Slow Food Nation

Slow Food Nation was a 3-day event held here over Labor Day weekend.  The event was held in numerous locations around San Francisco, including lectures, an open farmers market, a 2-day concert, and a Taste Pavilion featuring 12 food categories.  I was fortunate to volunteer my time this last weekend at the Cheese Pavilion alongside dozens of other volunteers.

Walking into the Taste Pavilion at Fort Mason was immediately amazing.  Just outside the Festival Pavilion to my right a beer garden, and to my left a row of ovens both wood fired and gas, and an amazing display of the worlds most classic styles of bread.  I’ve been in the main building many times over the years participating in events both as a consumer and as a retailer, but I had yet to see the building so well decorated and designed.  Along the perimeter of the building were 12 mini pavilions each designed by its own architect.  Of primary importance were that the materials were or would be recycled after the event.  A large sign proclaimed that this event was a fully compostable event; each trash and recycling station had a person nearby to assure you put your waste in the proper receptacle.

As I strolled through the hall I walked past all the mini pavilions: pickle/chutney, fish, charcuterie, honey/preserves, tea, coffee, chocolate, ice cream, spirits, olive oil, the green kitchen (cooking classes), and wine on my way to the Cheese Pavilion where I would spend the next 2 afternoons and evenings.  The Cheese Pavilion was decorated in contrasts.  An interesting labyrinth of hay bales fashioned into a mini amphitheater/lounge, surrounded by large photos of cheeses and quotes, and a backdrop of bright red milk crates form Straus Organic Creamery – which reminded me of a stack of amplifiers from a heavy metal video.

The Cheese Pavilion featured only American cheeses, with a particular slant toward raw milk and farmstead production.  In fact, all Pavilions were exclusively American from the 450 bottles of wine from states as diverse as Georgia and New York, to the chocolate roasted and blended in the US, and those fantastic pickles and cured meats I couldn’t seem to eat enough of.  The folks at Slow Food sent out an invitation to American artisan cheese producers offering to buy their cheese to be se served on a composed cheese plate at the event.  In total there were 54 cheese makers represented, each sending a maximum of 25 lbs of cheese each.  After a brief meeting with the team leaders for the event, I rolled up my sleeves, donned the Slow Food Nation apron we were given, and began cutting wheel after wheel of cheese into small batons and triangle wedges.  An amazing selection of unique cheeses passed under my hands – a salty, mineral-y goat cheese from Oregon; a robust and buttery Bosque blue from Veldhuizen Family Farm outside Ft. Worth, Texas; rounds and rounds of sticky stinky Winnemere from Jasper Hill dairy in Vermont to which I started mimicking the Crosby Stills and Nash song Guinevere – “Winnemere has a smelly rind, like yours, baby like yours…”.

In the “Hay Bale Amphitheater” we had demonstrations and discussions by authors like Laura Werlin, cheese makers like Mike Gingrich, Jennifer Bice, and Mary Keehn, and blogger/educators like Tami Parr from the Pacific Northwest Cheese Project.  As the line for the cheese plates wrapped around the corner and out the door outside and alongside the pier, I was sent out with tray after tray of cheese samples to entertain the folks.  With glasses of wine in hand, their Slow Dough (taste coupons), and the view of this wonderful City – with Coit Tower to the right and Alcatraz out in the Bay – it was a pretty nice line to wait in.

It was incredible to see so many folks in town for the event.  I visited with a couple from the Carolinas, another group from Portland, some fine cheese heads from Wisconsin, and dozens of local Bay Area food lovers.  One gentleman from Utah told me how he attempted to make a batch of yogurt on the hood of his car a few days ago.  He said it was good but a little runny.  Another person told me of their attempt at fresh mozzarella, and another at making his own Mexican-style heavy cream for a taco feast that weekend.  Wow!  So many enthusiastic food lovers coming together to taste, talk and explore the best in American artisan foods.

Throughout the weekend I worked with the best and brightest of the Bay Area cheese world.  The Cowgirls were gracious and professional; heading up the operations, donating many staff members, the logistics, refrigeration and trucking.  Debra and Diana who represent Redwood Hill in Sonoma Co. and Jasper Hill Dairy in Vermont kept us on our toes.  A number of enthusiastic Slow Food members who just wanted to help out were also on hand to cut cheese and greet the guests.  You could see how bright eyed they were at the opportunity to serve, taste, and learn.  An instant crash course in cheese from a few experienced cheesemongers, and between bites, an opportunity to give back to an organization they believe in.

I was told the event at the Taste Pavilion was to host 7000 ticket holders, but just learned that as many as 14000 ticket holders were there throughout the weekend.  It just blows me away to see so many people participating in the “slow” movement – if you don’t already know, the term slow food is the opposite of fast food.  I often speak about the importance of supporting the independent farmer or producer.  How this creates sustainability financially by providing the farmer/producer a livable income, and keeps the soil and crops alive as well.  As a child I worked on my family’s farm.  Today the farm is gone, sold away, the county seat a dried up community of what once was thriving.  But I consider myself a lucky one who did have a chance to taste traditional and authentic foods, and to live close to the soil, if only for a few summers.  Some of my favorite food memories of that time are gone with the farm, into prepackaged and predictable internationally branded commodities.

Slow Food Nation, if only for a few days, was a window into our culinary heritage, a chance to embrace the idea that food is unique and inspired.  A product of the people, the soil, and the history of our great nation.  It starts with the carrots and ends with the caviar, and along the way we can all do our part in little ways by supporting traditional and authentic foods at farmers markets and independent grocers, by growing our own lettuces in a window box, and always tasting and asking questions about the origins and creation of our foods.