- Steven Kolpan
- Steven Kolpan is Professor and Chair of Wine Studies at The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, NY. Steven is co-author of Exploring Wine, which has sold more than 125,000 copies, and was nominated as Best Wine and Spirits Book by the James Beard Foundation. Steven is also co-author of WineWise, a consumer-friendly guide to the wines of the world, which won both the 2009 James Beard Foundation Award for Best Beverage Book and the 2009 Georges Duboeuf Award for Best Wine Book of the Year. He is also the author of A Sense of Place, a history of Napa Valley's Niebaum-Coppola / Rubicon Winery (foreword by Francis Ford Coppola) that received the prestigious Versailles Award for Best American Wine Book in 2000. He is a contributing editor and the wine columnist for The Valley Table and Salon.com. In 2007, Steven Kolpan was named Wine Educator of the Year by the European Wine Council. He has been a member of Slow Food International for 20 years. Steven Kolpan lives just outside of Woodstock, New York.
Slow Food: The Politics of Pleasure
One of the most compelling and conflicting ironies of the early 21st century is the difference between the way that we – the citizens of the postmodern/post dot.com world – eat, and the way that we perceive food. At a time when so much food is produced in the most high-tech, industrial, centralized, multinational - and inefficient - way, many of us want our food to be wholesome, fresh, local, seasonal, organic and sustainable. We perceive our food to be the product of family farms, when actually the family farm is the most threatened and most diminished form of food production in the world. Food is the talisman of large-scale agribusiness, and our daily diet is increasingly dependent on fossil fuels, modern transport, controversial science, and socially unacceptable labor practices.
We also want our food to be cheap, available any time and in any season at the 24 hour supermarket. We want this commodity to be non-perishable, easy to prepare, and not take away valuable time that could be spent working, taking the kids to soccer or to ballet class, shopping, watching television (and shopping), answering e-mail, surfing the web (and shopping), or doing homework. No problem. Eat a burger and fries or a tired salad at your desk while you work; take the kids to Mickey D’s for dinner – they can eat in the car on the way to wherever or from wherever it is that everybody had to be. The game. The recital. The shrink. Or, nuke some stuff in the microwave, sit down in front of the TV and/or the computer, and consume high-speed culture as you consume fast food nutrients.
And Carlo Petrini says “BASTA!”
Petrini is a food-loving, farm-loving 53 year old Piemontese, and the leader of Slow Food, a movement whose origins are Italian, but whose message is becoming universal. The seeds of Slow Food were sewn in 1986, when McDonald’s placed its golden arches at the foot of Rome’s Piazza di Spagna (the Spanish Steps). Petrini, a food and wine journalist with a flair for the dramatic, saw this invasion of fast food culture as a threat to the patrimony of his beloved native foods and food traditions, and began to write polemics that struck a resonant chord with many Italians. Petrini began to organize conferences centered around the history and culture of food, treating traditional farms, foods, and the osteria and trattoria of Italy as an endangered species. (Osteria: small, informal, and convivial eating and drinking places serving true traditional dishes, sometimes in the homes or attached to the homes of the farmers who owned them. Trattoria: also traditional food, but often with a native-born chef in the kitchen; more of a local restaurant and bar).
The genius of Carlo Petrini was to minimize the political and intellectual rhetoric at these conferences, and to maximize the food and the wine. Able to strip away at the large and small political differences that separated so many people, Petrini realized that if he focused on issues of pleasure, taste and regional authenticity, and how these dual imperatives were threatened, he could bring people together. This a particularly neat trick in Italy, which at last count had at least twenty-five political parties, each of them made up of people who rarely agree with each other about anything. Of course, there is another fact about Italy that worked in Petrini’s favor: it would be hard to imagine another country that, political arguments aside, could embrace the issues of pleasure, taste, and the importance of its native victuals with such ease and such enthusiasm.
Stories about the extraordinary meals, coupled with tastings of artisan-produced wines, cheeses, fruits, vegetables, and salted and smoked meats at these early meetings of mostly left-leaning Italian foodies spread. Journalists, politicians, artists, scholars, winemakers, farmhouse cheesemakers and artisan prosciutto producers, among many others stepped forward to join this nascent movement and to enjoy some great meals in the presence of fellow food-obsessed Italians.
From 1986 to 1989, Petrini, with the help of many friends and colleagues, worked to expand the messianic message of food and culture throughout Italy. Little by little, like-minded folks would show up from neighboring European countries to enjoy the food, wine, and company of these intelligent, indulgent Italians, who after a night of exquisite eating and drinking could deconstruct and argue about what they just ate and drank, and how it differed from what their grandparents ate and drank, and how that differed from what Apicius ate and drank, and finally agree at five o’clock the next morning that without food there is no true love, and without love there is no true food. Steeling himself against the morning chill with at least one more “last” grappa (perhaps made by artisan Romano Levi, who also creates an original naïve poem and child-like drawing for each label of his pomace brandy made from the skins, pips, and stems of the Nebbiolo grape), Carlo Petrini begins to think beyond the borders of Italy.
In the middle of the forest, a tortoise and a snail have a gruesome head-on collision. The snail is rushed to the emergency room, where a doctor asks what happened. On the edge of consciousness, the snail responds. “I don’t know, doctor. It all happened so fast.”
- Unattributed old joke
The snail is the logo of Slow Food. Carlo Petrini calls the snail “an amulet against exasperation, against the malpractice of those who are too impatient to feel and taste, too greedy to remember what they have just devoured.” In 1989, with the snail as a logo and symbol, as a mindset and attitude, and a new name that reflected that snail’s perspective, Slow Food, now a strong movement in Italy, reached out to the world.
In the summer of 1989 I received a fax with a simple but elegant drawing of a snail and an invitation to lunch outdoors at Barolo, a ristorante on West Broadway in SoHo. The fax was from Doreen Schmid, a friend who represented the Chianti Classico consorzio in the United States. Doreen was inviting me to a lunch to celebrate the launch of Slow Food USA. I called Doreen to find out more about Slow Food. Surprisingly, Doreen, who is normally very straightforward, started talking about this guy Petrini and how this was all good stuff and I should come to lunch and find out more. She was all over the maps of Europe and the United States by the time she was done, and I was now more confused than before I called. But I was curious and decided to go to lunch.
When I got to Barolo, Doreen introduced me to Flavio Accornero, whose family produced Barolo (the wine) in the Piedmont. At the time Flavio did not speak much English and I spoke less Italian. What I got from Doreen was that Flavio had come from Italy to set up an office for Slow Food at the behest of Carlo Petrini, who was the president of Slow Food. She gave me some literature about Slow Food – all in Italian. While I was trying to figure out what was going on and why I was invited to this lunch, I noticed dozens of attractive, beautifully dressed Italians, young and old, at the Barolo (the restaurant) bar, sipping negronis, and I joined them. They were a happy group, and seemed totally at ease with the idea of Slow Food, though nobody could explain to me why we were there. I was definitely the fast-moving tortoise in the room.
A few more Negronis and my snail persona began to emerge, just in time for lunch. We walked out into the sunshine for a lovely lunch in the restaurant’s garden. Between bites of fabulous food and sips of wonderful wines, I talked to many people. I listened intently to the Italian conversation buzzing around me, which was peppered every few seconds with the English words, “Slow Food.” The more I enjoyed the food, the wine, the company, the sunshine, and the more I heard those two recognizable words, the more I realized I knew exactly what Slow Food was about. Soon, I started explaining the concept to those around me. I think some of them even believed I knew what I was talking about; most of them could care less.
After lunch, Flavio and Doreen asked me and a few other Americans to linger at the bar, where I had a moscato grappa made by Nonino With the Beautiful Daughters (literally how the family is known throughout the Piedmont region of Italy. Once, in Alba, I asked a man for directions to the home of the Nonino family, and was quizzed as to which Nonino family. The man, who was trying to be helpful, narrowed it down to four Noninos when I mentioned grappa. I had met two of the Nonino sisters, and shared this with the man, who asked about them. “Bella?” he queried. “Bellissima!” I answered. Now, he became annoyed with me. “Why didn’t you ask for ‘Nonino With the Beautiful Daughters’ in the first place?”).
Flavio and Doreen asked me if I could come to Venice in October of that year for the first international meeting of Slow Food; I would be part of the American delegation. Basically, my duties would be to eat and drink and drink and eat, while meeting and talking with people who cared deeply about great food and its cultural preservation. I thought, “Yes. I can do this.” I humbly accepted the invitation.
Venice was a disorganized madhouse of people from many countries with a lot to say, all of it in their native languages. I was with the small US delegation of about eight people. Germany, Switzerland, Portugal, Greece, and Spain had large delegations. Small delegations from South America, Australia, New Zealand attended, while Great Britain (still not very active, even today) and France (now very active, focused on the dual issues of genetically modified food and the spread of fast food culture in both French gastronomy and language) were nowhere to be seen. And then there were the Italians, about a thousand of them, whose ranks swelled at all meals. In my memory, the conference was a confusing blur, but the nightly banquets were amazing. Foods and wines I had never tasted, some of which I had never even heard of, all of them delicious, and all of them shared with the some of the most passionate foodistas in the world made them taste even better.
One historic event did occur in Venice. The Constitution of the International Slow Food Movement was adopted, signed by more than 20 delegations from around the world. I remember, as our last banquet came to a close, raising a glass of extraordinarily powerful 1977 Amarone (made by Sandro Boscaini), in a toast to Slow Food, and then signing the document with a flourish. I still have the pen, a black UniBall, which I keep in a tiny wooden box next to the Boscaini Amarone in my wine cellar.
Since 1989 the world of “food activism” has become a smaller place, as citizens of many countries, led by European nations, have banded together to oppose genetic modification and manipulation of food and the creation of “Frankenfoods,” the spread of fast food culture at the expense of traditional food culture, the destruction of family farming, and what is perceived as the dictatorial hierarchy of globalization – the economic subjugation of poorer nations by richer nations and corporations – as witnessed by mass protests against the meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle from November 29 - December 3, 1999, in which more than 1,300 people were arrested, but not one person was found guilty of committing an illegal act. Many members of Slow Food have been active, visible and articulate movers and shakers within these protest movements.
At the same time as earth’s citizens are taking political action against forces they consider to be unhealthy and undemocratic, there is another wave of food activists that are engaged in what might be perceived as a more direct and more practical means of spreading the Word. Organic farmers, artisan food and wine producers, chefs, ranchers, writers, politicians, educators, home gardeners, and people who just want their food to be as pure, local, seasonal, healthful, and not least of all, tasty as possible have banded together in both formal organizations and at informal dinners to try to establish a new paradigm for growing food and eating.
In Europe, organic farms are growing at the rate of better than 40% per year, and in the United States (which had a substantial head start on farmers in the European Union), organic farms are growing at the rate of 12% per year. In October 2002, the United States began to implement a set of national organic standards, with accompanying legal labels. The standards, while not perfect, are a far cry from what the powerful agribusiness lobbyists tried to force-feed the American public (“organic” would include food grown in industrial sludge treated with petroleum-based insecticides, all irrigated by tertiary water polluted by that same sludge and those chemicals). In what may be the best example of “electronic democracy” to date, more than a million Americans e-mailed the USDA, members of Congress, and (then) President Clinton urging them to adopt the stringent organic standards recommended by the USDA’s own review panel.
Slow Food, which was cited in the Dec 9, 2001 issue of the New York Times as one of the 100 great ideas of 2001, and the “gastronomic version of Greenpeace,” embraces political action when necessary, but is far more effective in promoting and celebrating the bounty of organic and “heirloom” foods and the pleasures of the table.
Slow Food publishes books, two quarterly journals in English, Slow (exploring the philosophical, historical, and cultural underpinnings of the movement) and The Ark (exploring foods endangered by environmental, commercial, or legal crises; Ark products of the United States include: Red Abalone, Sun Crest Peaches, White Oak Cider, Blenheim Apricots, Creole Cream Cheese, Dry Monterey Jack Cheese, Green Mountain Potatoes, Heritage Turkeys, New Mexican Native Chiles, Delaware Bay Oysters, Iroquois White Corn, and Heritage Clone Zinfandel grapes), hold educational seminars and tastings, and local chapters (each officially called a “convivium”, the newest of the more than 70 convivia is here in the Hudson Valley) throw glorious dinner parties for members and potential members.
Since 1996, on a biannual basis, Slow Food holds the remarkable Salone del Gusto in a former Fiat plant in Turin, Italy. This event showcases artisan food products from more than 500 producers, an enoteca with more than 2,200 wines (including about 2,000 Italian wines) available to taste and discuss, and workshops in taste, including tasting “endangered” food products and traditional dishes, which by lack of interest and/or skill, or by current and proposed legislation – especially by the European Union – makes these exquisite foodstuffs and dishes either technologically irrelevant or actually illegal to produce.
I attended the inaugural Salone del Gusto in 1998, and was blown away by the food and wine, the generosity and soul of the artisan producers, and perhaps most of all by the more than 130,000 people who came to the Salone over the three days it was open to the public.
If you question French people coming out of one (McDonald’s), they’re embarrassed. It’s like they’ve just been to a sex shop. They say, ‘I just went to see what it was like and I won’t be going back’.”
-José Bové, Sheep Farmer and Food Activist, 2000
(Quoted while spending 40 days in jail for demolishing a McDonald’s under construction in his hometown of Millau; Bové refused to post bail and refused to pay a fine. During the WTO Protest in Seattle, Bové smuggled in a huge piece of Roquefort cheese made from the milk of his sheep to protest the United States policies of placing a 100% tariff on Roquefort and for declaring all unpasteurized raw milk cheeses illegal and potentially dangerous for human consumption).
José Bové, considered by many in France to be a national hero, is a food activist hybrid, created by crossing a smart farmer with some hot-button political issues. In France, independent family farmers are unionized, and have a strong political power base. That is not the case in most other countries, where farmers deal with issues of basic economic survival, and are usually quite independent by nature. Who speaks for the farmer who wants to feed people and at the same time uphold the farming traditions of his land and of her region? And who will buy the food, eat the food, enjoy the food?
Farmers’ markets, held daily or on weekends across the United States are a good economic outlet for the farmer and a good education for the eater. Slow Food president Carlo Petrini has observed that thanks to pioneers like Alice Waters, owner of Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, who has promoted the idea of farmers’ markets for more than 20 years, the United States is the leader in organizing and promoting farmers’ markets, and that the rest of the world must follow our lead, and play a quick game of catch-up if family farms are to survive and thrive.
The Hudson Valley is blessed with many fine farmers’ markets, and each year the number of local markets seem to grow exponentially. Since I live in Woodstock, during the market season (which has just ended) I would spend about a half-hour every Saturday at the Kingston Farmers’ Market and then take the long way home to visit and buy at the new Saugerties farmers’ market. We have a short season for these markets in the Valley, and as winter gets colder and colder, I miss them more and more.
It is not surprising that the United States has embraced the concept of farmers’ markets as a means to help farmers and to help teach consumers about the quality, sustainability – and affordability - of their local and regional foods. These markets are practical, replicable, open to the public, and an entrepreneurial community service. Unlike Europe, especially France and Italy, there is a distinct disconnect between our daily lives and politics, which we (perhaps foolishly) leave to a select group of largely incumbent professional politicians, hoping that our problems are their problems, our issues their issues. The approach of the farmer’s market is a highly American approach; a practical, if imperfect, commercial venture that serves the financial needs of the farmer and provides a convenience for the consumer. We can’t go to the farm, so the farm is brought to us.
The farmer’s market is reflective of a larger and more complex set of social, economic, and political issues that don’t have any easy solutions. But Americans don’t connect the dots like Europeans do. We are thrilled to buy our organic heirloom Green Zebra tomatoes, Russian Banana Fingerling potatoes, and our just-picked arugula from the farmer who grew them, and we tell our friends about the market, and they come, and it all feels good. Meanwhile, the average age of the American farmer is 57 years old and less than 10% of farmer’s children want to be farmers. Connect the dots.
Just as it takes Americans to lead the way in farmers’ markets, it turns out it takes an American food writer to successfully explain the complex theoretical tenets and day-to-day activities of the international Slow Food movement. Corby Kummer, a food journalist and a senior editor of The Atlantic Monthly, has written an excellent book, The Pleasures of Slow Food: Celebrating Authentic Traditions, Flavors, and Recipes. Much of this recently-published book is re-edited material that Kummer wrote as articles for the Atlantic and Gourmet over the last three years. Yet, when placed in the context of a book, a unified text, Kummer’s words are as fresh and vibrant as the food and people that he describes. The author observes what is unique about Slow Food and the people who define the movement, and then writes brilliantly and with respect for the subjects of his articles-turned-essays, and respect for the reader, as well. We really learn a lot by reading Corby Kummer, a writer so generous that he appears to be perhaps one step ahead of us on the learning curve, but is happy to bring us up to speed. Ironically, although you may want to savor this book in small portions, Corby Kummer’s Slow Food is a Quick Read.
The author has brought Slow Food to America in a way that no one else has. He focuses on the history of the movement and its progress to the present day without the pretense of rigorous historical analysis, but with an eye to celebrating the glories of the past, present, and future. He is particularly adept at explaining complex ideas in a way that are, on their surface, easy to understand, but also make you think and make the vital connections from one program of Slow Food to the next. When you read Corby Kummer on Slow Food, you can’t help but connect the dots.
Corby Kummer’s love of good, simple food and the people who produce and cook the food, leaps off the pages of this book, and is only amplified by the beautiful photographs by Susie Cushner. The recipes, by family cooks and esteemed chefs, are not full of manipulation and theater. Plate presentations are elegant in their simplicity, ethereal in their hearty earthiness.
Corby Kummer is as thin as I am fat. He dresses traditionally and impeccably, and with his close-cropped beard, large round eyeglasses, and a heavy dose of witty erudition, he reminds me of a modern-day Lytton Strachey, the wittiest member of the Bloomsbury group. And yes, Corby Kummer does love to eat, if “love” is the right word. When Kummer sits down to eat, a longshoreman poltergeist seems to inhabit him. I remember that I found it amusing that after a party of a dozen journalists had, after more than four hours, polished off 24 extraordinary “small tasting” courses prepared by Thomas Keller at the French Laundry in the Napa Valley, Corby Kummer, the skinniest guy in the dining room, wondered what was next. He was serious.
But I will never forget sitting opposite Kummer at a press luncheon at Joe’s Stone Crab in Miami, a restaurant that serves 600,000 pounds of stone crab claws each year. We were served our deliciously succulent cold crab claws family style, which meant that Kummer and I shared the same serving bowl. After a few minutes at the table, I began to identify with the crab on my plate. I believed that if Corby Kummer and I reached for the same stone crab claw at the same time, I would lose a claw…uhh..finger. I ate four or five crab claws and retired. Corby Kummer seemed not to notice, and continued to eat happily right up until the time we had to leave Joe’s.
Stone crabs is only one of the subjects that Corby Kummer writes about in The Pleasures of Slow Food, and he does so brilliantly by writing about fisherman Michael O’Leary of Longboat Key, Florida. In the course of the essay, Kummer gives us a window into O’Leary’s life on the water, as well as how stone crabs are harvested (only the claws, which the crab regenerates are kept, and each crab is thrown back in the ocean), and how they are protected by law and by custom. The essay concludes with a stop at Moore’s Stone Crab Restaurant in Longboat Key, O’Leary’s exclusive customer, a restaurant that serves 200,000 pounds of stone crab claws. And while we know Corby Kummer is scarfing down those crab claws at Moore’s, his writing remains graceful:
"O’Leary brings his catch to an unchanged piece of Americana – the sort of place any Slow Food member goes out of the way to visit: Moore’s Stone Crab Restaurant…
In an age of fast food, Moore’s is one of those family-run shorefront restaurants that hardly exist anymore, a place where everyone lines up at the screen door on the wide wooden verandah and walks down to the water while waiting for their name to be called…
Paper menu placemats show Moore’s endearingly clumsy logo of a bright red stone crab. The specialty, of course, is boiled and chilled claws, served on oval plates with tartar sauce and a wedge of iceberg lettuce. Some things are better left perfectly plain. Stone crab claws – thick, cool, popping with seawater, requiring just enough cracking and picking to be a challenge amply rewarded – meet the test of perfect simplicity."
In addition to O’Leary, Corby Kummer creates memorable portraits of artisan cheese makers in Italy and Vermont, butchers and sausage makers in Germany and Pennsylvania, sea salt harvesters in Portugal, an ice wine producer in Canada and an heirloom wine grape grower in France, an heirloom apple farmer who produces hard cider in New Hampshire, an antique potato farmer in Maine, and a fruit and botanical grower in the Australian rain forest.
Recipes, as might be expected, are creative but grounded in the ingredients of each dish. It is wonderful to see so many American and American-based chefs represented, and to see the farm-restaurant connection celebrated. With the cold weather upon us, try Elena Rovera’s Chicken Cacciatore with Baked Potatoes – hearty, delicious comfort food. (Note: do not use the Roero Arneis wine the recipe recommends. It is a white wine; the recipe calls for a red. Any inexpensive but drinkable medium-bodied dry red wine will work for this dish.)
Daniel Boulud is known for his extraordinary food at Restaurant Daniel in Manhattan. He is a master of refined technique and plate presentation. Here, however, Boulud seizes the opportunity presented by the doctrine of Slow Food to cook from the heart, and gives us a dish from his childhood; his grandmother’s Barboton d’Agneau, a slow-cooked lamb stew, utilizing lamb shoulder, an economical cut of meat that would never be featured in his restaurant (he would substitute lamb chops). It is a perfect winter dish.
Recipes from Rick Bayless (Frontera Grill in Chicago), Judy Rodgers (Zuni Café in San Francisco), Deborah Madison (Santa Fe), Paul Bertolli (Oliveto, Oakland), and Alice Waters all sound quite appetizing, and cooking from The Pleasures of Slow Food should be, well, a pleasure.
STEVEN KOLPAN is Professor of Wine Studies and Gastronomy at The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY. He is the author of A Sense of Place: An Intimate Portrait of the Niebaum-Coppola Winery and the Napa Valley, which was awarded the Best Wine Book of 1999 by the Versailles (France) Book Awards. Steven is the co-author of Exploring Wine, a definitive wine text now in its second edition, which was nominated for Best Wine &Spirits Book by the James Beard Foundation Awards.In 2007, Steven Kolpan was named Wine Educator of the Year by the European Wine Council. He has been a member of Slow Food International for 20 years.