Lancing A Slow Boil

09/30/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011


On the one hand, the folks at Slow Food Nation have done an awesome job of staging this high-profile, low-impact extravaganza; the Marketplace and Victory Garden at San Francisco's Civic Center Plaza are giving the public a lovely and luscious lesson in all things local, while Friday's Food For Thought forums brought out a galaxy of sustainable superstars: Vandana Shiva, Wendell Berry, Carlo Petrini, Michael Pollan, Marion Nestle, Eric Schlosser, and Dan Barber, to name just a few.

And the trail-blazing steps the Slow Food folks have taken to spread the sustainable gospel and curb the carbon footprint of this Sasquatch-sized shindig are truly heartening, from Food and Water Watch's tap-touting, bottle-banishing water stations, to the composting exhibit demonstrating the alchemy that transforms waste into that precious commodity we call black gold, to the clever use of reclaimed materials everywhere you turn.

On the other hand--hey, are those teeth marks? Geez, can't Alice Water's Ambassadors of Good Food count on nothing but goodwill when they give a humble (and hungry) blogger entrée to the "VIP preview" of the Taste Pavilions?

This "monument to fresh delicious food" transformed a 50,000 square foot pier at Fort Mason into a dazzling culinary display that Destin Joy Lane, the luminous leading light of the Eat Well Guide, rightly described as a "Willy Wonka playground for adults." For me, it was Alice Waters In Wonderland--a lavish through-the-local-looking glass array of seductive sips and snacks declaring "EAT ME!" or "DRINK ME!" The Ice Cream pavilion had me grinning like a Chesire Kat, lapping up every last drop of the dreamy, creamy confections in my corn-based compostable bowl.

The Taste Pavilions showcase the finest, hand-picked regional foods, chocolate, wine, teas, coffees, etc. from the cheesemongers, brewers, bakers, beekeepers and others who are leading the real food renaissance. So why can't I just give my impressions of this gourmet gala without biting the hand that feeds me--especially when the food is so undeniably delectable?

Well, maybe because my mantra, according to agrarian "it" girl/Greenhorns director Severine Von Tscharner Fleming, is "My name is Kerry Trueman, and I care about what's true, man" (if only I could return the favor and devise a clever slogan for soil-saving Sev, who's to the manure born and a genius at making shit happen.)

So I'm compelled to sound off about a couple of slightly sour notes in the middle of this sweet 'n' savory symphony. As I noted in a previous post, a whiff of elitism clings to the Slow Food contingent despite all the fine work they do on behalf of building a better food system. Look, I'm as fond of artisanal cheeses and biodynamic wines as the next sustainable ag advocate, and of course there's a place for such gourmet goodies in the grand scheme of things.

But there were some critical components of the good food movement missing at this invitation-only event. Clearly, in this case, VIP didn't stand for Very Inclusive Party: the complexion of the crowd ran--if I may poach a line from Dorothy Parker--the gamut from A to B, as in alabaster to barely beige. It's safe--and sad--to say that the audience at the Republican convention next week will feature more people of color than we saw at Fort Mason.

I fear there's a parallel here to The Unbearable Whiteness of Green that Van Jones laments in the environmental movement. Jones has noted that it's a tough sell asking folks who are just treading water to get worked up about the fact that polar bears are having the same problem as climate change melts the ice sheets out from under them.

And speaking of climate change, what was up with the speaker (whose name I didn't catch because we arrived at the pier mid-way through her remarks) who stated that the single most important change you can make to your diet if you're concerned about global warming is to "eat organic." As Anna Lappé's Take A Bite Out Of Climate Change website clearly spells out, you'll get way more mileage out of eating less meat and shifting to a plant-based diet. Anna's participating in the Food For Thought Climate Change and Food forum later today and I'm sure she'll make this point effectively and eloquently. Here's hoping that will help offset the misconception conveyed to the crowd last night at Fort Mason.

Michael Pollan and Marion Nestle, our most high profile advocates of eating "low on the food chain"--i.e. putting fruits and vegetables front and center on your plate--were among the happy eaters at the Taste Pavilions last night. But where were the fruits and vegetables? Admittedly, the more populist, free-to-the-public Marketplace does feature lovely local produce, so perhaps the Slow Food folks thought it redundant to add fruits and veggies to the culinary cornucopia of cured meats, fish, cheeses, honeys and jams, breads, pickles and chutneys, chocolate, coffees, teas, beers, wines, spirits, olive oil, ice creams, and native foods.

Given that part of Slow Food Nation's stated mission is to support "clean," i.e. "environmentally sound," food, though, it seemed odd that produce had no presence at the Taste Pavilions.

But at the end of the day, the kudos far outweigh the quibbles. I arrived in San Francisco Friday mid-morning a sweaty mess after a two-hour drive from Boonville where I'd been visiting friends, and rushed straight to the Herbst Theater to hear the forum on Building a New Food System. The panel featured, among others, Marion Nestle and the Center For Food Safety's Andrew Kimbrell.

It was the only Food For Thought forum I was able to attend yesterday (for a terrific write-up of all the day's forums, see Paula Crossfield's post over on the Slow Food Nation website.) But the lively and thoughtful discussion of the dire need to reinvent our broken food chain was a fine example of how Slow Food Nation is bringing experts and eaters together to take on this challenge.

Marion Nestle ventured beyond simply blaming the Big Food baddies for the lousy diet that kills more Americans each year than Al Qaeda could ever hope to. She noted that without campaign finance reform, there's no hope for fundamental change in our food system. She cited another culprit, too; Wall Street's obsession with quarterly profits, which compels food manufacturers to focus all their energies--and their vast resources--on persuading Americans to fill up on empty calories.

So, at the end of the day, I wholeheartedly share my fellow blogger Bonnie Powell's enthusiasm for Slow Food Nation; any conference that provides The Marionator, as we fondly call Dr. Nestle, with a platform from which to fire away at the forces that have held our nation hostage for so long to fake foods that are as artificially cheap as they are artificially flavored. And you can join the call for real reform of our food system, too, by signing on to the Declaration for Healthy Food and Agriculture that Marion and some of her fellow famous foodies recited at a Slow Food Nation reading on Thursday evening. Can we change our food chain? Yes, we can. Along with you!