Sunday, April 21, 2002

Slow Food fights for right to good tastes

        Slow Food doesn't sound like an organization that would thrive in the United States. After all, this is the country that invented and still voraciously feeds on fast food.

        But Slow Food, founded in 1986 by a bunch of mad-as-hell Italians fighting the opening of a McDonald's restaurant at the foot of the Spanish steps in Rome, is growing here.

        The organization claims 75 conviva, or chapters, and more than 5,500 members in the United States. Around the world, Slow Food, which is headquartered in Bra, Italy, boasts more than 60,000 members.

        This group is about more than railing against Ronald McDonald. Slow Food's manifesto states it is “a movement for the protection of the right to taste.”

        Americans often like to talk about protecting their rights, but the right to taste is not typically one of them. (The right to rapidly move through a drive-through window is more likely to get us up in arms.) But evidently, there are Americans who care about taking the time to taste the pot roast.

        “We have all these folks — farmers, restaurant owners and others — who have decided that (“fast”) is not the way we want to live our lives,” says Dick Bessey, a volunteer at the Slow Food USA headquarters in New York.

        An aspiring baker and restaurateur, Mr. Bessey joined Slow Food in 1995 while living in North Carolina. His favorite “slow food:” Bread, cheese and wine.

        “It's not like we're saying you have to spend five hours making your spaghetti sauce,” Mr. Bessey says. “But we believe it is better to use ingredients grown locally, and to cook the sauce with love and deliberate attention.”

        Since its beginnings, the Slow Food movement has embraced specific causes, including sustainable agriculture, the consumption of locally grown products and preservation of so-called “heritage” livestock breeds. Slow Food USA, for instance, has started a project to save four little-known breeds of turkey from extinction. One is the Bourbon Red turkey, a bird first bred in Kentucky in the late 19th century.

        Why spend time and effort saving these turkeys when there seems to be an abundance of the poultry at the grocery?

        One good reason, says Mr. Bessey, is to ensure genetic diversity in the turkey population. If disease devastated the common white turkey population, for example, other breeds would be available for production.

        Another reason: Many people, including Marian Burros of The New York Times, believe the Bourbon Red turkey tastes better than the white turkey, whose flavor is approaching the numbing blandness of supermarket chicken.

        To save the heritage breeds, Slow Food sought hatcheries and farmers to raise the birds, then processors to clean them. This year, Slow Food USA hopes to secure nearly 5,000 orders for the turkeys. The plan is to simultaneously increase the heritage turkey population while building consumer demand.

        At the local level, Slow Food chapters support these projects and learn a little while enjoying themselves at meetings and meals. In February, Slow Food Pittsburgh explored the world of American caviar with a tasting and brunch. In January, Slow Food St. Louis toured a bakery, then tasted and compared 16 American and European butters. Reportedly, they took their time.

        “We're more of an educational and advocacy organization,” says Mr. Bessey. “Instead of jumping up and down about how terrible fast food is, we'd like to point out you can take the same amount of money to feed four people at a fast-food restaurant, buy fresh food, spend a little more time cooking it and then enjoy the meal.”

        If you are interested in forming a Greater Cincinnati Slow Food chapter, call (859-344-8403) or e-mail Maggie Green of Fort Wright ( or contact Slow Food USA (212-965-5640; Membership is $65 per year or $75 for couples.



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