Celebrating Slow Food on Martha’s Vineyard and abroad

The Menemsha Café was lit up like a seasonal beacon Friday night and lucky diners basked in its glow.
Photo by Susan Safford

The Menemsha Café was lit up like a seasonal beacon Friday night and lucky diners basked in its glow.

It was a tough call up-Island last Friday night for foodies, locavores, Slow Food members, and anyone else looking for good food and good company. You could opt for a four-course Italian meal at the Menemsha Café, courtesy of owner Josh Aronie and guest chef Chris Fischer, or an informal potluck with music at the Community Center, organized by Kaila Binney and Ned Allen-Posin. Either way, fresh, local ingredients would be combined into dishes that concentrated the mind and the tongue on sustainable growing, on the farm or in the ocean, and responsible consumption.

The two-fold eating experience on December 10 was part of the second annual Terra Madre Day, when Slow Food members around the world gather to support the organization, to support each other, and to support projects at home or abroad. Proceeds from Friday’s sit-down dinner ($50 per plate) and potluck ($15) went to the Island Food Pantry and a Slow Food International initiative called 1,000 Gardens in Africa.

Founded in Italy in 1989 by Carlo Petrini, Slow Food was inspired by the opening of a McDonald’s at the foot of the Spanish Steps in Rome. It’s mission was, and is, “to counter the rise of fast food and fast life, the disappearance of local food traditions and people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from, how it tastes and how our food choices affect the rest of the world.” Today, there are more than 100,000 members in some 150 countries around the globe.

Every two years, the organization holds a four-day convention in Turin, Italy, called Terra Madre (Mother Earth). This year five young Islanders who grow and/or prepare food (or educate others about producing and consuming it) attended Terra Madre in early October. They were Chris Fischer, Greta Caruso, Emily Palmer, Kaila Binney, and Ned Allen-Posin. For all of them, it was an eye-opener

“The international community inspires you,” said Mr. Fischer, a farmer and a private chef. “Farming can be a very solitary act, and getting to talk to all these people inspired me to do what I’m doing better, and inspired us to have this event.”

“When I saw the mass gathering, it empowered me,” said Mr. Allen-Posin, who works on his family’s farm in Chilmark. “Some speakers talked about being up against these huge forces of power and money, but it’s a slow food moment — the emblem is a snail — and over time we will prevail. It was uplifting to hear people say, keep doing what you are doing, because you are making a change. It was a spark.”

Ms. Binney, who works for Island Grown Initiative, was also impressed by the scope of the gathering. “There were 7,000 people there from more than 160 countries, but even with a huge language barrier, there was a really amazing unifying feeling,” she said. “On the Island, farmers can feel kind of insulated and we can forget that what we do here is linked to a bigger movement. And I wanted to bring that feeling back to the Island.”

It’s one thing to try to capture a feeling and bring it home, but it’s another to share it. For Ms. Binney, the musical potluck at the Community Center was an ideal vehicle for spreading the word and inviting others on board.

“The most exciting part of organizing it was bringing in people that had heard of Slow Food, but didn’t really know what it was. It was amazing to see that many people contributing — Shawn Barber and Goodnight Louise, the bluegrass band, and Willy Mason. The Capoiera group showing up was a surprise, and they got everybody going with their drumming and dancing.”

As for the food, there were pastas and salads, there were roast late-season vegetables, venison kebabs, and oysters that Devon Greene donated — and shucked. “My mom made a lamb curry that was really good,” Mr. Allen-Posin said.

Back in Menemsha, the dinner at the Café was a chance for Mr. Fischer’s friends and family to sample his cooking. “It’s nice this time of year to share the wealth with Islanders, which was part of the inspiration for doing both the potluck and the meal at the Menemsha Café, which was more affordable than most meals like that,” he said. “It was great to cook for my dad, and my brother.”

He outdid himself. The first course, antipasti, featured two dishes: Polpette con sugo di pomodoro, which sounds better in Italian than in English (meatballs in tomato sauce) and tasted way better. The meatballs were made with local beef and pork, a delicious combination, and the sauce was sublime.

The other antipasta, Verdure con Bagna Cauda, was a collection of delicately cooked fresh vegetables (beets, carrots, potatoes, onions, and radishes) with a warm anchovy sauce to dip them in. Again, delicious.

Then came two pastas: Spaghetti ai frutti di mare, which combined scallops, clams, and lobster from Menemsha Pond with a light but sensual sauce; and Orecchiette con cavolo nero, pasta with slow-cooked kale. It was hard to choose between them: both were memorable.

And then the secondi, the meat course: Maiale in latte con fagioli borlotti e cavolo Bruxelles translates to pork braised in milk with cranberry beans and Brussels sprouts, but it really means delicious, crumbly pork supported by healthy, tasty treats on the side.

Finally came the Dolce, Torta di mele e mandorle. To call it Apple cake with almonds is almost to slight it. Some diners tried to defer, but no one turned it down: who wants to miss another taste adventure?

From soup to nuts, antipasti to dolce, it was a wonderful meal — unusual tastes and unusually good preparation. It was inventive but not showy, hearty but never heavy, and it left diners beaming. For a few of them, however, there was one lingering question: no espresso?

Between the Café and the Community Center, the two meals raised close to $2,000. One fifth of the total will go to the Island Food Pantry, and the remainder to a new Slow Food initiative called 1,000 Gardens in Africa.

Carol Petrini introduced the program to Slow Food members in a video message distributed on Terra Madre day.

“Another objective is the construction of 1,000 gardens in Africa,” he said. “We all must be committed alongside our brothers and sisters in Africa to find a way in which they can, with their own hands and knowledge, create these gardens. If we achieve this in one year, it will represent a great opportunity for change.”

On Terra Madre Day, 2010, Slow Food Martha’s Vineyard demonstrated that local producers and providers, consumers and educators, are ready to do their part. “We reached our goal, which was to sponsor a garden, one of the thousand,” Mr. Fischer said. “It costs $1,200 for a garden.”