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The Slow Food Movement is Picking Up Speed

In recent years Slow Food is definitely talked about more than ever, but for many it still is not clear what the term slow food exactly means. There are the perceptions of slow growing food and slow cooking food. After all, we have slow cookers and even slow service in restaurants.

The Slow Food movement started 27 years ago in Italy. Roman citizens started protesting to a situation that we are faced with in San Miguel, the planned opening of a McDonalds fast-food franchise next to their much beloved historic landmark, the Spanish Steps in the San Marcos Square.

Carlos Petrini, a journalist, was among a group of very outraged Roman citizens. However, instead of using signs to picket and protest, they decided to protest in a very different, yet effective and deliciously proactive way. Petrini and his fellow protesters brandished bowls of penne and other home-cooked Italian dishes to demonstrate their culinary and social importance which was in danger of getting lost to consumption of fast and homogenized foods.

What a great idea! Maybe in San Miguel de Allende we should have parked one of our busy taco stands outside the proposed McDonalds location in the historic center. With the help of mariachis, the message would have been clear. The historic center should remain the cultural heritage of San Miguel, including with its local family-owned restaurants and stores.

After the protest the Italians began to look at all the flavorful, traditionally produced foods from the different regions of their country that had made Italian food one of the most popular cuisines in the world. These foods were beginning to disappear in the trail of industrialized food production and fast food operations.

A solution for preventing these severe losses needed to be found and three years later 15 nations signed a manifesto in Paris. The essence of their mission statement was: “Our defense should begin at the table with Slow Food. Let us rediscover the flavors of regional cooking and banish the degrading effects of Fast Food.”

Today, Slow Food has grown into an impressive global movement. There are over more than 100,000 Slow Food members in 150 countries working for good, clean and fair food. Their goal is to help producers of traditional foods to make good products, in clean environments and receive a fair price for their efforts so they can provide for their families and educate their children.

My personal century-old family history is very closely tied to growing and garnering food. My father’s ancestors in the Bavarian region of Germany were farmers and on my mother’s Danish side they were farmers and fishermen.

I have worked on farms, too, in the family tradition and know what hard and back-breaking work this is. Hacking at frozen soil to harvest sugar beets in freezing weather with clothes not fit for the cold, always made me wonder why farmers are not highly respected and paid fair wages for their harvest. Here we were providing affluent tables with their much coveted sugar, yet we were covered in mud, freezing cold, hungry and tired.

Photo Getty Images

That's just how it was, backbreaking work.

Carlos Petrini, president of the Slow Food movement, is trying to make the world understand that we have to respect and support the persons who grow the food that sustains us and to make sure they can earn a decent living for their hard work. For that reason I am a Slow Food member in support of this cause.

In 1999 Slow Food started to catalogue traditionally produced foods in Italy that were on the brink of extinction and decided to protect them from disappearing. They formed what they called Presidia (meaning in Latin “garrison” or “fort”) singling out producers of traditional foods and providing them with assistance for better development of their products and marketing tools to make them economically viable. This support system now has been applied in over 75 countries in the world.

Mexico today has five Presidia.

Vanilla from Chinantla in Oaxaca.

It’s the only region in the world where vanilla grows wild. This might mean that the area is the origin of the vanilla plant. The Aztec emperor Moctezuma demanded regular tribute of vanilla from the people of Chinantla.

Cacao from Contalpa, Tabasco. After the devastating floods in 2007, Slow Food stepped in, organizing fundraisers to help the growers restore their lost cacao trees.

Puebla Norte Sierra Native Bees' Honey. The art of beekeeping was highly developed in Mexico and most varieties were stingless. The biodiversity in the mountains of the Puebla Sierra Norte is a delicious buffet for local bees to garner pollen to bring back to their hives and turn them into their highly regarded honey.

Seri Fire Roasted Mesquite. The Seri people of Sonora are eking out a living in an area that has less than 100 ml (6 inches) of annual rain. Relying on planting crops is not an option in this region. Fortunately, they have the Pacific Coast for fish and seafood. However, the Mesquite tree provides them with beans which when dried is milled into flour for making tortillas.

Tehuacán Amaranth. This is most likely one of the oldest cultivated grains in the world. In Tehuacán it has been traced back to being cultivated 6000 years ago. This grain is a whole food, it has accompanied astronauts on their space missions, just in case they run out of junk food up there.

The amaranth plant that went to Chicago to grow in Rick Bayless' garden.

Mr. Petrini was recently on a multi city visit to Mexico. He attended “Mesamérica” a gastronomic summit meeting of chefs in Mexico City, a Slow Food event in Puebla and “Morelia en Boca” an international gastronomic festival. I attended this 3-day festival and as a member of the press was invited to listen to Mr. Petrini’s talk to a large group of students from one of Morelia’s leading culinary schools. His passionate talk in, Mr. Petrini’s own words, his best “italiañol”, he made it very clear that the situation is urgent and we are running out of time.

Carlos Petrini, press conference "Morelia en Boca 2013"

He vehemently addressed the danger of Mexico losing its over hundreds of variations of corn, which have been cultivated in their country for thousands of years, to the invasion of Monsanto’s GMO corn (genetically modified organisms). What does this mean? Mexican corn farmers have been selecting their seeds for millennium to ensure the best corn harvest for the coming seasons.

The corn seeds sold to farmers by Monsanto “invaders” with the promise of much higher yield than their traditional crops, those are referred to as “suicide seeds”. Their seeds do not reproduce new plants. To be able to successfully grow these seeds the farmers need to buy the Monsanto brands of pesticide and fertilizer. If winds or birds spread Monsanto seeds into fields of farmers who did not purchase the seeds from them, they can and have been sued by Monsanto since their seeds are patented. After about three years of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, the soil is exhausted and cannot support any more growth. It takes about five years for the soil to recuperate from this damage.

During the following press conference a young women tried to point out to Mr. Petrini that fast and packaged (junk) food was much less expensive, affordable and convenient for low-income households. His answer was NO, NO, NO. You will pay for it in the long run with astronomically high medical bills to treat junk food induced illnesses such as obesity, diabetes (often with limb amputations) and heart attacks.

Herein lies the tragedy of this grave situation; the indigenous farmers of Mexico were excellent and advanced agriculturists that bred and grew many grains, fruits and vegetables that made them one of the healthiest people in the world before the conquest.

Go to the Slow Food website and learn more about this movement. If you are interested in becoming a Slow Food member, please ask me. The annual membership is 100 pesos.

I highly recommend these documentaries, most of which can be viewed on the Internet.

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