Since our return from Italy, we’ve reflected deeply about our the feelings stemming from the Terra Madre proclamation that food traditions hold the solution to world hunger, conflict, and earth care, and how the Slow Food/Slow Life movement can guide our work to be more sustainable and connected to our home community. A Buddhist proverb that comes to mind is, “We have little time; therefore, it is important that we move very slowly.”
Ironically, the work in the local food movement has meant our lives have been anything but slow for the last three years, leaving little time to prepare for Terra Madre, the International Slow Food event that has taken place every other year since 2004, and the world’s largest food event, Salone del Gusto, which has celebrated Italy’s cultural cuisine since 1996. This was the first year both events were officially united, which meant that throughout the four Olympic gymnasiums holding workshops, food stories, and countless food producers from all over the world, the focus was about how traditional food production can feed the planet’s communities with good, clean, and fair food. To quote the event’s official website, “The world of food and gastronomy cannot neglect those who work the land, who regularly transform nature into culture, who feel the weight of ecological, climate, economic, and social problems growing more and more suffocating every day.”
The notion that food equity can be achieved by uniting those who are saving seed and knowledge by keeping their cooking pots, cheese presses, orchards, wine cellars, and woodlots filled with the crops that create cuisine of their ancestors, was framed by the opening ceremony, the Parade of the Flags, a dramatic roll call of the 100+ countries represented. One by one, a delegate carried their country’s flag in the procession to the front of the audience to displays on either side of the stage. For us, it was incredibly moving to see that farmers from countries like Palestine and Israel, Cuba, the US, Afghanistan, and Syria, Armenia and Turkey, China and Japan, Greece and Germany could all come together in peace around their food cultures. There was an immediate sense that a world community can be united by the power of food traditions. Most of the delegates seated together on floor level of the large and darkly lit sports arena were in tears.
The next morning, we entered the main halls to begin our journey among more than 1000 farmers from all over the world, plus nearly three times that number from every region in Italy. We soon found that, despite being monolingual, the bean, corn, and popcorn seed we carried held a common language farmers understood. The struggle to communicate slid away as each farmer’s eyes lit up as they returned our gesture of giving seed to share their own with us. We took turns using our hands and facial expressions, mixed with a few words from each others native language, to explain how to plant the seed we exchanged. In this way, again and again, we bartered dry beans, old wheat and farro, corn, and amaranth. Antonio, a farmer from Southern Italy–the heal of the boot–shared photos of his village’s “Grain Races” where everyone gathered to race to hand harvest farro in mid summer. A farmer from the Sicily used her feet to mark the distance between bean seed and her arms stretched high above her head to show us how tall they will grow up poles. A miller, Elena, from the Resia Valley in Northwest Italy, shared a 50-day corn they grind into polenta. Another popped kernels of Biancaperla corn, a unique white corn that his region has grown in small plots for centuries. And Jaime, a farmer from Southern Mexico, popped four precious seed from a dark blue corncob and told us, “With luck,” they will pollinate in our garden.
A farmer from Turkey worried we might be corporate seed pirates, and told of how old seed had been stolen in the past. He didn’t want those genes to be adapted to GM plants strains. When we told him of our work, he was glad to know that there are many US citizens who share his concerns. Going from stall to stall, we traded bean, corn, small grain, melon, and garlic seed with producers from several regions in Italy, Bulgaria, and Mexico. We saw a model garden from Africa, where Slow Food launched the 1000 Gardens Project in the last two years.
Delegates from Uganda, Kenya, Morocco, Peru, and Indonesia support farmers in reinstating traditional food crops and production methods complimented by contemporary cutting edge techniques, more sustainable and humane agricultural systems to replace the chemical- and mono-crop-dependent model introduced throughout the latter half of the 20th century as “The Green Revolution”. It was inspiring to learn of the similarities with our own country and region and discuss how we might link our communities.
The founder of Slow Food, Carlo Petrini, spoke at several of the panel discussions and conferences we attended, including the Slow Food USA meeting, and repeated this theme:
Human society at large has been marching, militaristically and mechanically, toward a cliff of economic, cultural, and ecological nature. Many of us can see that cliff coming, but many have not. As we have marched toward the cliff, we have left behind certain portions of our population: the women, the children, the elderly, and the poor. When we arrive at this cliff, if Homo is still sapiens, then we will be obliged to turn around and head back. And when we do, who will be leading us? The women, the children, the elderly, and the poor. These are the people we need to be supporting and listening to now, because they hold the knowledge and the seeds of what is going to get us out of this mess.
We count ourselves as lucky to be part of the gathering in which Carlo Petrini told every audience he spoke before that it’s time to use the pleasure of good food and culture to change the world. And from those we met from the US delegations, we are confident that the pillar of Justice will be connected in the Slow Food Chapters around the country.
Here in Appalachia, we see that the foodways and skills of hunting and gathering, raising animals and preserving and growing food are closer to the old ways still practiced by those farmers we met who own small plots of field and woodland they know how to coax good food and medicine from the land with knowledge about how to manage the wild and domesticated herds, save the seed, and not over harvest wild medicines, so they might reproduce for years to come. Our local neighbors and learned transplants are the analogues to the fifth generation farmers, wine makers, and millers we met who use the knowledge that has long been passed to them. We hope to see a booth from our region at Terra Madre next time, and an Appalachian Ohio Slow Food Chapter. Let us know if you are interested in moving this forward.
We came away with a commitment to slow our pace and to a deeper connection in our own community with the faith that our work will reach its mark, a commitment that was solidified here at home in Peggy Gish’s ministry at Friends (Quaker) Meeting suggesting that the way to peace is in creating and caring for community. To our minds comes one of the songs that was used very powerfully to set the tone at the Opening Ceremony: the United States civil rights anthem: We shall overcome. We shall overcome. We shall overcome, someday. Deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome, someday. And we shall, with the immediacy and expediency of a Slow(er) Life in which we have the space to listen to our collective leadings.
We close with our deep gratitude you, for having the vision to see the value in sending a delegation from our community to this extraordinary gathering, and for having the generosity to make it possible.