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Slow Food MN’s forum on Terra Madre
with essays by Lebo Moore and Jenny Breen, and two videos

Terra Madre is Slow Food International’s biennial conference of the sustainable food world. It takes place in Turin, Italy and can be a life-changing experience for the thousands of farmers, chefs, educators, food activists and others who attend.

On January 13, 2013 Slow Food Minnesota (Twin Cities) held Tales of Terra Madre, a forum where the delegates our chapter sponsored could share their impressions and experiences. The forum took place at the McNally Smith College of Music Sound Bite Café. The speakers were Jenny Breen, Lebohang Moore, Julianne Seiber, Vince Xiong and Jane Rosemarin (who did not receive a grant from the chapter). After the presentation, there was a potluck with some larger dishes provided by the delegates.

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A slideshow of photos taken by Terra Madre attendees:
Jenny Breen, Val Landwehr, Lebohang Moore, Jane Rosemarin, Stephen Scott and Bruce and Julianne Seiber

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A Visit to Terra Madre
by Lebohang Moore

After tasting aceto balsalmico di Modena for an hour or so, I made my way around the Salone del Gusto Italian pavilions (Yes, there were three entire arenas devoted just to regional food production in Italy!), munching on parmesan, savoring prosciutto, sipping vermouth and apperitivi, all the while trying as many olive oils as I could. It was that morning, on the 26th of October, that the brilliance of Terra Madre hit home for me. As noted, I quite literally spent the morning eating my way through Italy. My belly was completely satisfied. That afternoon I attended a discussion that reinforced, in my mind, the importance of Slow Food and left me with a multitude of questions and motivations to contribute to the greater movement. The panel that I attended was titled How to wean a gourmet. I actually went to it by mistake, but I saw a friend, sat down and was surprised by what I heard, so I stayed.

The panel was made up of psychologists, food scientists, parents, farmers and nutritionists and the talk was of taste. Mainly, the great gift that taste is to our life experience and the importance of developing broad tastes from an early age. Taste, as explained to me is an evolutionary trait. And yet, it has not caught up to our current society. Humans used to crave fats, salts and sugars because it kept them alive. It was a matter of survival to find quick bursts of energy. Unfortunately, our sedentary lifestyle does not require the same amounts of these tastes anymore, but our taste buds act as though we do. Our cravings for fat, salt and sugar have lead to health concerns that instead of being addressed are being promoted through our globalized food system and the standard American diet.

We need a taste revolution. And it starts in the womb. There is evidence that the sooner babies are introduced to real foods and a variety of flavors the more likely they will be to make healthier food choices later in life. They grow to be adventuresome in their food choices and not so tied to tastes that should only be consumed every so often. Our bodies have a funny way of adapting, where if we don’t use a feature, it tends to disappear. Taste is no different. The more hidden fats and sugars we continue to consume, the less likely we are able to exercise our taste for bitter foods like fresh, whole vegetables grown by our local farmers.

There is no room to enjoy food when satisfying hunger is the only motivation. The commoditization and de-valuing of our food culture is a much longer discussion but in the end it all comes down to taste. We eat because it tastes good, but we need to know how to taste in order to eat well. The diversity of food and food production around the world needs to be preserved in order for our taste buds to maintain their sensory power and lead us towards healthier lives for ourselves and for our planet. There is no better place than Terra Madre for knowledge like this to grow. I am so grateful for the opportunity to have shared exceptional food, intriguing conversation, and inspiring experiences in Torino.

I know now, more than ever, that this is a fight worth fighting. The harder we work to diversify our tastes and to make good (healthy, just, affordable) food accessible to all, the better chance we have to challenge our current food system, combat serious health issues and foster a renewed stewardship of our environment. It seems to me that the Slow Food movement is the taste revolution we have been waiting for.

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Food and Joy
by Jenny Breen

When I told my friends and family that I had been chosen as a delegate for Terra Madre, the International Slow Food Conference in Turin, Italy many of them replied by asking, “What is Slow Food?”

While I had attended various Slow Food related events and fundraisers, and even did a book signing with Slow Food Minnesota, truthfully, I didn’t have a very detailed answer to that question. And even though I had signed on as one of the delegates from Slow Food Minnesota, I really didn’t know what to expect at Terra Madre each day, except that I would be part of a group of activists, students, farmers, producers, and policy wonks, and also that these would be days filled with tasting regional foods from around Italy and the world.

Now, I have a better answer to explain Slow Food. The Slow Food movement began in 1986 in Italy, in direct response to the opening of a McDonald’s in Rome’s famous Piazza di Spagna. Instead of launching a protest, Carlo Petrini formed the Slow Food movement. Slow Food committed to Petrini’s mantra: “A firm defense of quiet material pleasure is the only way to oppose the universal folly of Fast Life.”

In its first years, Slow Food heavily concentrated on food and wine, producing what are considered to be Italy’s best guides to wine, restaurants, and food stores. Originally, many of the members represented a class and community of people that had more to do with eating and cooking good food as a hobby. The members were typically people with some disposable income, who cared about ingredients mainly because of their quality and taste.

But in the mid-1990s the Slow Food organization developed a new political dimension that it called eco-gastronomy. "We want to extend the kind of attention that environmentalism has dedicated to the panda and the tiger to domesticated plants and animals," says Carlo Petrini in The Nation. “A hundred years ago, people ate between one hundred and a hundred and twenty different species of food. Now our diet is made up of at most ten or twelve species.”

To prevent the disappearance of prized breeds and species, Slow Food has adopted the concept of the “presidium,” or the defense battalion, creating a list of endangered foods and sponsoring strategies to try to save them. These kind of endangered foods were foremost at Terra Madre. I encountered countless booths representing unique foods from small communities all the way from Guinea Bisseau to Latvia, and each had clearly benefited from organizing and presenting their products in a packaged and professional way. These are the new generation of food micro-entrepreneurs representing a global return to truly local and sustainable foods. Ultimately, these small businesses have the potential to transform their local communities and the generations to come, as well as having a place in the international food market. A powerful combination if it works.

Slow Food has grown throughout the world and now claims over 100,000 members in 132 countries. Additionally, the mission of Slow Food has grown, and the organization is now targeting its attention, and much of its resources toward food justice, meaning work related to policies, educational programs, and sustainability. This pursuit reaches many people from often remote and/or resource-poor parts of the world.

Indeed, one hundred countries were represented at this convention, and that geographic diversity and inclusivity was an extremely meaningful and enriching part of the conference as a whole. And while the pomp and circumstance of the opening ceremonies at times seemed excessive, I was nearly brought to tears as I watched people proudly carrying their national flags and sporting their traditional dress. I considered the paths that many of these individuals had traveled to arrive at this place and at this time, an idea that would prove to be one of the most inspiring and poignant themes of the entire conference. I was continually awestruck by the extensive and diverse food traditions many of us have never known, and the unsung heroes working to keep these traditions alive in some very challenging situations.

I was also humbled to recognize that while many people around the world are struggling to retain their food traditions in the face of difficult odds, as Americans, we have created almost the opposite problem. In an interview in 2001, Petrini said “The American gastronomical community simply contemplates its own navel” and has no political consciousness, and the American environmental movement has tended to have a “self-denying, ascetic component that regards eating anything other than tofu as hopelessly selfish and decadent.”

This statement resonates with me in a profound way. I spent much of my twenties thinking that as an ‘activist’ I had to be serious, and ‘pure’ in such a way that there seemed to be no place for pleasure. It took me years to realize that my activism was expressed through the buying, eating, and cooking of food, and even more time to understand that joy is foundational to my work. I now embrace and emphasize the joy of cooking and eating as crucial to transforming our own health as well as the health of the overall food system. I am excited about Slow Food’s explicit joining of pleasure and activism, a connection that every person in every place can benefit from. This emphasis on pleasure takes nothing away from the importance or effectiveness of one‘s work. In fact, I believe it is more effective because it is at once nourishing the body and the spirit while also creating change in the world. (Seems like a worthwhile research question for someone to pursue!)

Of course, because of this philosophical foundation, the Terra Madre conference is a strange combination of political organizing and absolute gluttony. Terra Madre delegates spend close to five full days wandering back and forth between academic presentations about topics such as indiginous food wisdom and starting a school garden to shoving multitudes of food and wine into their mouths. (this is a mix of some things from the Salone de Gusto-the Italian side, and some from Terra Madre. I will stick with Terra Madre only) Some of the highlights for me included: two year old Gouda cheese from Bulgaria served with some of the darkest, nuttiest rye bread I‘ve ever had, Balinese purple rice, delicate aged red and white vinegar from the Southern coast of France, kelp and blackberry infused sea salt from Iceland, white poppy seeds from Czechoslovakia, millet cous cous from Kenya, and fermented corn cheese (vegan) from Libya.

Ultimately, the tastes, people, and overall experience of Terra Madre left me stunned, speechless, and full of hope.

Jenny Breen’s story first appeared in the Web magazine Simple, Good and Tasty, and appears here with Jenny’s permission.

Food for Change, a Terra Madre video by Oxfam International

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