Eat up, slow down

Potluck contributions. Photo by Whit Griswold
Potluck contributions featured local ingredients and/or recipes. Diners were encouraged to sample the food visually before they let their taste buds run wild.

Story & photos by Whit Griswold - February 23, 2006

Years ago, most of what was consumed on the Vineyard was grown, raised, shot, gathered, or caught here. Then, after giant farms took root in the west and south in the 19th century and with the advent of modern transportation and refrigeration, fresher foods became available faster and from farther away. By the middle of the 20th century, the take-no-prisoners appetitie of giant agribusiness had ground local growers into irrelevancy.

But the urge to grow good food locally wouldn't succumb. A few local farmers kept at it for themselves and their neighbors through the years, and backyard vegetable plots cropped up across the Island in the 1970s and '80s.

Elizabeth Germain describes plans for a mid-summer potluck. Photo by Whit Griswold
Elizabeth Germain describes plans for a mid-summer potluck to a group still happily digesting a mid-winter feast.

In the last 15 years, there's been a resurgence in farming on the Island, much of it with an emphasis on growing and raising organic products. As they've become more active in promoting the benefits of locally grown products, Vineyard farmers have gradually moved from the backyard to the roadside and even into the produce aisle at Cronig's.

So maybe it 's not surprising that several dozen Islanders turned out at the Ag Hall last Thursday to hear about Slow Food Martha's Vineyard, the emerging local chapter of an organization that has 14,000 members in the U.S. and 80,000-plus members in 100 countries worldwide. Slow Food was founded in Italy in1986 by Carlo Petrini in response to the opening of a McDonald's in Rome.

A corps of dedicated Islanders has been meeting since last summer in an effort to start a Slow Food convivium, as local chapters are known, on the Island. The meeting at the Ag Hall was the first open meeting, with a stated goal of soliciting new members and publicizing the group's efforts so far and plans for the future. Officers of the local group are Rick Karney, president; Melinda DeFeo, vice-president; Nelson Smith, treasurer; and Susan Bellincampi, secretary.

After a brief greeting from Melinda, the evening's focus quickly shifted to food - the central element in all the local group's meetings. Attendees had been asked to bring a dish based on local ingredients or recipes, and the result was a table full of dishes, including artisanal cheeses, creative condiments, pastas, a sirloin roast and an assortment of vibrant salads - always welcome against the gray backdrop of mid-winter.

Before digging in, we were asked to walk along the table with sheathed forks, to pre-feast with our eyes. Many dishes had file cards next to them listing the local ingredients that had gone into them. This attention to what you are eating is central to the Slow Food ethos: take time to notice what you eat, take time to savor it, and take time to appreciate what it took to get the food to the table.

After eating, Melinda deFeo described the brief history of the local group, and Nelson Smith talked about the treasury and the relationship between local chapters and the umbrella proffered by Slow Food USA. Then a brief video was shown of an address by Prince Charles to a 2004 convention in Turin, Italy, in which he stressed the importance of maintaining local farming, for both its economic and cultural value, and protecting biodiversity, which he said is constantly threatened by the globalizing aspirations of giant agribusiness.

Elizabeth Germain, a cook and author who lives in Chilmark, then spoke of the groups goal of bringing the Slow Food concepts into the local schools, so that young Islanders grow up with a better understanding and appreciation of what they consume. She also outlined plans for a mid-summer potluck fundraiser, with featured guest and speaker Joan Nathan, the well-known cookbook author and host of PBS's "Jewish Cooking in America with Joan Nathan."

Jack Reed, also of Chilmark, suggested that monthly gatherings be held during the growing season to showcase local foods, promote healthy eating, and exchange ideas among local food producers. Games and light entertainment would remind participants that farming can and should be fun, too.

The enthusiastic reaction to these and a few other ideas might not have been so warm without the comforting presence of Slow Food USA and its parent international organization to lean on. Those groups have done the groundwork, so local convivia don't have to reinvent the wheel, at least organizationally.

Local chapters can refer to established templates to help them stay on course. For instance, the international organization's stated "aim is to protect the pleasures of the table from the homogenization of modern fast food and life. Through a variety of initiatives, it promotes gastronomic culture, develops taste education, conserves agricultural biodiversity and protects traditional foods at risk of extinction."

More specifically, Slow Food USA supports and promotes the following:

- educational events and public outreach that encourage the enjoyment of pure foods that are local, seasonal, and sustainably grown

- caring for the land and protecting biodiversity for today's communities and future generations

- identification, promotion, and protection of fruits and vegetables, animal breeds, wild foods, and cooking traditions at risk of disappearance

- respect and advocacy for artisans who grow, produce, market, prepare, and serve wholesome food

- the revival of the kitchen and the table as centers of pleasure, culture, and community

- a slower, more harmonious rhythm of life.

If this seems like a pretty broad set of goals, it doesn't seem to bother local organizers. Melinda DeFeo, for one, thinks that the group's wide platform will help attract members: there's something there for almost anyone who's interested in fresh, locally produced food, whether their primary interest is gastronomical, agricultural, or even political.

And for all the sensible goals and lofty ideals mentioned at last week's meeting, there was one constant, grounding passion among those who attended - eating well.

For more information on Martha's Vineyard Slow Food call Rick Karney at 508-693-5131 or email