Thursday, August 28, 2008

Slow Food Nation

Slow Food Nation '08, the super-sized, super-expensive foodie fair, or "first-ever American collaborative gathering to catalyze the growing sustainable food movement and to celebrate food that is good clean and fair" in the words of the event website, is coming to San Francisco tomorrow through Sunday, with Labor Day dedicated to slow food picnics across America. The Bay Area's own vegetable fairy god-mother, Alice Waters, is spearheading the first stateside incarnation of Terra Madre, the Slow Food gathering orchestrated by Carlo Petrini, the Italian godfather of the organization that began in Italy in 1989 and now has over 80,000 members in 100 countries. You can find more information on slow food (think opposite of fast food) at In its mini-guide to SFN that came out yesterday, the SF Chronicle says that 50,000 people are expected to participate in this weekend's event.

Coincidentally, that's roughly the same number of protesters who showed up to stall the World Trade Organization globalization talks in Seattle back in 1999. The politics have a similar anti-industrialization, anti-unchecked-globalization feel, and even some of the players are the same, such as Vandana Shiva, the physicist, environmentalist, and author scheduled to speak on the global food crisis during the sold-out opening session of SFN's "Food for Thought" lecture series. In an essay published in The Guardian shortly after the protests, Shiva wrote, "The WTO has earned itself names such as World Tyranny Organisation because it enforces anti-people, anti-nature decisions to enable corporations to steal the world's harvests through secretive, undemocratic structures and processes. It institutionalises forced trade, not free trade."

The key difference this time around, however, is that the revolution may retain a certain grassroots grubbiness, but it is one smoothed over with white tablecloths and topped by designer produce. At the heart of the event is a commitment to food education that will hopefully lead to more widespread sustainable and heathful food production, preparation, and eating practices, but the very visible flipside of this movement is the economic exclusion of many from the ethically superior supper table.

There are plenty of free events throughout the weekend, such as the "soap box" speaker series happening at the Civic Center victory vegetable garden, the hand-picked farmers and artesanal food market also at the Civic Center (but whose edible offerings are guaranteed to come at a high price), plus all kinds of fringe art and food events and a free film series. Still, it feels as if the main action of SFN will be taking place behind closed doors. At Fort Mason, $65 gets you into the Taste Pavilion, where top design and architecture firms have paired with high-end food and beverage producers to create information exhibits and stage demonstrations and tastings of wine, cheese, coffee, and other assorted gourmet fetishes. Another $69-99 will get you in to the Slow Food Rocks concert nearby at Great Meadow. Even more serious food consumption is to be had at the $50-$200/plate dinners cooked by top chefs at different high-end restaurants around the city, though each dinner will benefit a local non-profit.

The speaker series is a bit more affordable at $20 per lecture, with student prices, but it feels strange not to have some kind of larger-scale public speech (besides today's Food Bill petition reading) or even a simultaneous broadcast of the talks on an outdoor screen that would give more widespread access to what such influential people as Alice Waters, Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser, Vandana Shiva, and Carlo Petrini, will be saying to a select group of people inside Herbst Theater.

This to me is the most serious limitation of the event, keeping the big names in food education cordoned off to a small group of ticket-holders. One highlight of the free soap box series that I want to mention is writer and farmer David Mas Masumoto who will be speaking on Friday at 12pm. He writes beautifully about farming and the landscape of the San Joaquin Valley in his book Epitaph for a Peach.

Of course, the left is always griping and complaining about itself, even when we're relatively happy, so with that said, of course I'm thrilled that Slow Food Nation is happening here in my own city. I just had to rant like a proper blogger before I could go frolic through the victory garden and farmers market, and perhaps see a film screening and a talk or two. Click here for a guide to the free events this weekend.

And tonight, I'll be attending this SFN-related seed-swap and farm education event co-hosted by the filmmaker of The Greenhorns, a soon-to-be-released documentary about young urbanites moving to the countryside to pursue the dream of organic farming (you may have seen the NY Times article). Her name, Severine von Tscharner Fleming, is like a mouthful of mesclun salad mix. Erin knows more about the movie, but unfortunately she's working her butt off right now at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado under the codename TUNA and driving around a vehicle identified as the "Angelweeper." I promise that I haven't eaten her and that she purportedly has a giant backlog of Weird Veg posts that's gonna clog the hell out of your bandwith once she gets back.

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