Fast City, Slow Food
By Mary C. Davenport
March 15, 2005
I have a full-time, high speed, big city life. I have a 40+ hour a week job, I take yoga, I study photography and I joined the YMCA for something to do when I’m not doing yoga. Then there are errands, shopping excursions, time with friends, travel, book club, visits home, parties. I have to schedule my “free” time and then remember to mark it on both my calendars to I don’t forget to do it. Sound familiar? It plagues so many of us, this chronic lack of time and seeming inability to slow down.
Since moving to Chicago from a town of 4,000 in Northern Alaska, I’ve become skeptical of anything that interferes with my pursuit of organized chaos. When I heard about a slow-food movement recently, I was a bit surprised by my reaction. I remember thinking, it was about time. Finally, there would be a rebellion against the increasingly unhealthy pace at which we live our lives. I didn’t have to ask what the movement was; it was obvious. Slow food is the opposite of fast food and my taste buds were ready.
As it turns out, it was more than just a passing phase. It’s a capital “M” Movement that began as one man’s reaction to the opening of a fast food restaurant in his beloved Rome, Italy. Since that fateful franchise opening, the Slow Food Movement has been increasing in size and scope to become something much more. It is a way for people like us -- the chronically busy, no-time-for-lunch-today crowd -- to take a step back and re-evaluate food and what it means in our lives.
According to Slow Food Chicago Convivium Leader, Janine MacLachlan, the international Slow Food organization seeks to educate people on the value of local gastronomic delicacies and the regional cuisines we often overlook in favor of microwavable conveniences. It embodies the effort to understand the close link between food and life and what it means to savor every morsel of both.
But what does an international Movement have to do with us today, here in Chicago? According to MacLachlan Slow Food’s primary aim is to advocate the enjoyment of the food experience in addition to taking care in its preparation. MacLachlan says, “…sitting down together and enjoying food with people you care about,” is the best way to bring the Slow Food Movement home. Taking the time to create meals, knowing where you get your food and where it comes from are part of bringing Slow Food into our homes.
Beyond sharing a table and well-cooked food, Slow Food actively supports sustainable agriculture through organic farming. Organic farms are usually small in comparison to the large production farms that stock most super markets. Americans’ drive for inexpensive food options created these industrial farms that can produce large quantities of meat and produce at lower cost, but some feel that quality and ethical standards are sacrificed in the name of low prices. The Slow Food’s international organization wants consumers to understand that the higher cost of organic products can be a result of this method of farming.
Hearing about Slow Food from a fuller perspective reminded me of a childhood spent in the kitchen with my mother and grandmother. Yes, I too worshipped at the altar of the Big Mac back in the day, but my favorite food always came out of the oven and never saw the light of a heating lamp. My grandmother’s potato salad holds special memories for me. I helped her boil and skin the potatoes, make the dressing, fold in the dressing carefully so we didn’t end up with mashed potatoes. I remember what the kitchen wallpaper looked like, the smell of boiled potatoes, her hands hovering above the colander cutting the potatoes into the Big Bowl. The memory of being part of making that potato salad with her is forever linked to the food for me and I’ve never tasted anything that comes close. To me, that defines Slow Food in relation to our lives. It is the appreciation of good food made with wholesome ingredients; food that is experienced as much as eaten.
While I cherish those memories with my grandmother, here’s the reality check. My life rarely allows for the luxury of an afternoon in the kitchen. I might have an hour here or twenty minutes there. I can’t duplicate the culinary adventures of my younger days without cutting down to a part time life. There is good news for Chicagoans, though. Slow Food doesn’t mean we must suddenly be chained to our kitchens creating complex, sumptuous meals. Slow Food is a way of life. It’s appreciating delicious, wholesome food even if it wasn’t made by grandma, or even in your own kitchen.
Think about it. We live in one of our nation’s largest cities. When was the last time you had to travel more than a few blocks to get to a restaurant, café or deli for a bite to eat? Just because you’re eating out, doesn’t mean you can’t appreciate Slow Food. Erase that guilt. There are countless cultures represented here in our myriad neighborhoods and more than a smattering of excellent restaurants, featuring very good food that someone else took great time and care to make. Some restaurants may specifically ascribe to the principles of the Slow Food Movement; others may come to delicious results using the culinary traditions of their cultures.
With so many restaurants in Chicago, it can be daunting to try to decide where to eat. Adding the criteria of Slow Food can make things seem more complicated. We often fall to our usual favorites or do the unthinkable and avail ourselves of the wicked, wicked drive-through. I love to try new restaurants and the diversity offered in Chicago, but how do you know where to go when you want to be more careful about what you’re eating? What are the best local places to go for singular local fare? You could ask friends and colleagues. The people we are in contact with most often know us and our taste buds well and are excellent resources for local eateries where we can enjoy the food someone else has taken the time to prepare.
There are other resources as well. In September, the founders of Slow Food Chicago became co-editors of The Slow Food Guide to Chicago. Kelly Gibson and Portia Belloc Lowndes collaborated on the book, which is only the second such city guide released in the United States. Gibson explained that she and Belloc Lowndes sent teams of food experts out into the city not only to eat in a variety of local restaurants, but to talk with chefs and restaurant owners about where they get their food and how they prepare it. The result of countless hours of delicious research is an easy to read guide that includes more than just the usual suspects. From African food to Vegetarian, barbeque to pizza (even some bars and pubs are reviewed) the reviews explain the environment of the restaurant, the price range of entrees and, of course, the quality and taste of the food.
In the end, to bring Slow Food into your life, the experts say you just need to allow a bit of extra time to appreciate the food. How it looks on the plate. What it smells like. The texture of the ingredients and the spices that went into the preparation are all part of the creation of the meal. Even a piece of fresh fruit you bought at one of the local farmers’ markets becomes part of the slowing down, the eventual rejection of fast food in favor of delicious, delightful, sumptuous joy of Slow Food. Happy eating.