“Slow Food" is a phrase that gets a quizzical glance from most of the people I mention it to. It has a kind of oxymoronic ring to it but, like Global Warming, it's just a simple way of referring to a multi-faceted idea. The Italian founder, Carlo Petrini, says “The Slow Food principles are that food must be good, clean and fair." To me it means something both my reptilian brain and my evolved brain can grab onto: it's delicious and delicious in a number of ways that make a difference.
Yes, food can be delicious and sustainable. If we consider the impact of our choices, food can make us better connected to the place where we live and to the people we care about. We go to France and Italy and Thailand and Vietnam for the chance to taste things that are food equivalents of Notre Dame and the Sistine Chapel and Angkor Wat - each a fractal and summation of the thousand years of history that has produced this amazing culture.
Unless we are students of history, we miss the fact that seemingly simple things, like the eponymous croissant, have an evolutionary trajectory. And that there is a reason why it is the specialty of the region. How many people know that eating this buttery crisp pastry represents devouring the Islamic crescent, commemorating a Frankish victory at Tours over 1200 years ago? Somehow knowing that gives pleasure that feeds a part of me that is not in my mouth.
It’s the desire not to miss that continuously evolving pleasure that leads me to consider that where we live in this little corner of the Great Lake State, we have things that are created with as much care and are just as specialized to our own region as the croissant is to France. And that if you look, you can still find people who feel as deeply about the connection of food and place and community in Michigan as you can in France.
An event like Building the Beloved Food Community connects those dots. There is actually a local food community. If we feed it, it can feed us. On both the physical and metaphysical levels.
Each of the panelists at the BTBFC event was someone you’d like to get to know better. Nicola Noble, a no-nonsense petite brunette you could easily imagine in hip-high wellies, explained how 60 years ago when Calder started, there were over 100 dairies in Southeast Michigan. Now there are only about 5. Calder has over 150 cows that they milk twice a day, fed from food they grow on their farm. The farm is open for visits every day, and they still deliver milk in glass bottles – get this – to your house – if you live anywhere in the Carleton area. See:
<a target="new" href="http://www.calderdairy.com/">Calder Dairy</a>
John Loomis, tall and rangy with red, capable hands makes perhaps a dozen mostly soft and fresh cheeses by hand from Calder milk, and from local goat’s milk also, for Zingerman’s. He learned to make cheese in Europe, but wanted to come back here to "build unique regional character with local products." John’s cheeses are made in a traditional slow-er way that focuses on development of flavor as the ultimate goal. And I must say, they are as tasty as the best cheeses I’ve had anywhere else. The Little Dragon goat cheese flavored with tarragon is incredible. See:
<a target="new" href="http://zingermanscreamery.com/content/pages/home.php/">Zingerman's Creamery</a> and
<a target="new" href="http://www.cheesemonthclub.com/pastnewsletters/vol6no3.htm">Creamery Newsletter</a>.
With her lovely long gray hair and apple-cheeked smile, Annie Elder is clearly the grande dame of the local CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) scene. Annie Elder and Paul Bantle’s Community Farm is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. They grow food for about 180 families, using biodynamic agriculture. This method "seeks to work with the life-giving forces of nature" according to its founder, Rudolph Steiner. Unlike some other CSAs, Community Farm requires a commitment of labor to help with the work of the farm from its members. This has to make the food taste even better. See:
<a target="new" href="http://www.communityfarmofaa.org/">Community Farm of Ann Arbor</A>
The speaker whose topic generated the most excitement was probably Ashley Atkinson. Call me age-ist, but I don’t think she was over 25 years old and runs a huge project in the Detroit Garden Resource Program Collaborative, part of the Greening of Detroit initiative. I could scarcely believe what I was hearing – that in Detroit there are over 1200 families and school groups growing vegetables on over 30 acres of inner city land. Based on a model of "cluster groups" they connect gardeners to each other and to additional resources. They have training programs and tool sharing, they have a newsletter, work meetings, free plants and seeds, and an incredible amount of community involvement and collaboration among local urban farming initiatives. This was amazing to hear about and to see photos of real live people doing this! See:
<a target="new" href="http://www.detroitagriculture.org/garden_resource_program.htm">Garden Resource Program Collaborative</a> of Detroit.
After the panel and once these local heroes finished answering questions, we got to taste some of the food they produce. Most people don’t think they can taste the distinctions between something like factory-farm produced milk in a plastic jug versus "single origin" milk in a glass bottle. But challenge that assumption! The difference is there in the sweetness and purity of the taste and it’s just as plain as day when you put them side by side.
Once we’re paying attention to feeding something beyond our tastebuds, the difference is especially apparent. My evolved brain thinks about what I want to put into my body and my family’s bodies, and what kind of business and ethics I want to support in our community. The true cost of cheaper goods is rarely apparent to my inner penny-pincher. Like many people I know, I’m slowly waking up to the reality that with food, things that are theoretically cheaper rarely remain cheaper if true cost is taken into account.
But on this MLK Day, I wake up to a different possibility. In the Beloved Food Community we know where our food comes from and support the friends and neighbors who produce it. It is more than a dream. It’s already a reality and it can grow into what we dream it could be. In the immortal words of Dr. King, "I have a dream" and my dream is for a future where food feeds us body and soul.