Blending a Revolution – Interview with Rebecca Alon, Slow Food Berkeley


Blending a Revolution: Rebecca Alon, Slow Food Berkeley Interview by Willi Paul

Please see companion post on Slow Food USA:
http://www.planetshifter.com/node/1219

What is a “foodie?” 😉

This is a huge question. It’s kind of like asking, “What’s an American?” 🙂 Years ago, I think the inception of the word Foodie connoted that you were staking a claim that Food or gastronomic pursuits comprised more than just a hobby.

For me personally, being a Foodie meant I didn’t have to be embarrassed that most of my conversations ultimately turned to food; that it was okay to talk about where and what my next meal would be, before I was finished with the one I was eating.

But globally, I think ther term Foodie has come to represent more. It shifted, from a narrower margin of Americans who are simply committed to talking and tracking and ingesting food, such as committing chef’s names and resumes to memory, driving long distances for special ingredients or growing them yourself if necessity warrants, to taking on recipes that the average person would find tedious or overwhelming.

But now in 2009, I think being a Foodie can still mean all of those things, but I think it also encompasses more. Most foodies I know, whether they are part of the Slow Food Movement or not, are dedicated to understanding and preserving our shared food resources and traditions, and want to improve the distribution systems we’ve created to sustain and deliver calories to a wider spectrum of classes and geographic areas in a more fair way.

Now there are communities of Foodies, associated with groups, clubs or pleasure-seekers.

The term Foodie can definitely be defined across many categories and there is room for everyone. I think in Northern California we are lucky to have so many groups dedicated to Food; it’s practically a religion here.

Is your group organizing an eat-in (http://eat-ins.org/) any time soon? How would this type of event be sustainable?

But globally, I think ther term Foodie has come to represent more. It shifted, from a narrower margin of Americans who are simply committed to talking and tracking and ingesting food, such as committing chef’s names and resumes to memory, driving long distances for special ingredients or growing them yourself if necessity warrants, to taking on recipes that the average person would find tedious or overwhelming.

But now in 2009, I think being a Foodie can still mean all of those things, but I think it also encompasses more. Most foodies I know, whether they are part of the Slow Food Movement or not, are dedicated to understanding and preserving our shared food resources and traditions, and want to improve the distribution systems we’ve created to sustain and deliver calories to a wider spectrum of classes and geographic areas in a more fair way.

Now there are communities of Foodies, associated with groups, clubs or pleasure-seekers.

The term Foodie can definitely be defined across many categories and there is room for everyone. I think in Northern California we are lucky to have so many groups dedicated to Food; it’s practically a religion here.

Is your group organizing an eat-in (http://eat-ins.org/) any time soon? How would this type of event be sustainable?

Yes, Slow Food Berkeley and hundreds of other Slow Food chapters around the nation have announced and are currently planning over one hundred (and growing) community-based, large-scale simultaneous Eat-Ins, occurring Labor Day 2009, September 7th. The central focus is to bring awareness to School Lunch Reform, and we are calling the campaign Time for Lunch.

The push for reform, sparked by Slow Food USA’s Director Josh Viertel and colleague Gordon Jenkins, (both men were very active in the Yale Sustainable Food Project, which reformed lunches on college campuses) we are taking action to make a statement. All of the International Slow Food chapters are aiming to bring people’s attention to our youth- good, fair and clean food practices begin with feeding our children.

It’s important activist statement for the community to reach out to politicians and insist on taking control, or at least persuading the decision makers to reconsider what is available to our kids during very impressionable years of their nutritional development. This massive political statement of communal sharing takes place on the one year anniversary of the first Eat-In, (http://eat-ins.org/eat-ins/september-1-2008-san-francisco.html) located in Dolores Park in San Francisco as part of Slow Food Nation. Slow Food is encouraging PTA groups, students, teachers and anyone to organize their own Eat-Ins to coincide with the larger-scale gatherings. An Eat-In is the equivalent of a Sit-In; we’re not in agreement with the status quo, and we are going to take non-violent action to change it. At every Eat-in, local, freshly prepared foods are brought and shared by everyone who attends, essentially creating a politically-driven potluck party.

“We are the Berkeley, CA chapter of Slow Food, a global grassroots movement to restore our health, our planet, our communities and our livelihoods by replacing fast food with good, clean and fair food.” How are you tackling this impressive and seemingly unachievable mandate?

Well, one fork at a time.

It is a “Fast Food Nation” we live in, but I believe things are changing. President Obama has a lot to do with that. Or I should say, Michelle Obama, I think food and health are a priority to her. Mrs. Obama’s organic kitchen garden was a little like the “seed planting heard round the world.”

It was different from other political actions in that it was not a referendum, a policy or a speech. It was action. Action that is simple because anyone with some grass or access to grass can mimic her and bury some seeds in the ground. Action that is interactive- because her kids participated and learned a new skill. It was also International action. A Russian reporter, http://obamafoodorama.blogspot.com/, told the President recently that his wife was more respected in Russia, because kitchen gardens are so popular there. But I think most importantly, it’s a political action. It’s the First Lady staking a claim in what goes into her and her family’s mouth. And she is someone who could have any ingredient from any store she wanted.

But by growing fruit, vegetables and herbs herself, I believe she is going to influence the President and the current Administration to start thinking about how and what we are feeding ourselves, and how we do have a choice about the food offered to us on a daily basis. Alice Waters encouraged the President and First Lady to start a Victory Garden, during the campaign, and in meetings after his win, so it is very probable that our community here in Berkeley is directly related to this groundbreaking planting.

Who is your “competition (!?)”

I don’t think of Slow Food as having any competition. There are strong feelings about food, of course. Recently we held a Pig Roast in Tilden Park. Some of the pictures (http://www.bigmagic.com/bigpigroast2009/) were posted online, and they elicited a wide range of emotions. We are not endorsing Gluttony; if that’s what it seems. It’s a celebration of Summer and other cultures (we used a Caja China to roast the pig). It’s also important to know where your meat products come from, in this age where food-borne illness seems to be on the rise.

How do you address the price vs. quality debate in the food community?

The price of healthy food is something that we face as a Nation. We now know that one of the reasons fresh fruits and veggies are expensive, is because the corn industry is getting huge subsidies from our government. When I worked in Emeryville for a toy corporation, there was one restaurant in a 4 block radius using only locally-sourced ingredients and preparing them fresh on the premises. I would try to encourage my coworkers to eat there with me occasionally, and many thought it was too expensive. If the alternative option is Subway, and you can eat lunch for $5, whereas a sandwich from the more sustainable cafe was $7, isn’t your health worth $2 to you?

Everyone has to make these daily decisions for themselves. As a group, Slow Food generally does not preach overarching mandates or endorse any single grocer over another. We just try to provide forums for rejoicing around the abundance of good food in our community, and spread the abundance to friends and family.

Slow Food Berkeley sometimes hosts trips to the farms directly, to participate in U-Picks, where often you can purchase fruit and vegetables at lower prices because you pick it yourself. This isn’t something the average person can do every week; it’s too far away and takes some additional time. But we are lucky to have so many farms in California, growing a wide range of beautiful fruits, nuts, herbs and veggies. One resource for finding U-Picks is a website called Pick-Your-Own.org.

Another resource is a web-based application for the iPhone called Sprout, launched by Oakland-based Live Culture Co in collaboration with LocalNow (http://www.localnow.net/). And if you can’t pick your own or grow your own, the farmers markets are a great way to buy directly from the producer, and often save some money while supporting local farms.

Another resource we have seen crop up recently are websites that encourage sharing of veggies and fruits. Veggietrader.com and Neighborhoodfruit.com are two examples. Sharing is the new(old) economy, in my opinion, and it’s going to be getting more and more popular throughout the nation, I think. Bartering and sharing was really how our civilization progressed, before Keynes and before Smith came along.

You seem to be not promoting a vegan diet or raw food diet via your association with The Bay Area Meat CSA (http://bamcsa.ning.com)? Is this an issue for some in Berkeley?

We have people from all nutritional backgrounds in our group. The launch of our BAMCSA site (also called meatshare.org) in January 2009 is similar to a produce CSA box, in which you are supporting a local farm that you respect and want to support, by saying, I’ll take whatever you can grow. Except in the case of a Meat CSA you are committing to the meat producer, and confirming that you will purchase the whole animal, before it is slaughtered.

This enables the farmers to focus on what they do best: raising high-quality herds, and leaves the butchery, distribution and delivery solutions to the consumer. It’s a great alternative to factory-raised animals, and it’s a learning tool. So far the response has been tremendously positive, and the folks on the website are not just Slow Food Berkeley members but anyone in the Bay Area. We have hundreds of people, divided by communities, and people are really gaining lot from it, stocking up their freezers with fresh meat they can trust, and saving money by the way.

How do you view the alt consumerist thing at WholeFoods? I note that this company is not in your Groceries, Distributors and Caterers list!

I can’t comment on this. I know nothing about it.

If you were waiting at a cross walk in downtown Berkeley and a teen was standing there with a Big Mac, what would your 30 second “healthy foods” pitch be?
Haha, that’s interesting question. Well I think teens are like all of us, very busy and very hungry, and love things that taste good. Again Slow Food Berkeley is not in the business of conversion, but if I knew this kid wanted to be healthier, I might point them to a street food vendor like the Brazil Fresh Squeeze Cafe, where they can get a tri-tip sandwich covered with creamy garlic cilantro sauce and a mango smoothie for eight bucks. Berkeley Bowl also has some great cheap lunches, I see the college kids in there a lot, getting fueled up on fresh salads and sandwiches to go.

How are you folks involved in the local Farmer’s Markets?

The Berkeley Farmers Markets are great, and the Ecology Center has let us promote our events at their info booth. Come late August, as we are gearing up for our Time for Lunch synchronous Eat-Ins, we will be going to the Tues, Thurs and Sat Farmers Markets to ask citizens to sign our petition for School Lunch Reform (http://www.slowfoodusa.org/index.php/campaign/time_for_lunch/), which is in line with the National Child Nutrition Act, which comes up for review this year.

What have you incorporated into your project from “The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals” by Michael Pollan (http://www.michaelpollan.com/write.php)? Can you suggest any ways to improve his book?

Pollan’s book was a watershed moment in the history of food literature and investigative journalism. It was read by millions, and continues to gain momentum even now, with the national release of Food, Inc. which synthesizes his themes into a major motion picture. Personally, I feel very proud to have Pollan here in our community, teaching at UC Berkeley.

My interactions with him last fall during Slow Food Nation were greatly enhanced by having the opportunity to view him onstage at the Food for Thought series, which took place in San Francisco behind City Hall. Pollan was part of several panels that enlisted world leaders, activists, farmers and writers to talk about and debate the current situation of our Food and Food Systems. You can view these videos online, they are controversial and inspiring, and I believe should be mandatory viewing for all teenagers in our country.

http://slowfoodnation.org/media/videos/

One of my “connectors” for food and diet is the time honored practice of sharing recipes. Does Slow Food Berkeley promote this activity? Is there (yet another!) cook book coming from you?

Sharing recipes is a great tool for teaching others, and discovering new methods of cooking and new ingredients. We don’t have any cookbooks planned right now, but we do host Grandmother Workshops regularly. These workshops are aimed at uncovering traditions and preserving them by demystifying them and teaching new skills to others. They are usually 20-30 people, in someone’s kitchen or dining room, and are really fun.

In recent months, we’ve hosted, Making your own Pumpkin Pie from Scratch, Making Limoncello, Making Nocino (an Italian liqueur made from green walnuts), Making Gallettes and Making Cheese. We are planning to host more workshops soon, namely on Native American Foods, and Making Your own Bacon. We usually sell out, so if anyone is interested make sure to sign up for our e-newsletter at http://slowfoodberkeley.com.

Slow Food Berkeley
http://slowfoodberkeley.com
c/o Live Culture Co.
304 12th Street, Ste. 4C
Oakland, CA 94607

****

Sharing is the new(old) economy, in my opinion, and it’s going to be getting more and more popular throughout the nation, I think. Bartering and sharing was really how our civilization progressed, before Keynes and before Smith came along. Slow Food Berkeley Bios:

The leaders of Slow Food Berkeley are ordinary people who volunteer their time to bring Slow Food’s values to our community. We aren’t “foodies” and we don’t all work in food. We do all believe that organizing our community to share and support good food is a cause that’s worth our time and passion.

The leadership team is 3+ co-leaders with organizer positions and a steering committee that advises them, offers input and plans events. The team meets once a month. There are no limits to the size of the steering committee, but committee members agree to attend meetings and to co-organize at least one event per year. Leaders are confirmed at the annual members’ potluck, which takes place in the first three months of each year. If you’d like to learn more, please download our bylaws.

Leaders

Gordon Jenkins, Leader

Gordon grew up in Berkeley eating happy meals. In college, a sudden passion for tea led to an interest in cooking and then to a summer internship as a student farmer at the Yale Farm, where he began to see food as a local, personal solution to the world’s crises. After graduating, he worked in Alice Waters’ Office at Chez Panisse and then as an organizer for Slow Food Nation. He is the Director of Eat-Ins.org.

Rebecca Alon, Treasurer
Rebecca moved to the Bay Area in 2006 from St. Louis to open and manage a retail jewelry store in downtown San Francisco. Once settled, she began familiarizing herself with the historic landmarks of San Francisco: Tartine’s morning buns, Stella’s cannolis, Bi-Rite Creamery’s salted caramel toffee ice cream and Foreign Cinema’s slow cooked brown sugar smoked bacon. Once she discovered that Slow Food Nation was unfolding in San Francisco, Rebecca decided to quit her day job and dedicate as much time as possible to the cause. Her interactions with the staff and fellow volunteers at Slow Food Nation (not to mention the Italian donuts the Director regularly brought in), helped ignite a personal call to action in the quest for good, clean and fair food. Rebecca is currently working on an Oakland Food Festival taking place in August 2009, based around Taco Trucks. Its called Eat Real: http://eatrealfest.com/

Dario Barbone, Co-Secretary
Dario was raised in Piemonte (Italy) on Parmigiano Reggiano and Prosciutto. He grew up in the kitchen at his mother’s and grandmother’s sides absorbing their passion for food. It wasn’t until his seventh birthday, when he mastered a textbook veal schnitzel, that he gained the position of sous-chef in the family. His leitmotiv is to make everything from scratch, bypassing the temptation of industrial food. He draws his inspiration from traditional peasant recipes and is always seeking the next culinary inspiration. Naturally oriented towards studying how things work, he got a degree in Pharmaceutical Chemistry and Technology and a PhD in Molecular Medicine. He is now a postdoctoral fellow at UCSF.

Maria McLaughlin, Co-Secretary
Maria hails from a small New England town where her mother steadfastly kept the nightly dinner ritual. Maria explored food traditions and cultures in Florence, Italy while attending University and later promoted wine and cooking for an Italian-centered villa agency. Over the last ten years in the Bay Area, she has learned to pick her own grapes, to make her own wine and to love to spread the word about Slow Food to the people around her. Maria is a free-lance graphic designer.

Steering Committee

Tamar Adler
Andy Beahrs
Anna Clark
Talia Dillman
Jon Eldan
Anya Fernald
Leslie Jonath
Paige Lansing
Ed Lewis
Renato Sardo

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