Slow food on the fast track

by Amy Kingsley

Inside the Scene on Feb. 25, aromas of coffee, chocolate, cinnamon and nutmeg radiate from a table set with magazine-cover desserts propped up on the diagonal. As I gulp the air deeper, the nose of the venue blossoms with the complexity of the mingled smells and something a little deeper. It is, as it turns out, a whiff of revolution.

Members of Slow Food Piedmont Triad gather in this storefront with a mission: To celebrate and support our local food community. It’s a group heavy on professionals with a dash of local farmers and a pinch of college kids.

All in all, it’s not your average gaggle of revolutionaries. And the snail, a mascot adopted by the national Slow Food organization and used by local convivia (the organization’s name for smaller chapters) like this one, is not the typical symbol of a group keen on upending a basic structure of modern life.

The slow food movement is atypical in a lot of ways. But perhaps the most essential feature of this epicurean army is their adoption of pleasure as a rallying cry.

So tonight, as they gather to watch The Future of Food, a film about the dangers biotechnology poses to biodiversity, attendees will enjoy delicious desserts prepared by Slow Food members. And when they discuss the impact of losing local crop subspecies to industrialized farming, laments about the loss of vibrant flavors will never be far from their lips.

‘“We do not want to be perceived as a political group,’” says Charlie Headington, one of the founders of Slow Food Piedmont Triad. ‘“People will also be affected by the awesome tastes they will experience.’”

One case in point is the chocolate cake concocted by Charlie’s wife. It’s delicious and just happens to be made with free-trade chocolate of vastly better quality than your average Hershey bar.

The international slow food movement started in Italy in 1986 in response to the opening of a McDonald’s in Rome’s Piazza di Spagna. It is, as the name suggests, an alternative to the fast food represented by the burger chain.

Slow Food adherents promote the use of seasonal, organic and local ingredients whenever possible. In addition to improving the quality and taste of dishes prepared in accordance with the guidelines, slow foodies also encourage sustainable agriculture through their eating practices.

The business of farming is one of the concerns uniting people tonight as part of the local convivium’s ‘“Food With a View Film Series.’” Tonight’s The Future of Food focuses on the perils of genetic modification. Although it touches on widespread concerns about food reactions that might be caused by splicing in new chromosomes, the film focuses on patent infringement lawsuits against farmers whose grains cross-pollinate with modified plants.

The message is dire. When farmers lose battles with seed giant Monsanto, it forces them to buy genetically modified products in order to avoid costly lawsuits. In addition, the proliferation of corporately patented seeds eventually supplants all the other varieties of corn or potato, many of which are disappearing.

Just as the film transitions into a particularly dark segment debunking the idea that genetic modification is intended to feed people around the world, Headington stops the video for a dessert break.

People pile cardboard cartons with dishes like flourless chocolate cake, Kahlua bars, fruit crisp and a spicy parsnip cake. The confections are a tempting alternative to the mass food production just described. A discussion following the movie opens the emotional floodgates.

‘“I don’t think most people are at all aware of these issues,’” Headington says.

The demand for more education about food production techniques arises over and over again. The mantle for disseminating such knowledge is the primary focus this group has taken on.

Although Slow Food Piedmont Triad started in early 2005, the group has intensified its activities since the beginning of this year. In addition to screening films every few weeks, members are also brainstorming a public access television show and trying to infiltrate meetings concerning Guilford County Schools’ wellness policy.

And between all of it are the cooking demonstrations at the curbside farmers’ market, potlucks, seasonal dinners and gardening workshops. The group caught up on those activities before starting a tape on the guru of slow foods, Chez Panisse founder Alice Waters.

Unlike the previous film, this one is simply an ode to the woman who established seasonal, local cooking in her Berkeley, Calif. restaurant. The movement initially spread faster overseas, but has now influenced cuisine all over the country.

Headington came across slow food as a volunteer on an organic farm called Spannocchia in Italy. He and his wife took a semester off teaching (both are associate professors at UNCG) to take the sojourn. After their conversion, the couple moved back to Greensboro and started the area’s slow food convivium. It has not been hard to recruit enthusiastic members.

‘“A sense of pleasure is very important for slow food,’” Headington says. ‘“It all gets back to the politics of everyday life. We would really just like it for people to have more choices in the foods they consume.’”

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