Monday, August 11, 2008

In Rob's Opinion...

by Rob Kaufelt

[This post is in response to Kim Severson's recent article in the New York Times. Read it here.]

There were only a couple of Americans in town when I arrived in Bra, Italy, back in the fall of 1999 to teach classes on American cheese at the biannual Slow Food Cheese Festival that year. The week I spent there was transformative, both for the cheese and the company.

The Slow Food offices were above a little courtyard, attached to a ristorante, and we’d gather to talk of the events of the day with Slow Food’s visionary founder Carlo Petrini. What had begun as a bit of lark had evolved into a real movement, and round the table, with good food and wine, Carlo would explain his philosophy.

He said we were in the ‘Third Wave’ of civilization, and as it related to food the notion was simple enough. For ten thousand years – the first wave-, since the beginning of civilization, mankind has suffered plagues, droughts, and other natural disasters that made life itself precarious, including our food supply. The slow foods were traditional foods, often preserved, meant to get us through the winter or hard times: wine, beer, cheese – peasant foods, really – nothing fancy about them.

Next came the industrial revolution and the Second Wave, including industrial foods. These were good and necessary at the time, as people flocked to the urban areas to work in mills and factories and needed a cheap, safe source of foods in an area where transportation was slow and refrigeration undeveloped. Distillery dairies in New York, for instance, were producing unsafe milk by feeding cows whiskey mash, a fermented grain fed to overcrowded animals with tuberculosis and other diseases rampant. Though at first reluctant to admit it, I began to think that perhaps James Kraft was doing a good thing in 1906 when he invented his processed cheese.

But the industrialization of the food supply had gone too far. By our time, the old ways were being lost. Standardization was the norm and the uniqueness of artisan producers out of favor. Modern foods were loaded with chemicals and preservatives, corn syrup and transfats, which led to not only to the rise of heart disease and diabetes but worse, the loss of flavor. Ripe fruits straight off the vine, grass fed beef; aged raw milk cheeses and fresh unpasteurized milk were not to be found on modern supermarket shelves anymore. Nature was lost amidst fertilizers and industrial farming, craftsmen disappearing, animals treated with contempt.

Thus was the Slow Food movement born. Today, we may know it by other names: real food, local food, seasonal foods, organic foods, sold mainly at greenmarkets and small specialty food shops, but a growing movement across the land. We celebrate the last of the old time butchers and the young people returning to small farms. More and more, people want clean food, healthier food, tastier food, from farms that are sustainable, and where we not worry so much where our food comes from, or if it’s safe, or what it’s made of.

On 9/11 I was at ground zero, and afterward came back and closed my shop. But there wasn’t much happening when I volunteered at St. Vincent hospital, and our dear old downtown Manhattan was closed for business. So I hopped on a plane the following week and spent a few days in Bra at Cheese 2001, working the booth with my cheese pals in our first ever American Farmstead cheese booth. The outpouring of goodwill to our little band of Americans from those attending the festival that year was a highpoint of my life, America was a good place to be from. So who knows? Perhaps only Slow Food, by whatever name, will help us regain that goodwill once again.