vocations as teachers and farmers.
John Lee is the manager of Allandale Farm in Boston. Annette is a Special Education teacher in the Lincoln Public Schools. They live on Lowell Street. If you are interested in learning more about Slow Food, you may contact them.
© 2004 The Carlisle Mosquito