Slow Food catching on fast
The phone conversation stops abruptly. Two muffled voices can be heard on the other end of the line. Soon the voice of Rick Karney, the shellfish biologist and director of Martha's Vineyard Shellfish Group, returns. "Sorry," he says. "We're talking food." He explains that Tom Osmers just dropped by to exchange some of his freshly caught mahi-mahi for Mr. Karney's homegrown peppers. "They're nice and sweet - not spicy at all," Mr. Karney calls out to his departing friend.
The interaction finely demonstrates the essence of Slow Food, the international effort to promote local food production and consumption.
As Slow Food describes itself: "We consider ourselves co-producers, not consumers, because by being informed about how our food is produced and actively supporting those who produce it, we become a part of and a partner in the production process."
Photo by Ralph Stewart
While many Islanders have been living off the land for years without any encouragement from movements like Slow Food, a new wave of enthusiasm for producing and buying local food is inundating Martha's Vineyard and other communities around the world. Elizabeth Germain, a chef and president of the Slow Food chapter of Martha's Vineyard, acknowledges a growing interest among Island residents to become more educated about the origin of the food they eat, and a desire to support local farmers and fisherman. She attributes this trend to the efforts of a number of organizations that have worked for years to raise public awareness.
"At the heart of Slow Food is a way of life that really embraces the pleasures of eating and the pleasures of cooking and the pleasures of getting your food and knowing where your food comes from," says Ms. Germain. "We're so blessed here that this type of living is within our reach. It's about making choices. And it's so much fun to make choices that really are connected to the heart of what this movement is about."
Slow Food, which began in Italy in 1986 when an ardent cadre armed with linguine resisted the construction of a McDonald's in Rome, currently has over 85,000 members with chapters in 132 countries, according to its website. To truly appreciate the size and scope of these figures, one must attend a Slow Food event like Terra Madre (Mother Earth), the international conference held every other year since 2004 in Turin, Italy.
Mr. Karney and Ms. Germain are two of five delegates from Martha's Vineyard who have been invited to Terra Madre, held this year from October 23 to 27. The other delegates are fisherman and farmer Devan Greene, farmer Krishana Collins, and chef and caterer Jan Buhrman. Slow Food will pay for their transportation to and from the conference, as well as their room and board.
Terra Madre is a huge event. In 2006, it coalesced 16,000 food communities. Reindeer breeders came from Russia's Kola Peninsula, as did raisin producers from the Herat province of Afghanistan, sheep breeders from northern Slovakia, and Bulgarian beekeepers. All in all, 5,000 food producers from 130 countries, 1,000 cooks, and 400 researchers and academics came to the five-day conference to network, offer their knowledge and experience, and learn from others who share their common goals.
Terra Madre's mission is, "To give voice and visibility to the rural food producers who populate our world. To raise their awareness, as well as that of the population at large, of the value of their work."
Martha's Vineyard delegates are enthused about the conference.
Thirty-four-year-old Ms. Collins, owner of Bluebird Farm in West Tisbury, says she's looking forward to "meeting farmers from all over the world." She continues, "I think that I will be just completely over stimulated because farmers can talk to each other about things that nobody else wants to talk about - boring things like exactly how we plant the seed, or how we lay something with a tractor, or what tool we use to make something easier. To collaborate with people from all over the world I think will open my world up."
Mr. Greene, a West Tisbury resident, is concerned with the future of Martha's Vineyard's fisheries that he says are threatened by pollution, over-fishing, and corporate competition. He hopes that at Terra Madre he can gain insight into how communities in other parts of the world are dealing with similar problems. "I hope to come back with inspiration and knowledge about how other people are doing it."
Among other things, Ms. Buhrman, owner of Kitchen Porch caterers, hopes to learn how cooks in other parts of the world deal with the issues of cost that can make buying local difficult. "We have these challenges because the prices are really high to buy local meat. And I want to do it, but sometimes I have to make a choice. I am curious how other farmers in other communities deal with that."
There is still much to do and learn. Martha's Vineyard delegates, optimistic about the Martha's Vineyard community's support of the production of local food, intend to apply the knowledge they gain at Terra Madre to their efforts on Martha's Vineyard.
Says Ms. Collins, "For the first time, in the last couple years I actually feel like I chose a great occupation. Before I was like this is what I love to do but I may never make it. It's a really hard thing to choose. It's a great quality of life, but whether you can actually make it is another thing. The way that this community is and Slow Food is - it's really encouraging me to continue."