Calgary Journal Online

The joy of eating PDF Print E-mail
Written by Holly Hofmann   
Thursday, 12 August 2010 14:35

Slow food movement is cooking in Calgary

In 1986, McDonald’s, the king of fast food, tried to build a restaurant near the Piazza di Spagna in Rome. It was more than Carlo Petrini, an Italian author and social critic, could take.

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Last month at the Calgary Folk Music Festival, volunteers from Slow Food Calgary were on site with information about slow food and chefs from River Cafe prepared dishes from local producers.
Photo: Holly Hofmann/Calgary Journal
A demonstration formed in which Petrini and others wielded bowls of penne as weapons of dissent, sparking the beginning of a new movement.

As a response to fast living and the resulting fast food culture, Petrini founded the International Slow Food Movement in 1989, in favour of a return to the traditional preparation of food, leisurely consumption of meals with family and friends, and traditional agricultural practices.

Today, the movement has more than 100,000 members in 132 countries. In Canada, there are 37 slow food convivia, or chapters, and the second-largest convivium is found here in Calgary.

“Slow Food Calgary connects people with their food and gets them to think about where their food comes from,” says Karen Anderson, an event planner with the organization and also owner of Calgary Food Tours.

“It gets them to think further back to where the source is, not just a shelf on a supermarket,” she says.

Started 10 years ago, the Calgary Slow Food convivium has grown steadily over the last decade and now has more than 150 members in the city.

Last month, Slow Food Calgary president Kris Vester, along with a group of volunteers, set up shop at the Calgary Folk Fest, pairing local producers with local chefs to create dishes to sell at the festival.  Throughout the year, the organization participates in several events, providing information to the public  on what slow food is all about.

Vester, 36, is not only Slow Food Calgary’s president; he is also a farmer. Blue Mountain Biodynamic Farm, located about an hour north of the city, keeps Vester plenty busy, but he’s taken on a leadership role with Slow Food because he says he believes it’s important to have a generation of young farmers who are politically involved and able to engage the public.


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Carlo Petrini, founder of the Slow Food Movement, addresses leaders of Slow Food in Canada during a visit to Toronto.

Politics at the dinner table?

While the heart of the International Slow Food Movement beats for the pleasure of good food – savouring the flavour and enjoying time spent in the kitchen – the veins of the movement branch out in all directions.

“It’s a political movement, not just a food movement,” says Vester. “Essentially, we’re in favour of a non-industrial food system.

“A lot of people are unaware of the ugliness of what goes on behind the scenes,” he continues, referring to the industrialized food system, for example the unethical treatment of animals on some feedlots. “We want to put this on the public agenda so that the political elite pays attention.”

The organization has drawn little attention from provincial and federal governments as of yet, but this past spring, Calgary’s City Council invited Slow Food Calgary to provide input on plans for a local food policy.  

“If we don’t support local farmers, we’re not going to have any,” says Karen Anderson. “They’re all going to dry up and go away because they’ve got no business. We’re all buying pre-packaged food from multi-nationals off of the grocery shelf.”

Last year, Anderson devoted a chunk of her summer to creating The Alberta Snail Trail: Your Guidebook to Local Products at Farm Gates and Restaurants Around the Province. Local producers must be chosen by Slow Food Calgary, on merits such as sustainable farming practices, in order to be included in the guide.

“It’s a booklet that can be used year-round to source local,” says Anderson. “So for every farmer who is mentioned in the booklet, we tell you where you can find their products year-round. We are trying to make it easier for people to support local [food]. It’s not going be a mystery of, ‘Where can I get that great bison,’ or, ‘Where can I find local wheat?’”

 

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Slow Food Calgary’s annual Feast of Fields event takes place each September as a way to celebrate the harvesting of the crops. The event allows guests to see taste creations from local chefs and get ideas on how to prepare food from local producers.
Photo: slow food calgary/flickr.com
The booklet is paid for entirely by Slow Food Calgary through ticket sales to events and educational workshops throughout the year.  

Preserving more than just pickles

Because preserving heritage is part of slow food, Karen says teaching traditional skills is key to the organization’s work.

“That’s one of the reasons why we invest in putting on canning workshops each summer,” she says. “It’s a bit of a lost art, but what it allows you to do is eat locally year-round.”

Wade Sirois, co-owner of Forage and Infuse Catering, expresses a similar view on the importance of tradition.

“Between my grandmother’s generation and mine, we’ve lost the ability to make bread, to can and to keep a small garden,” says Sirois, whose involvement with slow food evolved out of looking for better quality ingredients to use in his kitchens.  

Sirois sources local and seasonal food in his recipes as much as possible, and has attended several Terra Madre bi-annual conferences in Torino, Italy, where people from around the world gather to discuss the production of quality food in responsible, sustainable ways.

Lindsay Anderson (no relation to Karen Anderson), a Slow Food Calgary volunteer, is currently in Italy, steeped in food culture and tradition. She’s studying at the University of Gastronomic Science in Colorno, Italy.

Founded by Carlo Petrini in 2004, the University claims to be the first school that devotes itself to the principles of the International Slow Food Movement, and states its main objective as bridging the gap between agricultural science and gastronomy.

“When you think about it, there’s almost nothing food doesn’t touch,” says Lindsay Anderson in a phone call from her apartment in northern Italy.

 

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Slow Food Calgary promotes eating locally grown produce from Alberta and British Columbia as much as possible.
Photo:  Holly Hofmann/Calgary Journal
Her studies include learning food anthropology, consumer sociology, and of course tasting tons of great food.  

Integrated into her curriculum are trips within Italy as well as abroad to Crete, Belgium and Spain, where she and her classmates visit local producers. They’ve climbed mountains to meet shepherds who make cheese, gone out on fishing boats to see mussel farms and learned the process of making prosciutto on a farm in Parma.

When she returns to Calgary, she says she’d like to work in some capacity with food security.

“I think sometimes it’s forgotten that the work of slow food is not only about supporting producers,” she explains, “but also about reforming the current food system in order to allow everyone access to fair and sustainably-produced food.

“Ultimately, I think it is the responsibility of every convivium to combat slow food’s reputation as a pleasure club for foodies. Events need to be as inclusive and affordable as possible, which would hopefully encourage greater community involvement.”


Twenty dollars for a chicken!%#?

The Slow Food Movement has often been criticized as being an elitist organization, something Wade Sirios describes as “narrow-sighted.”

“A happy meal costs less than a bag of organic carrots – there’s something wrong with that,” he says, adding we’re not looking at the true cost of cheap food.  According to Sirios, illegal labour practices, pesticides, and health care costs associated with poor diets and processed food take a heavy toll on our society.

 

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Lindsay Anderson (right) and a friend, currently studying at the University of Gastronomic Science in Italy, show off pies they made for a school lunch with Chef Barny Haughton.
Photo courtesy of Lindsay Anderson
As a farmer, Kris Vester says he knows all too well the costs involved with planting, growing and harvesting a crop. Yet he refers to statistics that suggest perhaps we’ve gotten too used to paying less to stock our cupboards and refrigerators.

According to Statistics Canada, Canadians allocated 19.1 per cent of their household expenditures to food and non-alcoholic beverages in 1961. By 2005, this percentage had decreased steadily to 9.3 per cent.

“But it’s not about absolutism,” Karen Anderson emphasizes. “If people spent half, or even 10 per cent of their money on local [food], it would improve our local economy tremendously. You don’t have to be 100 per cent to have an impact.”

And Vester stresses that slow food is not all politics and serious; it’s equally about pleasure, fun and enjoyment:

“It’s about sitting down and taking back a part of living we may have lost – the culture of enjoying food and eating in the company of friends and family.”

 
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