A Slow Food potluck dinner and meeting was planned for Wednesday, Sept. 2, at the Charlotte Senior Center. But then, a party broke out.
Things started slowly, placid but purposeful, which is how things should start at a meeting about an organization that sports a snail as its mascot.
The evening was presented as a chance to learn more about the Slow Food movement, which awards a Snail of Approval certificate to restaurants, markets, bars and other food businesses who demonstrate a commitment to good, clean and fair food, said Slow Food New England Governor Mara Welton.
The evening began with a potluck dinner featuring all sorts of delicious offerings chosen and prepared in line with the movement’s ethic. There was cheese and tomato pie, fresh pesto pasta, Green Mountain potato salad (from the Charlotte Library’s garden), Jacob’s cattle beans, roasted beets in balsamic vinaigrette, spaghetti squash casserole, zucchini pie, chickpeas flatbread, tomato mozzarella salad, apple desert galette and apple cake.
Almost all of the offerings appeared to be made with locally grown produce and presumably many were heirloom varieties.
Welton started her talk by giving the Charlotte Library’s seed library packets of three varieties of heirloom tomato seeds from Half Pint Farm in Burlington’s Intervale. Welton and her husband sold the farm to their employees a couple of years ago. Charlotte Library Director Margaret Woodruff is on the Slow Food board, and the gesture was much appreciated.
The three varieties of tomato seeds included Solomon star cherry tomatoes which hybridized on their farm. Welton named it in honor of the time they spent in the Peace Corps in the Solomon Islands.
“There’s a pink star on the bottom and the sunsets looked just like this tomato,” she said.
Slow Food gets cooking
The Slow Food organization started in 1986 in Italy in opposition to the building of a McDonald’s near the Spanish steps in Rome.
Now, “100,000 people from around the world descend upon Torino every two years and it’s a love fest for food,” said Welton. “It’s a mecca for people who love the food, respect the seeds and respect the process and the people that interact with all of these things.”
Slow Food will be 30 years old this year. Its founding manifesto was signed on Dec. 10, 1989.
Welton said the Slow Food movement questions, “How do we preserve the things we love, if we’re all going to be eating out of McDonald’s and box stores and boxes? How do we preserve our identity through food?”
Welton said ‘mirepoix’ is the term for the three main starting ingredients before cooking a meal and that the mirepoix of the Slow Food system is “good, clean and fair.”
“You cannot have a Slow Food event without good, clean and fair at the center of it,” Welton said. “Good, clean and fair is the axle to the wheel that has a million spokes that go to that hub. How you get to that good, clean and fair is your own personal Slow Food journey.”
Welton said that the “lens” through which she got to Slow Food was through her farming, through celebrating and saving seeds and through cooking, admitting that she was “a little bit of a cookbook junkie.”
She discovered a book in the Burlington library, “The Pleasures of Slow Food” by Corby Kummer, that not only introduced her to the ethic and some recipes but enthused her with a passion to start a Slow Food chapter in Vermont. However, Welton was surprised when she called the U.S. headquarters of the organization in New York with her idea to find that Slow Food Vermont has been around longer than Slow Food U.S.A.
Slow Food for everybody
Welton traveled to Italy to find out more about the organization and came back convinced that this was what she should do. At the time, Slow Food U.S.A. was trying to overcome the image of being perceived as “white tablecloth dinners and restaurants only.” She said that feels too exclusive and her focus since becoming involved is to get everyone to the table.
The Vermont group has cultivated more inclusive and accessible events such as potlucks. In recent years, there has been a trend towards sponsoring themed potlucks, such as a potluck with souffles, a molecular gastronomy, and a potluck with aspics (a dish where ingredients are set into a gelatin mold made from meat stock or consommé, which is a clear stock.
“Vermonters are not dumb cooks,” Welton said. “A lot of Vermonters really love to cook, but we love to push the envelope. And that’s one of the things you can do with Slow Food – you can try something you’ve never tried before and you can do it with people who will also respect that attempt,” said Welton.
One of the things that she brought back from Italy was an admiration for their school curriculum of food and tasting. Sometimes teachers will bring 75 apples to school and have their students taste every one. The students are asked why they do or do not like each apple. They are encouraged to develop a vocabulary to describe different tastes.
“It’s creating a deeper relationship with things that might be just average food otherwise,” Welton said,
She quoted Alice Waters, chef, food activist and member of Slow Food International executive committee:
“I want to change the way America eats and the way to do that is to get the kids on board and the way to do that is to have them have gardens at their school and to have them involved in the food production at their schools.”
Welton said that they partner with Slow Food UVM which has an enthusiastic campus chapter. “They are so motivated and so excited about how to get their fellow students involved with understanding the importance of good food,” she said.
As she closed her talk, Welton complimented the potluck dinner and said she was happy that someone had brought cake because it gave her the opportunity to share her favorite Julia Child quote:
“A party without cake is just a meeting.”