By Ellen Fox
JANUARY 31, 2000: Have you spotted that commercial for Stove Top Oven Classics? The one with the two pissed-off grandmas lamenting how now any average schmo can whip up succulent, oven-baked chicken in forty-five minutes? You buy a pound of chicken breast, and Stove Top provides the individually-wrapped packets of seasoning, rice and sauce. It's Sunday taste with Tuesday effort, the ladies groan.
They're not the only ones whining about how quick and easy it's becoming to make dinner. To a growing movement of stalwart epicures united under the name Slow Food - the pre-packaged, long-lasting, microwaveable groceries that seem like salvation to single twentysomethings and busy parents are actually contributing to our cultural demise.
"In the long run, everyone will suffer if you lose respect for where your food comes from," explains Portia Belloc Lowndes, who co-founded the Chicago chapter of Slow Food, an organization dedicated to shunning fast (or mass-produced) food and savoring the more sensual pleasures of the table.
"The whole idea about Slow Food is not to have all our food be so homogenized," Belloc Lowndes reasons, because it endangers the distinctive offerings of organic farmers and small food producers, not to mention family recipes and quality mealtime.
"If you do have Kraft coming in there and starting to make parmesan or prosciutto," she explains from behind a desk at her husband's River North gallery, "Kraft will come in there, make a prosciutto, it won't taste anything like the original but, because they've got the money, it will get on the grocery store food shelf. You lose the heritage and you lose the taste."
To raise awareness of the plight of endangered products, Slow Food has created a list called the Ark of Taste, which includes overlooked items like the Sun Crest peach. But far from being a vociferous force for the family farm (you're not likely to see members picketing the Golden Arches), the overriding philosophy of the Slow Food movement is one of, well, oral pleasure.
"May suitable doses of guaranteed sensual pleasure and slow, long-lasting enjoyment preserve us from the contagion of the multitude who mistake frenzy for efficiency," reads the organization's internet manifesto. "Our defense should begin at the table with Slow Food. Let us rediscover the flavors and savors of regional cooking and banish the degrading effects of Fast Food."
Founded in Italy--the cradle of the long, luxuriant meal--in 1986, Slow Food began as journalist Carlo Petrini's response to McDonald's invasion of the historic Piazza di Spagna in Rome. Now it boasts 70,000 members in thirty-five countries, from Japan to Venezuela, and much of Europe. Belloc Lowndes happened upon the group in 1998 during a visit to a food and wine show in Aspen.
"I saw the magazine and I thought it was absolutely beautiful," she says of the group's seductive quarterly journal. Back in Chicago, she teamed up with Kelly Gibson, director of public relations for Bays English Muffins, and the two founded a chapter (or, in Slow Food-speak, convivium) in December 1998. Since then, the chapter has averaged one event per month--from microbrew tastings to tours--and has racked up 120 members, each of whom have shelled out the annual dues of $64.
Most of the events bring out a core group of twenty or thirty devotees, Belloc Lowndes notes. As for the others? "A lot of people join because they want the magazine."
But while Slow Food's philosophy has wooed big name chefs like Spiaggia's Paul Bartolotta, one local chef has voiced concern over how serious the group is about bringing its credo to neighborhoods where there are no Whole Foods markets.
"I think the goal of the organization in their mission statement is really commendable," says Watusi chef de cuisine Katherine August. But August says she was turned off by a well-attended event this spring which teamed up restaurants and wineries at a few River North galleries. "I left; I was disgusted. All these people were yet again trying to jump on this philosophical bandwagon," she remembers. "To jump on it and do nothing."
One clue as to why Slow Food's Chicago demographic rings more affluent than it does activist may be its founding in Europe. What can pass for "grass-roots" in Paris--i.e, cheese-makers or cake shops determined to preserve their ages-old production methods--enters the realm of "gourmet" when it crosses the Atlantic. To be fair, there's nothing in the manifesto that calls for a radical or expensive overhaul of America's dining mores, but simply a greater understanding of how beneficial a good meal can be to health and happiness. The movement's emblem is, after all, the snail.
As for Belloc Lowndes, when she's not organizing a consumer food and wine show here in Chicago, she's throwing Slow Food's support behind plans for a daily city farmer's market. But while a proposed site near State and Lake--where the weekly Green City Market was held this summer--may be central to public transportation, "it's impossible to park" [in the area]. The group is also gearing up to bring nutritional education to children in school, starting with the tykes at, where else, Montessori.
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