Depending on whose history you believe, belly dancing may be an anachronistic relic of Middle Eastern patriarchy or a set of exercises aimed at preparing a woman for childbirth. But on this night, in this place, with this crowd in Asheville, it seems a perfect metaphor. The setting is the Jerusalem Garden Cafe, the table is groaning under course after course of culinary exotica, and the celebrants are “slow-fooders” — folks who’ve made the fundamental connection between the great dance of life, the food on their plates, the environment they inhabit, and the politics of international trade. If any group could be said to be truly dancing with their bellies, it’s these people.
The young woman wielding finger cymbals and veils as she undulates to modal harmonies of the Middle East, is undeniably beautiful and talented. But in seeking to compete with the restaurant’s resplendent repast, she has her work cut out for her.
The event is a meeting of the Asheville Slow Food Convivium, a scene repeated once or twice a month in restaurants, homes and back yards around the region (and by similar groups around the globe). They may well be the happiest activists on earth.
Not so fast, Mac
The Slow Food movement was born in Italy in 1986. Fast-food restaurants had begun to make significant inroads there, and a people long inculcated with appreciation for subtleties of flavor, local variations in both materials and their preparation, and the powerful social cohesion built around shared meals were not prepared to embrace a billion uniform burgers spewed out on demand. In fact, it was the opening of a McDonald’s in Rome’s historic Piazza di Spagna (aka the Spanish Steps) that triggered the Slow response.
The resulting Slow Food manifesto declares, “A firm defense of quiet material pleasure is the only way to oppose the universal folly of Fast Life.”
At first the organization focused exclusively on edibles, publishing what many believe to be the best guides to Italian wine, restaurants and food stores. But a decade later, a growing awareness of the environmental implications of food choices and the dwindling diversity in crops and livestock began to expand the group’s focus.
Then, in 1999, when the European Union tried to impose uniform hygiene standards for all food producers, the Slow Fooders dug in. The new rules would have forced many small farmers and other food artisans out of business. The group gathered more than half a million signatures on a petition that resulted in exemptions for thousands of small-scale food producers.
And in the meantime, the idea had headed West.
Snails, snails, the gang’s all here
America proved to be fertile ground for Slow Food (whose emblem, naturally enough, is a snail). Across the nation, microbrewers, chefs, bakers, vintners and farmers’ markets were forging a new kind of food awareness that emphasized buying locally grown organic foods. At the same time, there was rising concern about genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
The first stateside convivium (as local chapters are called) was formed in 1990 in Portland, Ore., and according to Asheville Slow Food founder (and former Xpress staffer) Kelly Davis, “There are at least 150 local chapters in the U.S.” Sampling a taste of Jordanian chicken, she continued, “Representatives from 80 convivia met in Shelburne, Vt., earlier this summer.”
Davis smiled, her eyes glancing up as she recalled the conference. “They really kept us going. Up at 8 a.m. sharp and busy way past 11 every night. But the food,” she paused and her voice lowered, “Oh, the food was simply incredible.”
The Asheville group has been meeting regularly for about a year-and-a-half, Davis explained. “We’ve had barbecues and fish bakes and a goat roast at members’ homes. We’ve held a series of tastings, too: wine, cheese, chocolate and olive oil.” The chief difference between the Slow Food tastings and more traditional events, said Davis, is that each person brings a sample and is responsible for research — making it a sort of show-and-eat-and-tell. Other gatherings are held at local restaurants, such as an upcoming dinner at La Caterina Trattoria on Sept. 29. ($45 per person, call 645-0641 for reservations).
But this season’s signature event — a pig roast fund-raiser slated for Sunday, Sept. 12 — is dubbed “Slow Food Asheville Goes Whole Hog.” Proceeds from the picnic will help underwrite the cost of sending a local delegation to Terra Madre, an international conference of food producers to be held in Turin, Italy this October.
Asheville’s delegates include Jamie Ager of Hickory Nut Gap Farm and Spring House Meats, Joe Eckert of Green Man Brewing, Jennifer Lapidus of Natural Bridge Bakery, and Warren Wilson College Farm Manager John Pilson.
Clearly, these food enthusiasts have both a professional and a personal interest in the movement, though that’s perhaps too fine a distinction in a philosophy that stresses interconnection. Ager’s viewpoint seems typical. “I became involved with Slow Food Asheville for two reasons,” he explained. “Partly to help our business, because we want to reach that kind of consumer, and also because it is a worthy cause.
“My interest in going to Terra Madre primarily involves grazing,” he revealed. Hickory Nut Gap Farm, which raises grass-fed beef (as opposed to the grain-fed beef found in supermarkets), uses an intensive system that rotates livestock through a series of small pastures — emulating the natural feeding pattern of wild ruminants. “It is an international issue involving both certification and the whole broad concept of sustainability. We are on a steep learning curve about how to do intensive grazing right, how to make it work. And they are facing the same issues in Europe.”
Lapidus, a baker who works without commercial baking yeast (relying on the yeast that occurs naturally on the grain), does her own milling, and uses a wood-fired brick oven, told Xpress, “I became involved with Slow Foods because what I do for a living is [to make] a slow food — this bread forms the rhythm of my life.”
She continued: “The thing about the Slow Food movement that is amazing to me is how far-reaching it is. … This movement is both political and pleasure-seeking. It is about seed-saving and free trade, and it is about fine dining and food appreciation. The most respected restaurants within the culinary world these days are the ones serving local, organic produce. Farmers’ markets have become hip.”
As if to emphasize interconnectedness both in ideas and in people, Lapidus added, “I recently had a conversation with Debbie Athos, organizer of the OrganicFest (see sidebar: “Organics on the Green”) and head of Pure Food Partners, an organization committed to educating people on the dangers of genetically modified organisms. We are planning to get together when I return from Italy to discuss what I learned regarding GMOs.”
Pilson also expects to come home with ideas to share. “I’d like to bring back the expertise of leaders in small food-production systems from all around the world. Being able to share with others involved in small farm production and marketing will help us here in Western North Carolina as we continue to grow and develop through groups like Slow Food, CFSA, ASAP, etc.” Then, with a nod to the “material pleasure” cited in the manifesto, he added: “Plus, there’s little doubt that Terra Madre is going to be a blast — and that will help us bring back renewed enthusiasm and vigor to our own individual operations and programs. I can’t wait!”
There’s already a growing emphasis in Western North Carolina on buying locally grown and organic foods. And given the sometimes fierce opposition to chain stores, the continuing dialogue about community building, and the long-standing sense of this region’s uniqueness, Slow Food seems right at home here. Then again, maybe we should all sit down and talk about it — over a long, exquisitely prepared meal, of course.
Slow Food Asheville Goes Whole Hog
A whole hog from the Warren Wilson College farm will be slow-roasted and served up with plenty of fixin’s, Green Man ale and live music.
When: Sunday, Sept. 12, 4-8 p.m.
Where: The village green adjacent to Greenlife Grocery (70 Merrimon Ave. in Asheville).
How much: Tickets ($20) can be purchased at Greenlife Grocery, the Laughing Seed Cafe (40 Wall St.) and Jack of the Wood pub (95 Patton Ave.).
Donations to help local delegates go to Italy may be sent to: Kelly Davis, Slow Food Asheville Chapter, 46 Brigman Road, Weaverville NC 28787.