Report from Slow Food's Terra Madre Conference

When I told my friends and family that I had been chosen as a delegate for Terra Madre, the International Slow Food Conference in Turin, Italy many of them replied by asking, “What is Slow Food?”

While I had attended various Slow Food related events and fundraisers, and even did a book signing with Slow Food Minnesota, truthfully, I didn’t have a very detailed answer to that question. And even though I had signed on as one of the delegates from Slow Food Minnesota, I really didn’t know what to expect at Terra Madre each day, except that I would be part of a group of activists, students, farmers, producers, and policy wonks, and also that these would be days filled with tasting regional foods from around Italy and the world. 

Now, I have a better answer to explain Slow Food. The Slow Food movement began in 1986 in Italy, in direct response to the opening of a McDonalds in Rome's famous Piazza di Spagna. Instead of launching a protest, Carlo Petrini formed the Slow Food movement. Slow Food committed to Petrini's mantra: "A firm defense of quiet material pleasure is the only way to oppose the universal folly of Fast Life."


In its first years, Slow Food heavily concentrated on food and wine, producing what are considered to be Italy's best guides to wine, restaurants, and food stores. Originally, many of the members represented a class and community of people that had more to do with eating and cooking good food as a hobby. The members were typically people with some disposable income, who cared about ingredients mainly because of their quality and taste.


But in the mid-1990s the Slow Food organization developed a new political dimension that it called eco-gastronomy. "We want to extend the kind of attention that environmentalism has dedicated to the panda and the tiger to domesticated plants and animals," says Carlo Petrini in The Nation. “A hundred years ago, people ate between one hundred and a hundred and twenty different species of food. Now our diet is made up of at most ten or twelve species."  

To prevent the disappearance of prized breeds and species, Slow Food has  adopted the concept of the “presidium”, or the defense battalion, creating a list of  endangered foods and sponsoring strategies to try to save them. These kind of endangered foods were foremost at Terra Madre. I encountered countless booths representing unique foods from small communities all the way from Guinea Bisseau to Latvia, and each had clearly benefited from organizing and presenting their products in a packaged and professional way. These are the new generation of food micro-entrepreneurs representing a global return to truly local and sustainable foods. Ultimately, these small businesses have the potential to transform their local communities and the generations to come, as well as having a place in the international food market. A powerful combination if it works.

Slow Food has grown throughout the world and now claims over 100,000 members in 132 countries. Additionally, the mission of Slow Food has grown, and the organization is now targeting its attention, and much of its resources toward food justice, meaning work related to policies, educational programs, and sustainability. This pursuit reaches many people from often remote and/or resource-poor parts of the world. 


Indeed, one hundred countries were represented at this convention, and that geographic diversity and inclusivity was an extremely meaningful and enriching part of the conference as a whole. And while the pomp and circumstance of the opening ceremonies at times seemed excessive, I was nearly brought to tears as I watched people proudly carrying their national flags and sporting their traditional dress. I considered the paths that many of these individuals had traveled to arrive at this place and at this time, an idea that would prove to be one of the most inspiring and poignant themes of the entire conference. I was continually awestruck by the extensive and diverse food traditions many of us have never known, and the unsung heroes working to keep these traditions alive in some very challenging situations.

I was also humbled to recognize that while many people around the world are struggling to retain their food traditions in the face of difficult odds, as Americans, we have created almost the opposite problem. In an interview in 2001, Petrini said "The American gastronomical community simply contemplates its own navel" and has no political consciousness, and the American environmental movement has tended to have a “self-denying, ascetic component that regards eating anything other than tofu as hopelessly selfish and decadent.”

This statement resonates with me in a profound way. I spent much of my twenties thinking that as an ‘activist’ I had to be serious, and ‘pure’ in such a way that there seemed to be no place for pleasure. It took me years to realize that my activism was expressed through the buying, eating, and cooking of food, and even more time to understand that joy is foundational to my work. I now embrace and emphasize the joy of cooking and eating as crucial to transforming our own health as well as the health of the overall food sytem. I am excited about Slow Food’s explicit joining of pleasure and activism, a connection that every person in every place can benefit from. This emphasis on pleasure takes nothing away from the importance or effectiveness of one’s work. In fact, I believe it is more effective because it is at once nourishing the body and the spirit while also creating change in the world. (Seems like a worthwhile research question for someone to pursue!)

Of course, because of this philosophical foundation, the Terra Madre conference is a strange combination of political organizing and absolute gluttony. Terra Madre delegates spend close to five full days wandering back and forth between academic presentations about topics such as indiginous food wisdom and starting a school garden to shoving multitudes of food and wine into their mouths. (this is a mix of some things from the Salone de Gusto-the Italian side, and some from Terra Madre…I will stick with Terra Madre only) Some of the highlights for me included: two year old Gouda cheese from Bulgaria served with some of the darkest, nuttiest rye bread I’ve ever had, Balinese purple rice , delicate aged red and white vinegar from the Southern coast of France, kelp and blackberry infused sea salt from Iceland, white poppy seeds from Czechoslovakia, millet cous cous from Kenya, and fermented corn cheese (vegan) from Libya.

Ultimately, the tastes, people, and overall experience of Terra Madre left me stunned, speechless, and full of hope.


Photo from Terra Madre Slow Food USA


 Jenny Breen has been a professional chef in the Twin Cities since 1986. She is co-owner of Good Life Catering, and previously owned the Good Life Cafe. Jenny is a passionate advocate for local and sustainably raised foods, and has been working directly with farmers and producers since she opened her restaurant in 1993. Jenny has been teaching cooking and nutrition to adults and children at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, in the Twin Cities Food Coops and with Twin Cities schools since the mid 90s. She is a 2009 recipient of an Archibald Bush Foundation Leadership Fellowship and recently completed her Master's Degree in Public Health Nutrition at the University of Minnesota. Her first cookbook "Cooking up the Good Life", which emphasizes local, seasonal whole foods cooking for families, was released in April of 2011. She last wrote about a food non-profit in Peru in Globally Aware: Part Four.