Every so often, I’m fortunate enough to be asked to be a part of something really special. Perhaps the best part of getting older is that these inclusions seem to happen more frequently. I would imagine that my 35+ years in hospitality and 20+ years in Charleston has a lot to with this fact. Let’s just say that when City Paper reached out to me and my wife, Carrie, to be guest editors for this season’s Dish, I was thrilled. I was thrilled because the proposal would permit me to help write and curate a magazine supplement for a newspaper that I have read since moving to Charleston in 1996. On top of this, the theme of the issue is Slow Food, a topic that has slowly permeated not only my professional life, but my personal life as well. Lastly, the project would enable me to work with Carrie. Carrie and I haven’t worked together since 2007 and I think we both jumped at the opportunity to work together on a subject we feel strongly about: Slow Food.
So, Slow Food. What is it? I think that many of us in the restaurant industry should have some semblance of understanding as to what Slow Food means or perhaps recognize that Slow Food is an organization that emerged to combat another movement: Fast Food. In fact, years before the official founding of Slow Food, the movement’s forbearer, Arcigola, mobilized to block the opening of a McDonalds in Rome, near the Spanish Steps. In 1989 the principles that were at the heart of that battle came to define the Slow Food Organization. With the worldwide growth of fast food and the astonishing pace of its popularity, the pioneers of the Slow Food movement realized that the globalization of fast food risked destroying their European heritage, that since its inception was centered around the locality of their foods and defined not only the region’s gastronomic identity, but cultural identity, as well. Having been to Italy a number of times, it is not surprising to me that the birth of the Slow Food movement began in the land of Parmigiano-Reggiano, Spaghetti alla Carbonara, and vino Barbaresco. Each region of Italy is defined probably more so by its gastronomic heritage than by its geographical borders. I have never experienced a culture that is so passionate about food, or one in which food and drink is such a focal point of life and to threaten the food culture of Italy was and is a direct threat to their identity as a people, as well as their livelihood.
The motto of Slow Food is Good, Clean, and Fair Food for All. This is the heart of the mission. Good refers to the quality of our actual food. Good denotes that the product is wholesome, seasonal, local, fresh, and delicious. These are the guidelines I’ve used in the restaurants in which I have had the good fortune to run the kitchen.
Clean stands for food that promotes biodiversity. Biodiversity is a cornerstone issue of the Slow Food movement and refers to all of the plants and animals that make up an ecosystem. Due to industrial food practices and their adverse effects on the environment, we have seriously impaired the biodiversity of our planet. In fact, in the 10,000 years that humans have raised thousands of plant varieties, in the last 70 years we have lost 75 percent of that diversity. Slow Food aims to save endangered foods and gastronomic traditions through its many projects. The Ark of Taste is one such project that was created to protect and promote global biodiversity. Through the Ark of Taste, the Slow Food movement highlights foodstuffs that are on the brink of extinction and helps bring them back into cultural relevance. Local Ark of Taste ingredients you may recognize are Sea Island Red Peas, Carolina Gold Rice and last year’s addition to the list, Seashore Black Rye.
Paramount to these ingredients’ repatriation in our Lowcountry fields are the people who help to resuscitate their existence. Seed savers like Sean Brock and farmers like Glenn Roberts and Greg Johnsman have had a profound effect on preserving our Lowcountry identity. Scholars like David Shields are also integral because of their never-ending research as to what and how the Lowcountry ate over the course of history and how it has changed over time.
Lastly, Fair honors the labor from field to fork. This is a two way street where farmers and fishermen are paid a fair wage for their work and consumers receive a quality product for their money. Providers like Celeste and George Albers, the Ambrose family, and Mark Marhefka must be compensated accordingly for their efforts to do things the right way. Anyone that knows any of these folks know how many hours they dedicate to their livelihood each day. By choosing to support people who take pride not only in the quality of their product, but in the history and locality of their work, we are helping to preserve the diversity of cultures and food traditions in the U.S.
In the last number of years, Charleston has had the great fortune of receiving a lot of national attention, especially as it pertains to our food scene. Being a Midwestern transplant, I quickly realized upon arrival just how rich the food culture and history is here. One might say that Lowcountry fare is the oldest and most defined cuisine in all of America. I think this wondrous history has made the region’s ties to Slow Food a natural fit. Many of us at the helms of kitchens in Charleston have been supporting the “good” foods grown by area farmers for years. Peninsular Charleston has long fought against chain restaurants coming into the city and changing the food landscape. This effort reminds me very much of the effort to keep the golden arches out of Rome in 1986. Though the length of Charleston’s food history is minute in comparison, the fight to preserve what’s genuine and truly representative of each is very much the same.
There is no doubt that Charleston’s rich food history, culture, and this modern day epicurean renaissance have made our city a fertile breeding ground for Slow Food principles. Not only are there more and more restaurants that embrace farm to table practices, we also have more Community Supported Agriculture, Fishery, and Garden programs (CSA, CSF, and CSG programs) being established every year. Just as exciting and relevant in my personal life, my wife, Carrie, has spearheaded Tiny Tastemakers, a Slow Food Charleston initiative focused on helping children experience the food culture of Charleston as a joyful part of their lives. By witnessing my son, Jack, partake in a number of these events and camps firsthand, I have seen a consciousness within him grow, as well as a deeper understanding of what “Good” food is and where it comes from. Carrie and I have noted that even at the age of four, he’s inclined to eat foods that are in season and pass on favorites when they are not — most tomatoes just don’t taste as good in January.
As mentioned, Slow Food values have long been a part of my professional life. In 2012, these principles were even further embedded after attending the first Mad Food Camp in Copenhagen, Denmark. It was in Denmark, at the food symposium, that a greater awareness and sense of accountability developed after hearing Rene Redzepi speak about our responsibility as chefs to purchase local, sustainable, and environmentally friendly products in our restaurants. He drove home the point that the combined purchasing power we hold in the food industry not only can dictate a greater demand for Good, Clean, and Fair foods, it also sets a positive example for home consumers to hopefully emulate.
Personally, Slow Food values have taken on a far greater meaning for me since marrying and having a child. Though I would always try and purchase local, seasonal, organic, free range, grass fed, non GMO, antibiotic free, recycled goods for our restaurants, for years I didn’t apply these constraints when buying food for home. I’m a penny pincher at heart and let’s face it, sustainable goods are usually more expensive. It was really after marrying Carrie that I came on board with practicing responsible food purchasing for personal use. Carrie’s passion for Slow Food and its mission to help fix our broken food system has been truly inspiring. Over time, I began to see that supporting local farmers was something that could be just as rewarding at home as it is in our restaurants. Teaching and sharing these values with Jack and Carrie is just as fulfilling as sharing the Slow Food ideology with the few thousand guests that eat at Wild Olive, The Obstinate Daughter, and Beardcat’s each week. Through making a commitment to Slow Food practices at home, I’ve personalized the same mission at work.
Last September, Carrie, Jack, and I had the great fortune to attend an international food conference for Slow Food, in Torino, Italy, called Terra Madre. As Charleston delegates, this conference enabled us to network with fellow Slow Food members from around the world and to learn more about the successes and failures other cultures have had in supporting Good, Clean, and Fair food practices. To be able to share this experience with my family, made this trip even more meaningful.
More than anything, I feel that, for the first time in my career, I have been able to reconcile my personal and professional self with the positive practices and values that the culture of Slow Food helps cultivate. Given our nation’s current political, environmental and social climate, this fact has given me a bit of solace, as of late. We all have to eat. We all are what we eat. We are all given free will to make our own decisions. Deciding to adopt Slow Food principles into our lives is a conscious effort to better do a fundamental task, that we all must do to survive — eat. For me, it has become that simple. If we all want to do the right thing, we can start by making wiser decisions as it pertains to what we put into our bodies and how we acquire these foods. In doing so, so many larger issues are able to come into focus along social, political, and environmental lines. For me, the credo of Good, Clean, and Fair food for All has become a great paradigm for doing what’s right. Chances are that if I am following the principles set forth by Slow Food, I am striving to live a healthy lifestyle that is respectful of other people and cultures and also to the earth. Slow Food has become the embodiment of this challenge and its noble effort to better ourselves and our environment.