Restaurant Review - How Slow do you go?

A visit to North Carolina to meet the founder of Slow Food

When I moved from North Carolina to Atlanta a year ago, I thought my new home would hold much greater culinary range than the smaller community I was leaving. For the most part, that assumption was correct; Atlanta had all the big-city restaurants I missed after leaving New York City, all the ethnic haunts I could handle, and a hell of a lot more variety than the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill Triangle's smaller population could support.

But there was one place I was surprised to find Atlanta lagging behind North Carolina, and that was in the use of local produce.

There are chefs in Atlanta committed to the concept of seasonal, local cuisine, but as a movement, Slow Food had very little visibility. Chefs like local produce because it is the freshest and the best – it makes their food taste better. But other aspects of Slow Food – preserving family farms, environmental concerns, equating food quality with quality of life – were rarely discussed issues.

By contrast, North Carolina has one of the largest Slow Food movements in the country. Last year, the North Carolina delegation to Terra Madre, Slow Food's international conference in Italy, was the second-largest from the United States. In the Triangle, the best chefs are inextricably linked to the farm community. Seasonal menus dominate, and chefs cook at the farmer's markets. What results is a true community, fueled as much by passion and politics as by commerce or foodie pretension.

So when Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini visited the United States from Italy this month, one of his few stops was North Carolina. When I heard about the picnic being held in his honor, where all the area's best chefs and farmers would gather, I made my travel plans.

Petrini is visiting in part to support his latest book, Slow Food Nation (Rizzoli, $22.50). Like his previous works, the book chronicles the movement's beginnings, which were in part a reaction to McDonald's opening a restaurant near the Piazza di Spagna in Rome. In Italy, Slow Food is as much about preserving the local food traditions as it is about organics. It's an idea that doesn't translate as well in the United States, a nation whose main tradition is the very blending of cuisines that Petrini hopes to avoid in Italy.

The picnic took place on a farm outside Chapel Hill, home to local cheese producer Chapel Hill Creamery. In a large field, on an idyllic late-spring evening, farmers and chefs gathered under tents to show off the fruits of their collective efforts.

There was a lot of pig there. I made a beeline for Damon Lapas, a friend who owns the Barbecue Joint outside Chapel Hill. He served two kinds of barbecue – whole-hog and a mix of ham and butt, both made from pigs raised and slaughtered locally. They underscored how much I missed North Carolina-style barbecue.

Chefs ran around the field, bringing each other tastes of what they had made, from roasted veggies to deviled eggs. "These are Ben and Noah's eggs," someone said, giving credit to Fickle Creek Farms, whose chicken and eggs have inspired many chefs I know.

Andrea Reusing, chef at Lantern in Chapel Hill, is the leader of Slow Food in the Triangle. Her table was a meditation in pork variations from head to tail, with some asparagus thrown in the middle. When less-intrepid picnickers tried to reach for the asparagus, Reusing told them they had to try the pig-ear salad before they were allowed the inviting green spears.

Petrini arrived a little late. Trailed by a translator, he spoke politely to Slow Food members.

Petrini's talk, like his book, was full of lofty ideas and beautiful language. Through a translator, he spoke with grand gestures about the Earth's metabolism, and about the link between gastronomy and environmentalism. Much of Slow Food Nation is dedicated to redefining the term gastronome, lending it a more political and social context rather than the snooty connotations Americans associate with the word.

"All gastronomes must become environmentalists," Petrini said, "and all environmentalists must become gastronomes."

Petrini certainly has a point about the link between issues of food supply and environment. Factory farms and pollution are huge factors in the threat to our food supply, and if everyone embraced the ideology of Slow Food, it's hard to imagine a scare like the spinach debacle of last year.

I recognized faces of those who have been directly affected by Petrini's ideas. Joan and Charles Holeman own Flat River Nursery. As small farmers, they were barely surviving 10 years ago; Charles worked various jobs to supplement the terrible prices he got for his tomatoes. Now the Holemans sell at three grower's-only markets, and a family farm with a 100-year history is thriving again.

But because chefs provide most of the support for the movement, many of the people benefiting from the exposure to local food are people who were already eating in restaurants. In the United States, the people who could really benefit from healthful, seasonal produce are the poor. Rich people have always eaten well.

Petrini suggested that if we eat better food and eat less of it, eating well wouldn't actually cost any more. It's a simplistic and optimistic answer, and one that, in the land of 99-cent value menus and 10-for-$1 boxes of ramen noodles, isn't likely to convince poor parents trying to feed their kids.

But it got me thinking about the next logical step for Slow Food in America. While Europeans have a viable concern to preserve their food culture, American Slow Food enthusiasts might put their efforts into finding a way to use these ideas to slow the obesity epidemic, to teach our children how to eat better and to make this into a real public-health issue. This is already starting to happen, particularly in California, where chef and local-produce champion Alice Waters has started the "Edible Classroom," in which children learn to grow and cook their own food in Berkeley's public schools.

I see the potential here in Atlanta. In the past year, the farmer's markets have grown, more chefs are paying attention to the seasonality of their ingredients and the public seems to be more interested. I had a chance to speak to Petrini after he addressed the gathering, and I asked him what his thoughts were on communities that hadn't become swept up in the ideals of Slow Food.

His answer was quite confident. Standing in an idyllic field surrounded by farmers and chefs working happily together, he replied, "These ideas are destined to grow."

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