This Labor Day a motley horde of salmon smokers, cheese mavens, boutique winemakers, chutney canners, counterculture chefs, guerilla gardeners, food gurus, and regular old citizens interested in America’s cosmic culinary changes descend on San Francisco for an event called Slow Food Nation, the largest-ever celebration of American food and a watershed moment for our nation.
Group it with Woodstock, the Seattle WTO protests and other comings together that formed inflection points in our collective consciousness. Food has blossomed as a formidable social force, a way for Americans to affect the world around them, a metaphor for all sorts of change.
“It’s the first continental culinary congress,” explains Gary Nabhan, the Arizona anthropologist who’s been talking about the pleasures of eating local since before most locavores were born. When he stopped by the Slow Food Nation office recently, he flashed back nearly four decades to the atmosphere of the first Earth Day’s headquarters, complete with endless interns, tireless brainstorming and sincere faith that “we can change the world.”
There’s no doubt it’ll be a good party. The city’s Civic Center will be stocked with aisles of cheeses, olives, wines, breads and honeys—mostly little-known and beautifully made, all crafted in the USA. From Flying Bison beers of Buffalo to buffalo jerky of Colorado, from Mississippi salami to Texas mozzarella, from Carolina pumpkin chip preserves to Royal Hawaiian honey, plus pickles by Brooklyn’s own Rick’s Picks and McClure’s Pickles, this land’s food was made for you and me.
The site of the legendary Ferry Plaza farmers market will offer an even more exhaustive selection of California foods than usual; restaurants from the Mission to the Haight will feature menus that resonate with the event; Slow-on-the-Go will sample the city’s ethnic eats, from bahn mi sandwiches to tacos with free-range pork; a banquet for 500 will celebrate the solidarity between rural and urban, farmer and eater.
But it won’t just be about the food. On the eco-gastronome spectrum—to borrow a term from Slow Food godfather Carlo Petrini—the American incarnation of Slow Food has always been more eco than gastronome. Perhaps it’s because our food traditions aren’t as deeply rooted as those in the Old Country. Perhaps it’s because we seek redemption for our dysfunctional eating habits. Like the sinner who gets saved, the United States has in short order assumed a leadership role in the international movement founded as a counter-offensive to a McDonald’s opening at Rome’s Spanish Steps. America’s 15,000 intrepid members and 150 chapters nationwide represent the largest contingent outside of Italy. (The map of these chapters overlaps closely with a certain growing network of local food magazines.) New York City’s membership is second only to Rome’s.
Buoyed by a growing appetite for real food, this country’s pantry of farmstead cheeses, craft beers, single batch spirits, heirloom produce and heritage meats rivals and dazzles its counterparts from Europe. American chapters have organized some of the movement’s most innovative programs, often intervening in cases where the U.S. government has faltered. The Edible Schoolyard project spurred a national movement and a parallel effort back in Italy. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Slow Food USA created the Terra Madre Katrina Relief Fund to support Gulf of Mexico food communities, including oystermen and shrimpers trying to get their boats back in the water and African-American farmers who raise forgotten varieties of sweet potatoes.
“We are about to birth a new movement,” says Slow Food Nation organizer Anya Fernald “connecting plate and planet.” Activists will sketch out a national holiday for picnics and sign a fantasy Farm Bill while chefs from coast to coast take station in the Green Kitchen, armed with a mortar and pestle and a single burner, crafting simple, essential recipes for busy modern people. Outside the Civic Center, a modern-day Victory Garden is coming to life; attendees will taste the abundance possible if we dig up our lawns. Pleasure and politics will emulsify as people taste and strategize what it means to eat and live well—but it will also be a call to arms. So grab your fork and take a seat at the table.