This article on the Slow Food Nation conference incorrectly said that ice cream vendor Bi-Rite Creamery had run out of three flavors. The vendor was Three Twins Ice Cream.
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Slow Food At Full Speed: They Ate It Up
The message appeared to be getting through. At a stand where volunteers were explaining how to compost at home, Lisa Martin, a 30-something Oakland resident, said she was looking to volunteer at a food justice organization or, at some point, make a career change. The conference, she said, "has brought together knowledgeable people on a wide range of issues that will get people to do something different in their lives."
Across the street, ticketed lectures and special sessions for food activists took even more serious tones. The panelists included representatives from the culinary, corporate and academic sets: chef and Slow Food Nation founder Alice Waters, essayist Wendell Berry, physicist and environmental activist Vandana Shiva and Bon Appetit Management chief executive Fedele Bauccio.
For two days, speakers debated such topics as how to address the world food crisis and how to bring fair wages to farm workers. Part of the answer, panelists agreed, was to clearly link food to the pressing issues already on the political agenda: rising oil prices, global warming and the skyrocketing cost of health care. The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization, for example, reports that livestock production generates nearly one-fifth of the world's greenhouse gases. And without cheap oil to produce fertilizers and transport food long distances, food prices will continue to rise.
"Politicians don't get it yet. But if they try to look at energy, health or security, they will stumble on food. It's all connected," Michael Pollan, author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma," told a packed house at the Herbst Theatre.
No matter the topic, the subtext of every session was a defense of Slow Food itself. The organization's emphasis on the pleasure of food, something that raises no alarm bells in Italy, where the organization was founded, but has long made Slow Food vulnerable here in the United States, where the idea of savoring that perfect summer tomato smacks of elitism. To that end, panelists tried to redefine good food as something that is not only tasty but also sustains the environment and the farmers who produce it.
"For food to be good, it must be good, clean and fair," said Carlo Petrini, who founded Slow Food International in 1986 in response to the opening of a McDonald's near the Spanish Steps in Rome. "If any one of these conditions is missing, it isn't good food."
"Good, clean and fair" was the mantra of the event. The slogan was on every sign at the market, and it was especially prominently displayed across town at San Francisco's Fort Mason. Inside a 50,000-square-foot space, Slow Food had set up 15 "taste pavilions" to show off the best regional and national artisan producers.
For $65 (a price some bloggers complained was itself elitist), attendees sampled "flights" of wine, cheese, honey, olive oil, ice cream, chocolate and charcuterie at stylish booths designed using sustainable, recyclable materials such as milk crates and Mason jars (see "Top Tastes at the Pavilions"). There were also chef demonstrations in the so-called Green Kitchen, a pet project of Waters, who says part of making good food accessible involves teaching Americans how to cook. Among the presenters were Chicago's Rick Bayless, New York's David Chang and Washington cookbook author Joan Nathan.
At the Saturday afternoon tasting, the lines were long, especially for ice cream, cheese and charcuterie. (At one point, producers started bringing out trays of samples to keep the crowds happy.)
But like the lecturegoers across town, most attendees seemed to find the atmosphere energizing. "It gives you a sense of the universe of what's out there," said Andy Beahrs, a 35-year-old from Berkeley who attended only the tasting. "If you talk to producers, they want to talk to you to share their enthusiasm."
That was what organizers hoped to achieve. "What we're trying to do is create a place where people can come together and celebrate a values-driven food system," said Anya Fernald, the event's executive director. "We have to take it one step at a time."