In Defense Of Pleasure
Slow Food Movement Promotes A Deliberate And Leisurely Lifestyle

By Debra Bokur
Research by Deborahann Smith
Photos by Lorraine Prata

I stroll through the street market, running my fingers across the surface of a peach, testing the ripeness of a plum, relishing the rich scarlet tones of a mound of glistening apples. The heat of the noonday sun sends the heady scent of earth and ripeness into the air above the food stalls, and I pause to choose a single, perfect mango. Not the large one and not the too-soft, too-rough-on-the-edges one. I leave with a small, fragrant, heavy fruit that fits the curve of my palm.

All the way home, I anticipate the way the taste will conjure memories of islands and sea and sand; the way the mango's scent and the sweetness of its pulp, caught between my teeth, will transport me into a tropical daydream. At home in my backyard I lean against the jagged wood of my deck, eyes closed, savoring each bite. Slowly, I breathe in the scent of the fruit, letting the flavors ripen on my tongue as the juice runs down my chin, across my fingers, taking me away.

In our modern rush-and-hurry culture, taking the time to savor any experience—whether a painting or a meal—is directly contrary to the goal of crushing more and more accomplishments into each day. Our microwaves and drive-throughs have removed us from a common heritage where food was first hunted or grown, then harvested and cooked as part of a ritual involving family—and often entire communities. As a result, many of us have lost our ability to slow down long enough to stop and smell the salad, much less enjoy it.

My childhood memories of New England are marked by leisurely food moments: holding my Grandmother La Rose's hand as we walked together from her house to the beach at Waterman's Lake in Harmony, R.I., to enjoy freshly steamed corn on the cob; picking blueberries near Newport that an aunt would later transform into a deep, luscious pie; the stew of hardshell Atlantic clams, called quahogs, prepared by my Grandfather Costa that defined every family gathering. He peeled the potatoes the night before, humming as he worked, leaving the vegetables to soak in a big pot of water. The freshly dug clams were added the next day, and all through the afternoon his stew simmered, its sea scent suffusing every corner of the house.

Take Your Time
It's moments such as these that the Slow Food Movement seeks to not only encourage and celebrate, but to standardize. Founded in Italy in 1986 as a reaction to the opening of a McDonald's restaurant in Rome's Piazza di Spagna, the Slow Food Movement is an organization comprised of small-scale farmers and vintners, artisan cheese makers, concerned consumers and a host of food producers dedicated to quality, education, tradition and environmental preservation.

Now spanning 42 countries and including more than 60,000 members, Slow Food is broken into chapters known as Conviviums (Italian for "group"), which are integral in promoting Slow Food objectives through events, exhibitions and publications, including the bimonthly publication Slow. Individual chapters get together, or "convive," over food and drink while discussing trends and issues concerning food and the environment. They also help promote local organic businesses and sustainability by organizing events such as food, cheese and wine tastings; tours of local organic farms; and cooking classes designed to teach children how to taste and appreciate slow food.

Slow Food also sponsors the Ark Project, which seeks to protect and preserve small purveyors of fine food that might otherwise be lost to industrialization and standardization. One Ark-supported food is Creole cream cheese, a traditional foodcraft from New Orleans that had become almost extinct with the decline of dairies in the area. Ark also supports new food creations that capture regional flavors, such as New Glarus Wisconsin Cherry Ale, named after the region in the Midwest where it is produced. Other Slow Food undertakings include the Hekura Project, which provides financial support to the kitchen in a Native American Brazilian hospital for infectious diseases and the Zlata Project, which sponsors children's lunch programs in Bosnia and Sarajevo.

For Pleasure's Sake
Slow Food describes itself as "a movement for the defense of, and the right to, pleasure, beginning with good eating." Not a statement to be taken lightly, according to Patrick Martins, president of Slow Food USA, based in New York City. "It's a great opportunity to learn about our food culture around us, to bring people together and to combine our five senses," he says. "It's important to embrace traditions that make food heritage so rich."

In nearly every major city, ethnic neighborhoods help keep alive native food traditions, from making cheese and pasta to the best way to serve eggplant and grappa. In Boston, Slow Food has come full circle, with Italian neighborhoods exemplifying the very essence of the movement's principles. In the markets of Boston's North End, one of the oldest Italian communities in the United States, family-owned and operated pasticcerias (bakeries), greengrocers, restaurants, wine merchants and cheese shops abound. You can spend as long as you like wandering the narrow streets, filling your shopping basket with quaressemali (almond biscotti) at Maria's Pastry Shop on Cross Street, a perfect bottle of dinner wine at V. Cirace & Son Inc. on North Street and fresh cheese and pastas from Salumeria Italiana on Richmond Street. Fishing boats deliver daily seafood catches to the nearby wharves along Boston's Inner Harbor, which in turn supply area restaurants including Terramia, Trattoria à Scalinatella and Marcuccio's, where entire families are involved in the business of creating food from scratch and serving it with cultural pride.

Professional chef Michele Topor, who holds a diploma from La Scuola Di Cucina in Bologna, Italy, offers daily tours—including shopping tours—of the North End Markets. "My goal is to not only introduce people to the rich variety of unique foods available right here," Topor says, "but to support local food producers and show that food should be an occasion for both pleasure and celebration."

Although Slow Food has a reputation as an anti-fast-food activist group, Martins defines its primary focus as "actively celebrating what is great about food" (it is, however, opposed to genetically modified food until medical science proves its safety). "Of course we all have busy days when we grab a quick sandwich, but as health is becoming more of a concern, we have to be more committed to seeking out quality in each and every thing we consume," Martins explains, adding, "Slow food can be as usual as eating an organic apple."

Bringing Spirit To The Table
"There are food traditions worth protecting in every region of the world," says Peggy Markel, an eight-year member of Slow Food's Boulder, Colo., Convivium. When she isn't in Italy teaching at her cooking school, La Cucina al Focolare (Kitchen by the Hearth), Markel holds slow barbecues and picnics at her Boulder ranch. At the school, she spends time "taste memorizing" and taking excursions into the countryside to visit herb growers, organic bakers and other local food artisans who are working to uphold long-held traditions. "My work," she explains, "is about keeping these traditions alive, bringing that spirit to the table, and conversation back to life."

The spirit and conversation Markel speaks about never left my family table. Between my French-Portuguese mother, my Russian father and my Scottish stepfather, I've been fortunate to learn much about the joys of foods from different cultures. Every day after school, before homework or disappearing into the nearby woods with a book, I sat down with my mother and sister to visit over tea. This event nearly always included something sweet or savory—an apple pastry, a cream-filled bun. This time served as a much-loved transition between school and home.

Last Saturday, my 12-year-old son Sky and I rose late. Sleepy and warm and as ravenously hungry as only a preadolescent boy can be, he helped make blueberry muffins and scrambled eggs. We sat at the table together as we enjoyed our meal, talking about plans for the afternoon that revolved around hiking the long hill that climbs through the forest behind our home. We spent close to an hour lingering over the last remnants of those eggs and muffins and milk and tea, while the sun spilled across the wood of the table and our three dogs dozed contentedly nearby on the floor. A slow start to the weekend, perhaps, but as fast as it needed to be.

Debra Bokur is a travel, health and fitness writer and contributing author to Spreading the Word: Editors on Poetry (The Bench Press, 2001).