Taking it Slow in Italy
Two young Vermont food producers break bread at the Slow Food International conference
Written onDecember 01 , 2010
Getting together, the listening to and exchanging of ideas— that is the miracle of Terra Madre.”
With this, Slow Food International founder Carlo Petrini welcomed us to the 2010 Terra Madre conference and set the tone for our four days in Turin, Italy. He addressed an audience of 5,000 representatives from 161 countries—small-scale farmers, producers, educators, and observers—who had traveled to Italy to meet with their peers and discuss global issues of food, culture, and justice. We came to take part in the conversation, too, along with two dozen other Vermonters. The experience renewed our appreciation for the value of gathering around a table to break bread and to exchange ideas.
Slow Food International is an organization that was formed in 1986 in response to the expansion of McDonald’s within Italy. Since then, chapters have formed in 132 countries. They offer an alternative to our increasingly hurried lifestyles and industrial food culture by celebrating thoughtful pleasure and community, and food that is good, clean, and fair. Lovers of Slow Food from around the world first met in Turin in 2004, and subsequently the four-day Terra Madre conference (the name means “mother earth”) has taken place biannually. It is necessary to apply to be delegates to the conference, and we were fortunate to be accepted this year. We were joined by Vermonters from a variety of farms, restaurants, and institutions, including Green Mountain College, the New England Culinary Institute, and the Intervale in Burlington.
As a cheese maker and a baker, we are both artisans and business owners. We work to balance these two roles while sharing our passion for food with our fellow Vermont communities. While at Terra Madre, we attended workshops and forums where we listened to speakers from around the world via interpreters who translated through wireless headsets. At the end of these long days, we returned to our hotel and seated ourselves gratefully at long tables lined with bottles of wine. It was here that we discussed the outcomes of the workshops with other conference participants, and how those outcomes were related to our own lives. Over plates of pasta, Piedmont beef, Sicilian cannoli, and glasses of artisanal grappa, we told stories about our homes and recounted highlights of the days’ events.
Despite the unfamiliar flavors and faces, those meals were immediately reminiscent of how Vermonters gather around the table to share the bounty of their labors and the fruits of their own farms and kitchens. The dinners we shared in Turin were very much like the hunters’ breakfasts, potluck weddings, harvest festivals, pie fundraisers, and farmers’ markets that have brought us together in Vermont for generations to celebrate and share food. Participating in these meals, we felt proud of Vermont’s progressive and innovative nature. Looking around the table and hearing stories from other countries reaffirmed our belief that, compared to other places, Vermont is already a strong provider of good, clean, and fair food.
In the midst of the busy conference, taking the time to eat with others engendered a spirit of openness and dialogue. Our neighbors around the table shared many of the same concerns that people in our Vermont communities have. Foremost was the desire to provide quality food to all people, since every country has residents who struggle with food insecurity. Another common need was to protect the biodiversity of our food systems and the cultural diversity of our societies.
Establishing this common ground was valuable, but we also saw that the Terra Madre network could find strength in its differences. Even in the United States, the concerns of delegates varied widely. An ethno-botanist from the Lakota tribe described her efforts to bring traditions of hunting and foraging back to her people in the Dakotas. A Slow Food member from Juneau, Alaska, spoke of the difficulty in finding any open space for growing food in her densely populated town. A fourth-generation farmer from Georgia recalled his neighbors’ skeptical reactions to his shift to organic practices and their ongoing surprise at his success. As we look for solutions to issues of sustainability and community, having a culturally diverse dialogue means that there are more worldviews and traditions from which to derive solutions from. For example, “hollow” farmers in the American South and Native American hunter-foragers have found very different ways to nourish their people in a sustainable way, yet each system holds wisdom relevant to the future of food.
These distinct experiences reminded us of how insular our own Vermont communities can be and inspired us to find ways to open our circles to unfamiliar voices. Diversity in Vermont may be less noticeable than at Terra Madre, but there is a wide spectrum of cultures, needs, and lifestyles that provide depth and resilience in every part of our state. At home, as at Terra Madre, eating together gives us opportunities to acknowledge our similarities but also to appreciate the insights that emerge from our differences. We have returned to Vermont with this in mind and have come home ready to celebrate with the intention of making more room around our tables.
Learn more about Slow Food Vermont at vermontslowfood.org.
Photo by Jen Smith