The movement isn't about returning to the 19th century; it's about participating in a marketplace for eccentric products, so people will consume them. Because if there's one thing Americans are good at, it's consuming.
IT'S 7:45 ON A CLOUDLESS SATURDAY morning in downtown San Francisco. Chef Chris Cosentino is swerving his Toyota Matrix through tight corners to get to the Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market before his favorite vendor runs out of organic radicchio. He forgot to advance-order it. "What the hell are you doing, you friggin' shavin' monkey?!" he hollers to a car idling in front of his targeted parking spot. He careens into another space, runs his hand through his spiked half-chocolate, half-vanilla hair, bounds out of the car, and grabs a Peet's triple espresso before sprinting for the veggie stands.
At first glance, Cosentino seems an unlikelynay, alarmingambassador of Slow Food, an 80,000-member international nonprofit with 800 chapters in 52 countries. When he's not cooking, the 32-year-old head chef at Incanto, a critically hailed Italian eatery in the city's Noe Valley area, races mountain bikeshe won the overall solo in the 2002 24 Hours of Tahoe. His sponsors include Clif Bar and Red Bull. Is this a guy who does anything slowly?
That question points to one of the big misconceptions about the not so slowly burgeoning Slow Food organization, whose American branch, Slow Food USA, was launched in New York in March 2000, just months before Eric Schlosser published his best-selling Fast Food Nation, and has already grown to 12,000 members. Before I met Cosentino, I had heard only a little about the group. I knew they had a rather precious little logo of a snail. I knew they promoted esoteric artisanal foods and traditional modes of food production: Save the shagbark hickory nut!that sort of thing. I pictured a bunch of tweedy, goblet-tinking foodies arguing the fine points of lactobacillus use in the preparation of Bulgarian buttermilk.
While this image is not entirely wrong, slow food is actually a lot more funand a lot more radical. The movement was born in Italy 18 years ago, when journalist Carlo Petrini organized a group of locals armed with bowls of penne to protest the opening of a McDonald's near Rome's ancient Spanish Steps. The charismatic Petrini unleashed brilliant diatribes against the 20th century's loss of small farms, of healthy eating, andmore viscerallyof taste itself, as staggering numbers of foods went extinct. The movement, he wrote in the Slow Food Manifesto, would be an antidote to "Fast Life, which disrupts our habits, pervades the privacy of our homes and forces us to eat Fast Foods.... Fast Life has changed our way of being and threatens our environment and our landscapes. So Slow Food is now the only truly progressive answer."
This turning of the tables has been an easy sell on the other side of the Atlantic, where culinary traditions are deeply ingrained and where Petrini, still president of the international group, is one of the 30 most influential people on the Continent, according to a recent Time article. But what works on the Mediterranean doesn't always translate here. Siesta? Nada. We're the country that invented the TV dinner and the drive-through. We crave Hot Pockets and call ketchup a vegetable. Most of us don't know a fusilli from a fusillade. Let's face it: If we can't do slow food, er, quickly, the movement has as much chance of survival as the Galápagos snail.
Which is why it's heartening, as well as appetizing, to watch Cosentino fly through the market. There's no radicchio to be found, and he's pissed. But then his sous-chef, Tracy McGillis, rings in on the polyphonic video cell phone and says she found some. Slow food, it turns out, isn't about returning to the 19th century; it's about thoughtfully participating in a marketplace for eccentric products, with the goal of getting people to consume them. Because if there's one thing Americans are good at, it's consuming.
"Slow Food is about two words: conviviality and sustainability," says San Francisco chapter co-leader Carmen Tedesco, 54. To serve its "eco-gastronomic" mission, the organization essentially parties its way to enlightenment. Local chapters throw buyer-seller shindigs to introduce members to worthy crops and breeds and the eco-conscious farmers who raise them. The result: Those farmers stay in business, and the whole industry tilts a bit closer toward practices like organic production and more diverse cultivation.
By encouraging people to eat rare "heirloom" species, Slow Food keeps those species in domestication. Last year, the organization arranged 5,000 advance orders of rare and delicious Narragansett turkeys for Thanksgiving; the profits went to struggling farms, and the bird's breeding population was doubled. Slow Food also aims to reconnect the masses to the food chain with initiatives like public-school gardening projects. "We're not about gluttony and elitism," says Erika Lesser, 30, the Brooklyn-based executive director of Slow Food USA. "We want people to have a viable alternative to industrial agriculture. We want to change the way people think about food."
Given the explosion in farmers' markets and a projected consumer demand for organic products that's expected to surpass $30 billion by 2007, it's a movement whose time has come.
Cosentino stops to chat up Clifford Hamada, of Hamada Farms. "When will you have Buddha's hand citron?" he asks. ("It's really ugly," he says of the bitter-lemon-type fruit. "Looks like an octopus. I candy it or shave the fruit on a mandoline and sprinkle it raw on salads.") This third-generation farmer, says Cosentino, sells dozens of kinds of peachesdozens! Cosentino dashes off to check out some Braeburn apples, which he will use in a rutabaga-and-pasta dish.
"I seek out this food because it's the best food," says Cosentino, whose Incanto is a slow-foodie's wet dream of hand-cranked pastas, house-cured salumi and mortadella, and a dazzling array of obscure Italian wines with impossibly long names. "But I also love these guys. It's about relationships."
Walking around the spectacular outdoor market, overlooking the Bay at the Embarcadero, I'm all over it. The conviviality! The healthfulness! The idealism! But then I remember that most of this pretty stuff has to be cooked, or at least prepared with some modicum of slicing, dicing, drizzling, and tossing. Can Americans actually be talked into putting aside those handy boxes and bags of processed foods?
"Look, you don't have to do it all the time," says Cosentino. "When I'm racing, I eat any old shit. But people can't be afraid to cook. It's easypick up fresh organic tomatoes, toss them with an incredible cheese, and put it on your pasta. Or buy a Crock-Pot, throw in some meat and fresh carrots in the morning, come home from work, andboom!it's done."