The year was 1986, McDonald’s opened its first Golden Arches in Italy, on Rome’s Piazza di Spagna, and thousands of Italians poured into the square to protest. Was this the end of traditional Italian cuisine, to be replaced by American fast food?
Carlo Petrini, a journalist and political activist, had an idea. Instead of fast food, he said, we must champion slow food — a culinary culture that celebrates time, history, and know-how. So he founded an organization aptly called Slow Food.
Soon, people all over the world were getting together to talk about heritage turkeys, seed saving, heirloom tomatoes, and dozens of other curiosities that have since become commonplace. Does anyone remember a world before Slow Food?
I was recently talking about this phenomenon with Jennifer Casey, the regional governor of Slow Food Wisconsin Southeast, who admits she was not initially impressed with Petrini’s movement. “You know, my first conception of Slow Food was that it was some kind of fancy wine-and-cheese club,” she says. “It didn’t hold that much interest for me, because who needs more fancy wine and cheese?”
A dietitian, Casey was working at the Gerald L. Ignace Indian Health Center in Milwaukee at the time, and learning about native food traditions from local elders as a way to address what she saw as more urgent issues — such as diabetes control — than the waning appreciation for artisanal cheeses.
But when she heard Petrini speak at a Chicago rally, she was sold. “You know how someone is speaking your language and suddenly everything clicks?” she recalls. “He put all of these things that made sense together so much more eloquently than I ever could.”
Petrini articulated a need to return to traditional foods from an Italian perspective, but Casey realized that the Native Americans in Milwaukee had lost their own slow-food traditions. It was the same problem, just in a different country.
Restoring the Local Food System
“One of the things I really liked about going to school to be a dietitian was that, at the end of it all, it’s really not that complicated,” she says. “We know how to eat well — more vegetables, more fruits, more whole grains, eat lower on the food chain, and consume less-processed food.”
But this common-sense approach was no longer working, Casey realized, because the environmental and cultural systems that had once produced those foods had nearly been destroyed by commercial forces.
So she turned her attention to strengthening those systems, signing on as executive director of the Fondy Food Center, which operates one of Milwaukee’s largest farmers’ markets as part of its mission to improve access to fresh and local food.
Meanwhile, Petrini’s slow-food ideas inspired other local groups, including Seeds of Native Health, to begin promoting the value of growing traditional foods. The elders Casey used to work with now have a Three Sisters garden planted with Oneida white corn and other seeds passed down through the generations, as well as a medicine-wheel garden featuring traditional healing plants and herbs.
The elders teach their grand-children how to grow and cook the foods their own grandparents ate. These vegetables, fruits, and whole grains are, of course, the foods health-focused people like Casey recommend.
An Apple Like No Other
Casey’s own garden includes rare local crops, including Beaver Dam peppers, Aunt Molly’s ground cherries, and Amish Paste tomatoes. Milwaukee apple trees also grow in her yard. Never heard of Milwaukee apples? You’re not alone.
“It took me three years to find a mature tree to propagate from,” Casey explains. (Apples are given to genetic exuberance, and if you plant apple seeds, you won’t get the same variety you planted; they must be reproduced from grafting.) “It seemed like I called every orchard in the state. Then one day someone said they had one.”
The orchardist agreed to graft some trees for Casey, and she found spots for them in her garden as well as in community gardens all over the city.
“We called it The Great Milwaukee Apple Grow-Out, and we harvested fruit for the first time last year,” she says. It was definitely worth the wait.
“I’ve never encountered an apple like it — it’s big, firm, and dry. You can cook a Milwaukee apple for hours and it won’t turn into applesauce. I like to slice it really thin. It dries better in a dehydrator than any other apple I’ve ever seen; it gets so crisp.”
On her Thanksgiving table this year, Casey will be serving a heritage turkey (maybe a Bourbon Red), wild rice from a local native tribe, and Milwaukee apple pie. And she’ll count Slow Food among her blessings.
“The most powerful thing Slow Food does is connect people,” she says. “People in the past; people in the present; the thinkers, farmers, fisher folk, cooks, advocates, activists — all these people who care about the same things I do, working toward a better food system.”
She might even offer thanks for McDonald’s. If they hadn’t invaded Italy, after all, we might never have rediscovered the joys of Slow Food.