“Slow Food Nation will bring together thousands of people: most will eat, drink and talk, a few will sing and dance, some will argue, and many will reflect, laugh out loud and learn. The legacy of these few days in San Francisco is that the conversations begun here will bloom into projects, changes, new passions and careers. Let’s work together to expand this moment of celebration, to build on the foundation of the broader food movement, and to create a food system for all Americans that is healthy, socially just, affordable and delicious.” From the Welcome, Slow Food Nation Program
In the summer of 2001, not yet aware of Slow Food, my wife and I made a road trip from son Brian’s house in Tifton, Georgia, just north of the Florida border, to son Eric’s house in Monroe, on the mid-coast of Maine. Our goal was to avoid interstates and to avoid fast food. We failed. Here’s what I said in my journal:
“When you get to the outskirts of Greenville, SC however, it’s Strip City; six lanes of it out US29 stretching for miles toward Spartanburg. We passed legions of McDonalds/Burger King/IHOP/Waffle House looking for a diner or some such place with real food, but finally relented and had “breakfast” at Burger King… sausage biscuits, hash nuggets (whatever they’re called) & coffee. The strip narrowed to four lanes and became almost unstriplike, but then, over the next hill, it got strippy again, getting ready for Spartanburg.”
The first Slow Food Nation outside of Europe came to San Francisco August 29 through 31. A Victory Garden was created in City Hall Plaza in advance to celebrate and promote the event, as well as provide flowers and vegetables to be donated to schools and soup kitchens. Films and talks were featured around town at various venues, but the main events took place at the Civic Center and Fort Mason.
I had been observing the Victory Garden since it was created the first of August. It was cleverly created over the roof of the Civic Center Parking Garage with built-up planters. Everything about it was well designed and organic, from the plants themselves, to the burlap wrapped bales of straw serving as borders. Its impact was the reality that it was there. Observing its progress was, well, like watching plants grow.Friday, I worked as a volunteer at Fort Mason. I signed up to be a “floater” — be on call to do what was needed. I started, with a group of six folks, dressing tables with black cloths and arranging wooden folding chairs. That didn’t take long.Then I got involved with the pickle people. In a prep kitchen in the bowels of the Festival Pavilion, Leslie, a thirty-something landscape architect, and me wrapped rice balls with nori, hundreds of them. Although I’ve read many books about professional kitchen work (Heat by Bill Buford and The Seasoning of a Chef by Doug Psaltis, among them) I had never actually worked in a production kitchen. Cooks work hard on repetitive tasks.
Finished with that, I followed the rice balls to the Pickle and Chutney Pavilion. My instructions: “Take a tray, put 12 plates on it, put a leaf (real leaves, not paper leaves) on each plate, put a rice ball (the very same balls I had wrapped) and a plum on each leaf. Pass the full tray to the counter where the plates will get cucumber and carrot slices. Take the emptied tray from the counter and do it again.” And again. And again. We may be making slow food, but the pros work fast. This amateur had a time keeping up.The Friday event was a party for sponsors, suppliers, donors and movers and shakers, and a dry run before the Saturday crush of paying customers.
Saturday noonish, Carol and I went to the Market at the Civic Center. It was pretty much like a farmers market, except each booth had only one product. On the south side of the Victory Garden, booths were set up selling vegetables, fruit and condiments. We bought heirloom tomatoes from Capay Organics, bread and butter pickles from Happy Girl Kitchen and a jar of Ghee from Ancient Organics. I had been to the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market that morning, so we didn’t need much.
heirloom tomatoes… endive
Slow on the Go booths were set up on the north side of the Victory Garden. Slow on the Go? That’s good, nutritious food ready to eat, such as Sausage and Grilled Pepper Sandwich from The Fatted Calf, Let’s Be Frank, 100% grassfed hotdogs, Grilled Lemongrass Pork and Vermicelli from Out the Door and 11 others. We had a Surry-ano Red-Eye Ham Sandwich and Ham Biscuits from Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Farm. Yum.
Long, wide slabs of wood spanning between metal pipe frames made up the counters, as well as tables and benches to sit and eat. An orange fabric banner with Slow Food graphics fluttered overhead. Again, natural, reusable materials were employed, simply constructed and easily erected to leave no mark on the earth.
There is a simple elegance about Slow Food, extending from the food itself to the design, graphics and construction of everything touched — even the water station with recycled bottle décor — to the conviviality of the people leading, volunteering and attending. It’s a beautiful thing.
On Saturday evening, I reported at 5:30 to volunteer selling merchandise. I expected a tent with racks of stuff and maybe a cash register. Instead, I was at one end of the information booth — an orange painted shipping container with a large window cut out of each side. I had a pile of Tee Shirts, Tote Bags, the Slow Food Nation cookbook, posters and programs. Since I was in the information booth, I became an Information guy, as well.
It was pretty quiet until folks started coming out of the Taste Pavilion around seven; then the sales were brisk. I don’t know what the take was, but we sold out of our “ready piles” quickly and re-supplied from boxes. Cash box, credit card machine, smiles and banter, that’s all that’s necessary to make the sales.
Sunday was the big day. We had tickets to the Taste Pavilion from five to nine pm. Sadly, our friend Sarah dallied and by Saturday found the tickets sold out. I encouraged her to go anyway and take cash, figuring that out of the thousands gathered, somebody would have an extra ticket. We planned to get there early so she could work the line. Oh, I would have wanted to be there early in any case — that’s just the way I am. We also needed to find a place to park. We debated walking from home — it’s all down hill — or taking the 19 Polk part way and walking, but then there’s getting home — all uphill. We decided that since there were three of us, we could justify the car.We were in line at 4:20, not more than 50 people from the front. Sarah had little trouble finding a ticket. It was a totally beautiful day with a mild breeze, so standing in line and chatting amongst convivial people, including Eleanor, one of the owners of the superb restaurant, A16, was no chore.Finally the line moved — everyone was eager to get inside. As we entered, the ticket taker said, “There’s no rush, you have four hours to enjoy the Taste Pavilion, plenty of time.”
Four brick ovens stood just outside the entrance to the Festival Pavilion where bread, pizza and Indian bread were being made. I learned Saturday that Bread was notorious for its long lines, but since we were right up front in the main line, we went straight to the bread. We chomped on bread sticks and cheese rolls while inching toward the pizza. Once there, my Slow Dough ticket was ticked and I ordered a slice of the Pizza Margherita.
A few basics:In exchange for my admission ticket, I was given a card worth 20 Slow Dough Dollars to spend at the food pavilions. For example, when I got my Pizza Margherita, the vendor checked off two dollars spent. I can’t imagine a person using all of their Slow Dough; I ate and drank until I was satiated and still had five Dough Dollars left.The Festival Pavilion is a long pier building at Fort Mason and was arranged with a wide center aisle and Taste Pavilions on each side. Between the Taste Pavilions, long, black clothed tables were set with 24 chairs. At the aisle end were two clear bluish dispensers of San Francisco tap water, a box of biodegradable forks and a box of napkins. People at these communal tables came and went, so if one sat for a while they could meet people from all over Bay Area, California, the country and indeed, the world.
A different designer executed each Taste Pavilion using materials bearing some connection to the food to be sampled. I was thrilled by how thoughtful and creative the designs were. The Pickles and Chutney Pavilion, for example, was decorated with pickle jars under a canopy of jar lids suspended on fine, nearly invisible wires.
Our first stop inside was at the Fish Pavilion, decorated with fish stenciled scrims. When it got dark, underwater ocean scenes were projected onto the scrims. For three Dough Dollars we were presented with an oval paper plate — everything in the Festival Pavilion was compostable or glassware — with a serving of Artic Char with tomato relish as well as three paper custard cups; Sardine with a tomato relish, Squid with cucumber, summer squash and onion relish, and some kind of fish mousse. That was a meal in itself, and we had many pavilions to go.After, Carol headed for the Chocolate, Sarah for the Wine and I went across the aisle to Charcuterie, where I was served pork and blood orange pate, pork and vegetable terrine, and beef jerky on a decorated paper. I carried that to the Wine Pavilion and joined Carol and Sarah.At the Wine Pavilion, we were given a Sustainable Wine Bar booklet listing wines numbered 1 to 454 and a stemmed wine glass. At the bar, we ordered by number and could request a one or two Dough Dollar pour. The smaller pour was about 3 ounces, a generous sample. I started with a MacPhail Anderson Valley Pinot Noir from Oregon, and joined C and S at a round stand-up table where we shared wine, charcuterie and chocolate. “I can’t think of a better place to be right now,” I said, as we watched the swirl of happy people. A guy carrying bottles of red and white, gave us a “free” pour, “Slow Food is all about conviviality,” he said.
Next, we went for the Native Foods, but couldn’t find it. We were directed outside, where we found it by the Beer Tent. They served Buffalo Chili and Pozole, how appropriate. The three bars inside the Beer Tent were made from recycled shipping containers decorated with beer bottles. Sorry, no Coors or Budweiser. I was served Magnolia Pale Ale by the brewer, Dave McLean. At the stand up table outside with our chili and beer, I said, “I can’t think of a better place to be right now,” as the sun set over the sparkling bay.Back inside, we went for cheese, ice cream, espresso, spirits, olive oil and spirits and coffee and by 8:00 we were just full, happy and exhausted.
olive oil pavilion
It was a fitting end to a glorious three-day celebration.