Imagine a banquet hall the length of Church Street featuring sustainably harvested delectables from around the world: crumbly mountain cheeses, gallon jars of sparkling honey, heirloom vegetables grown from seeds that hark back to Caesar. This is the spectacle that awaited a contingent of 34 Vermont farmers, chefs, educators and administrators at the 2006 Terra Madre "Slow Food" conference in Turin, Italy, at the end of October. They brought back plenty of food for thought.
Two years in the making, Terra Madre and its accompanying food fair, "Salone del Gusto," was the largest gathering to date of a global Slow Food movement. For five days of workshops, lectures, and taste-tests, over 6000 participants ate, shared stories, and brainstormed strategies for sustaining a culinary counterculture capable of subverting a world of bottom-line efficiency and manufactured taste.
In 1986, Italian journalist and independent radio activist Carlo Petrini founded Slow Food in response to the opening of a McDonald's in downtown Rome. His organization has since grown to include 83,000 "co-producers" from 122 countries representing people at every point in the food-production web. While Petrini emphasizes a decentralized, locally rooted approach to sustainable agriculture, he rallies slow foodists of all nationalities to produce eats that taste good, nurture earth and body, and promote social justice.
Slow Food USA, the American incarnation of Slow Food International, includes a Montpelier-based Vermont chapter. But a unified Green Mountain Slow Food front is still, in large part, a dream dish. Add in the concern that Slow Food's growing identification with bourgeoisie foodie-ism will undercut its radical roots, and the prospect of a democratic and convivial Vermont Slow Food culture taking root in Vermont seems like - well, slow going.
But the raw ingredients are in place. Many of the Vermonters who attended Terra Madre embody Petrini's spirit, either as producers, organizers, or entrepreneurs, not to mention conscientious eaters.
John Elder, an environmental writer and Middlebury College professor, attended the conference. In addition to serving on the board of Vermont Family Forests, a Bristol-based nonprofit that practices sustainable forest management, Elder also produces maple syrup in nearby Starksboro. He suggests that "Food is going to be central to the next century of the environmental movement in the way that wilderness was to the last."
His neighbor Douglas Mack, co-owner of Mary's at Baldwin Creek in Bristol, has been cultivating connections between mindful agriculture and high-quality food since 1983. He was a founding member of the Vermont Fresh Network - a consortium of Vermont farmers, chefs and consumers that promotes sustainability and cooperation at every stage of the food production cycle. Almost all his ingredients come from within a 20-mile radius, including year-round salad fixings culled from front-yard greenhouses.
At Terra Madre, Mack joined 1000 other chefs in a discussion about how to champion Slow Food in a world of changing ecological realities: "We need to realize as chefs that we're going forward into a new century of progress and modernization. But we have to stop that and look backwards at where we're coming from before we can move forward," he says.
So what stands in the way of Slow Food's expanding anti-empire? In her plenary address, the Indian farmer-activist Vandana Shiva sounded the alarm about dangers posed by corporate agricultural conglomerates such as Monsanto, whose genetically modified seeds threaten biological diversity and human health.
Jay Leshinsky, advisor to Middlebury College's organic garden, came back from Turin assured that GMO contamination is the defining threat to local food security, both in Vermont and abroad. "GMOs take away our ability to grow our own food," he says. "For me, they bear on our very life existence."
Bearded and smiling, Leshinsky doesn't seem an especially convincing doomsday theorist. But he carries around an orange copy of the "Manifesto on the Future of Seeds." Shiva and other slow foodists released the pamphlet at Terra Madre, where it sparked talk about seed-saving and the future of the anti-GMO movement.
Rather than a "prohibitive, blame-game approach," however, Elder says the emphasis in Turin was on "Where do we go from here?" He speculates that the next challenge facing Vermont's Slow Food movement will be figuring out how to retain a "fierce loyalty" to the landscape without being "parochial."
"The Americans at Terra Madre were like, 'We're so frumpy,'" says Mara Welton. She and her husband Spencer own Half-Pint farm, an uncommonly productive one-acre plot in Burlington's Intervale. With a quirky mix of warmth and political savvy, she suggests it's high time that Vermonters worked together to enact a region-specific "food nation" of their own.
Vermont doesn't have to be an elite market to produce food that meets the objectives of Slow Food. Welton speaks about the importance of "de-gentrifying" the movement - ridding it of its upper-middle-class mystique. A few Intervale farms have lowered their prices through community-supported agriculture programs. Others open up their fields to volunteers from Burlington's Healthy City Project who "glean" veggies for direct distribution at the Chittenden Emergency Food shelf and other local establishments.
"It would be nice to change the food dialogue from 'Should I eat raw food or not?' to 'Let's just eat good food,'" Spencer adds.
Jon Warnow, a Middlebury College senior and co-owner of Church Street's "Skinny Pancake" crepe stand, believes Slow Food is already embedded in Vermont's cultural soil: "We have small farmers producing quality products, a home-grown ethic encouraging sustainable practices, and consumers in the marketplace willing to pay for quality and sustainability," he says.
A perfect emblem of Terra Madre's vocal vanguard of twentysomethings, the jocular 22-year-old crepe-slinging environmental studies major has collaborated with friends to cook up a viably "slow" business model right under Burlington's nose: This summer, their collective venture became the first vending cart to join the Vermont Fresh Network.
Warnow envisions intergenerational and cross-cultural food connections as one of the keys to Vermont's edible future. He hopes to see more links between "institutions and farms, old people and young people, elementary schools and gardens."
"I think this is one of those instances in which Vermont can be more than an isolated pocket of food consciousness in a little corner of America," he maintains. "Our global food systems are terrifyingly unsustainable, so these issues will inevitably become prominent on a national and international level. When they do, Vermont can be a model for the world to follow."
But who'll nurture the revolutionary compost until next growing season? Mara Welton has already arranged a Vermont Terra Madre reception. This Saturday at Burlington's Fletcher Free Library, she'll be sharing "pictures, stories and energy from this amazing meeting of world food communities" - all with an eye toward encouraging Vermonters to savor and revere their unique local food culture.
"I think it's really important to share my own personal commitment to farming with the public," she says. "People are hungry for something new."