It’s going to take me a long time to fully understand the effects and implications of the first Slow Food Nation, held in San Francisco over Labor Day weekend. The brain power on display was impressive enough: Wendell Berry, Vandana Shiva, Michael Pollan, Winona LaDuke, Carlo Petrini, Raj Patel, Eric Schlosser, and other luminaries took center stage at panels. Add to that the myriad of other events and mind-blowing food, and you get a truly unforgettable event for the thousands who attended.
Despite the multitude of free activities at Slow Food Nation, I heard in the weeks leading up to it that it was all too expensive and was further evidence of food snobs run amok. Yet during the event, the chief complaints I heard were that it was too crowded and that the events that did cost money were all sold out. So while accurate numbers on attendance are still being calculated, it was easy to see that attendance exceeded expectations, and that those who appreciated its worth outnumbered those who did not.
As to the elitism charge, while there are those who will not be convinced otherwise regardless of what Slow Food says or does, it simply does not hold up upon close examination of Slow Food’s work as an organization on the whole. Does it contain members who are snobs or who occasionally act snobby? With 17,000 members before this event and predictions by some that that number may double as a result of it, yes, there is no doubt that in a sampling that large you will find some — perhaps quite a few — “elitists.” But to dismiss the organization’s important work, from networking rural farmers in Africa to helping revive milpas in Mexico, simply because much of what Slow Food does is academic or expensive is myopic.
Slow Food does not do everything right and will never please everyone, nor is it any form of panacea, nor does it claim to be. It can and has made lives better for thousands of people not just in the United States and Italy (where it was founded) but from Bolivia to the Ivory Coast to India by supporting farmers and aiding to reinvigorate local food traditions. Here in the states it raised thousands of dollars to help the farmers and fishers affected by Katrina, then raised thousands more for Midwest flood relief. Already Slow Food USA has turned its attention once more to the Gulf in the wake of Hurricanes Gustav and Ike.
The event itself was a joy to behold. At one of the free events, called the Soapbox and held adjacent to the Victory Garden in San Francisco’s Civic Center Plaza, speakers and performers offered a huge range of ideas, from the political to the poetic (sometimes both), through speeches and dance, drumming and prayer. Especially moving was a performance by peach farmer David Masumoto and his daughter Nikiko of a poem about a hailstorm that wiped out an entire harvest accompanied by the traditional Teiko Japanese drum. Some in the audience wept as they heard the thunder and felt the hail rip the flesh off the peaches.
In the end, many people came just for the food, and it was indeed excellent food, from the Indian naan to the Native American Manoomin rice cakes to Iowa prosciutto to abalone to tamales to mufaleta. But they came away with a message, one summarized in the Declaration for Healthy Food and Agriculture, which urges the government to adopt “twelve principles [that] should frame food and agriculture policy, to ensure that it will contribute to the health and wealth of the nation and the world.” I strongly encourage you to read it and endorse it at FoodDeclaration.org.