San Francisco City Hall looms over a cornucopia of plants and vegetables in the Slow Food Nation victory garden. The produce is being harvested for the city's food bank programs.

San Francisco City Hall looms over a cornucopia of plants and vegetables in the Slow Food Nation victory garden. The produce is being harvested for the city’s food bank programs. (willsfca-Flickr Creative Commons photo)

Sustainable practices are increasingly in vogue and increasingly diverse, perhaps no more so than in the Slow Food movement. The wide range of offerings were on full display last month at Slow Food USA’s first public national gathering in San Francisco. As a member of the national nonprofit group, and also because I have served as a leader of the Santa Barbara chapter, I was excited to attend.

Janice Cook Knight

Janice Cook Knight

Before I describe in delicious detail the foods I ate that weekend, let me give you a little background on Slow Food. First, Slow Food does not stand for San Luis Obispo Food, as many from the Central Coast wonder. Nor does it have anything to do with crock-pots, because Slow Food doesn’t refer to cooking times.

The moniker Slow Food was chosen as a counter to “fast food” and our speedy way of life. Slow Food is a call to return to tasty, healthy, local, well-grown food, whether it is homemade or prepared in a restaurant. This is accomplished, in part, through education, by supporting farmers who use sustainable growing and producing methods, and by gathering people together to celebrate the pleasures of the table. These are just some of the many things Slow Food does.

The organization got its start in 1986 in Italy, the land of all things delicious, when founder Carlo Petrini and friends protested the construction of a McDonald’s restaurant at the Spanish Steps in Rome. More than 20 years later, there are more than 85,000 adherents worldwide. Slow Food USA opened its doors about 10 years ago, with Santa Barbara being one of the first chapters, or “conviviums” as the movement refers to them. U.S. membership is now about 15,000.

Slow Food Nation was more than a year in the making. Some 60,000 people flocked to San Francisco to participate in one or more of the many events, which included tastings, cooking demonstrations, speakers and panel discussions, food films, dinners, fundraisers and field trips to Bay Area farms.

My Slow Food adventure began with a fundraising dinner at the hip Orson Restaurant, where I met other friends from Santa Barbara and San Francisco. The pricey dinner raised money for Next Course, a food education program for teens. Several high school students, who had helped procure our beautifully prepared vegetables at a local farmer’s market (including the best gazpacho I’ve ever eaten), were in attendance and spoke enthusiastically about the program, their families, and their plans for the future.

Saturday found my food buddy, Mara, and me at the Taste Pavilion at Fort Mason Center. Inside an enormous warehouse, food was beautifully displayed at individual, architect-designed “booths” in these categories: beer, bread, charcuterie, cheese, chocolate, coffee, fish, honey and preserves, ice cream, native foods, olive oil, pickles and chutney, spirits, tea and wine. In addition to the displays, a “green kitchen” housed famous chefs giving cooking demonstrations, such as David Chang from Momofuku in New York City, cookbook author Deborah Madison and Alice Waters of Berkeley’s Chez Panisse.

As part of the Slow Food Nation gathering, San Francisco's Civic Center Plaza has been transformed into a victory garden complete with vegetables.

As part of the Slow Food Nation gathering, San Francisco’s Civic Center Plaza has been transformed into a victory garden complete with vegetables. (Cecily Upton photo)

There were long lines at some of the booths, but we headed toward “cheese.” On the way we were distracted by “fish,” and picked up samples prepared by local chefs. An appetizer portion of squid, cooked with tomatoes, onion and olive oil, was spot-on delectable; we nibbled on this while we waited for cheese. The long line turned out to be entertaining, as cheese makers and volunteers came to us while we waited, bringing samples and sharing their stories.

We met Alice Birchenough, from Sweet Home Farm in Elberta, Ala., who had brought cheese samples from her 15-count herd of Guernseys. She doesn’t sell outside of her state, as she doesn’t make enough cheese to. We also learned from her that Alabama is a “dairy-deficient” state, meaning it doesn’t make enough milk and cheese to supply all its residents, who must import dairy products from elsewhere as a result.

We met several other cheese makers while we waited, some of whose products I’ve been buying for years. This, plus the other producers we met that afternoon, turned out to be one of the most exciting parts of the Slow Food Nation experience. The producers were thrilled to share their work, to have their products tasted and appreciated by so many, and to network with other farmers and food workers from across the nation.

Alice Birchenough of Sweet Home Farm in Elberta, Ala., provided a dairy lesson along with her cheese samples.

Alice Birchenough of Sweet Home Farm in Elberta, Ala., provided a dairy lesson along with her cheese samples. (Janice Cook Knight photo)

We sampled nine (small) flavors of ice cream and sorbet, some unusual — my favorite was the kiwi ice cream, smooth and delicate and pale green with tiny black seeds. The cappuccino I sipped was single origin — all of the beans, rather than being mixed, came from one family farm in Colombia. I sampled green and black teas at the tea booth, which was divided into little rooms with hanging cloths, like the banners found in Japanese restaurants; I sat with five others while our tea expert poured several teas, served in beautiful ceramic cups. Long tables throughout the building were set up to allow tasters to sit and eat with others in a relaxed and convivial fashion — which is the Slow Food way after all. Our designated four hours were not enough time to try everything, but we didn’t go away hungry, that’s for sure.

Sunday was a “free” day for my friend and me, as we participated in no-cost Slow Food events. We headed downtown, where San Francisco’s Civic Center Plaza lawn was transformed into a victory garden complete with vegetables (which are being harvested through November and have been used to supply the city’s food bank programs). It was a glorious garden display, surrounded by a farmers market and various food vendors, and hay bales where one could set a spell while eating, digesting and soaking up the ambiance. We purchased really good salami and cheese sandwiches on crusty bread, drizzled with oil and vinegar. We also sampled a vegetarian offering from the Indian booth: channa masala and basmati rice with tamarind chutney.

That evening it was back to Fort Mason Center for the film, Our Daily Bread. An Austrian film by Nikolaus Geyrhalter, the 2005 movie is a close-up, un-dialogued look at factory farming. I have been in the food business for 30 years, but even I was surprised by the way much of our foods are grown. It is a must-see for anyone who eats.

Geri French, a registered dietician practicing in Santa Barbara who attended one of Slow Food Nation’s speaker panels, reported that as Slow Food helps shape the policies of food politics, the group is beginning to focus on pressing issues such as the treatment of farm workers.
French also attended the field trip that looked like the most fun to me — a tour of Marin County farms and food producers, such as Marin Creamery and Hog Island Oyster Co.

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No half-baked idea, this bread “snail” is on a roll at Slow Food Nation’s Taste Pavilion. (Janice Cook Knight photo)

During the weekend I also managed a trip to the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, touted as one of the best in the nation. It did have a wonderful selection of produce, and interesting herbs, seafood and cheeses that are not available in Santa Barbara County.

However, I came away from the weekend feeling incredibly fortunate — to live at a time when farmers markets are booming once again; to live in a city, Santa Barbara, where there are eight great farmers markets each week, three of them within a seven-minute drive from my house. I came away inspired, to cook a lot at home; shop the weekly farmers markets for more and more of the organic produce and meats, eggs, honey, nuts, fish and dairy products my family uses; and to keep my garden stocked with as much as I can reasonably grow.

At Slow Food Nation, I was temporarily surrounded by an abundance of others who are keenly interested in what they eat and how it is grown. It was a moving experience and I can’t wait until the next one.

Click here for more information on Slow Food USA’s Santa Barbara chapter. Click here or click here for more information on Slow Food USA and the Slow Food movement.

Janice Cook Knight is a writer, cookbook author and cooking instructor in Santa Barbara. She teaches cooking through SBCC’s Adult Education and Fairview Gardens Farm. Click here to visit her Web site.