Fast turnaround and fast food are two phrases our culture has prided itself on, but consider the costs that these two concepts cause to our health, and by these I mean stress and disease, and then think about what could be different. Women such as Alice Waters and Sue Muncaster are thinking about that on a daily basis.
In the seventies, Alice Waters created the California cuisine movement with a commitment to serve only the highest quality products when they were in season, which she exhibited through her two Berkeley, California institutions. First at Chez Panisse, her signature restaurant where she has developed a network of local farmers and ranchers dedicated to sustainable agriculture in order to provide her ingredients, and second, a foundation in the same name which has created educational programs such as the Edible Schoolyard. The Edible Schoolyard brings it all back to ground level by educating kids in schools about growing and preparing their own food. Later, Waters connected with the founding father of the Slow Food movement in Italy, Carlo Petrini, who recognized in the mid-eighties that the industrialization of food was going to annihilate thousands of food varieties and flavors. He decided that food production and the enjoyment of food needed to slow down, gathered with twenty delegates from different countries to create a Slow Food International Manifesto, and made Waters Vice President of Slow Food International. The result: an organization and movement that is now active in fifty countries, and has a worldwide membership of 80,000, which includes 12,000 members of Slow Food USA.
Sue Muncaster first noticed those pleasures of the table from her aunt who loved to cook. One day after Sue’s four-year-old daughter and she had had “one of those days,” Muncaster’s aunt made them feel better by cooking her and her daughter “the most incredible meal ever.” Muncaster’s family had a history of cooking and recipes, so she thought about writing a book of family recipes with one chapter as a green guide for cooking. As Muncaster researched the environmental, social, and health aspects regarding food, the book idea dropped off. But the green guide took off, which led to the creation of her blog, The Ecogastronomy Initiative, a place for her to sound off about important issues affecting the food around her in Teton Valley, Idaho. She created the Web site to create a platform for her book, but in creating the platform, she decided that she was more into the platform than she was into the writing.
“What really inspires me,” Muncaster said in a follow-up email after our chat, “is that the farmers who have lived here for generations can no longer afford to farm and are selling out to developers. Meanwhile, in what was once a self-sustaining community, we can no longer buy local milk from the cows we pass on the road and all our organic produce comes from Los Angeles. I have gotten to know many of the old-timers and their children and have tremendous respect for the agrarian lifestyle. It seems so simple—they go back to growing food to sell locally, the farmland and lifestyle that makes this place so beautiful is preserved, the environmental impact of food distribution is mitigated, and we have better taste and health.”
But what exactly is The Ecogastronomy Initiative? Muncaster explains this between posts on whether eating fish with its mercury levels outweighs its important Omega-3 factors and her update from attending Terra Madre, Slow Food’s world conference in Turin, Italy, which gathered 5,000 sustainable food producers, chefs, and university representatives from more than 150 countries. Basically, the Ecogastronomy Initiative is her way to get those in Middle America involved in the conversation about how and where they get their food, and how to enjoy it when they finally take some time to sit down and eat.
While Muncaster researched the environmental aspects of food, she came upon the issues of organic food versus local food and seafood versus over-fishing. She explored the social impacts of food, regarding fair trade, global justice, and those cultural trades such as cheese making, which are currently threatened to be lost over time. As for the health aspects, Muncaster refers to nutrition and Americans’ approach to food. “We’re just so selfish. We only consider our own pleasure and health and forget to consider other cultures [and what they need]. In all of the decisions about food, we shouldn’t make a decision on our own health and taste, but think about the social aspect and eco-aspect.”
And then she stumbled upon the Slow Food movement. “It clicked and I said, ‘This is it!’” Slow Food USA had created conviviums (from the term, convivial, which Merriam-Webster defines as “fond of feasting, drinking, and good company), local chapters that encourage those involved to start their own local Slow Food communities.
Muncaster started by becoming a member of Slow Food in Twin Falls, Idaho, called Snake River Slow Food, but since they rarely had events, she called that group leader and asked to start her own Slow Food chapter. Five women signed on, three being from over the Teton Pass in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and one in town, the owner of the local healthy food restaurant, Miso Hungry. Therein began Slow Food in the Tetons.
First there was the Thai cooking class, which I attended, where we sat around one long table at Miso Hungry, touched and smelled rare Thai ingredients, learned to cook the meals in the kitchen, and then came back to enjoy the meal at the table. Muncaster hasn’t focused so much on the current rage of organic food, but instead, along with Slow Food’s goal, has focused on promoting sustainability. She learned the importance of redeveloping local food economies at Terra Madre. “By supporting the family farms, we create a reasonable income for those people who are creating our food,” she said. The next event she has created is called, “Locavores Night Out,” in order to promote eating food that has come within 100 miles of where they live. She invited the local food producers and a local chef who will create dishes using the producers’ ingredients.
And when I asked Muncaster why Slow Food in the Tetons when almost everything has to be flown into this little town nestled in the mountains? Her answer made sense. “I’ve never been this radical nor environmental. I do my recycling. But you’re always giving something up and scrimping. I found this food movement [to be] one of the ways to salvation. With Slow Food, you’re not giving something up.” And for Muncaster, that means gaining a love of food by developing a taste for those foods that help preserve what could one day be lost.