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Life in the Slow Lane

Baltimore's Slow Foodies want you to think about what you're eating before you put it in your mouth

Sam Holden
Life-savor: Baltimore slow food maven Monyka Berrocosa-Marbach samples homegrown delicacies.

By Michael Yockel | Posted 2/26/2003

By now, the origin of the Slow Food Movement (capital letters, please) already has achieved mythic and--it would seem--saintly status. The year: 1986. The place: Rome. The catalyst: the opening of a McDonald's restaurant in that city's famed Piazza di Spagna (the Spanish Steps). The main motivator: Italian wine writer Carlo Petrini. When Ray Kroc's billion-tentacled leviathan slithered into this Roman sanctum sanctorum, Petrini blew a gasket. In July of that same year, he and a group of like-minded Italian epicureans drew a line in the culinary sand, combating the encroaching fast-food evil empire by launching the Slow Food Movement in order to, as the organization's Web site states, "counter the tide of standardization of taste and the manipulation of consumers around the world."

Rather than storm the Spanish Steps' McDonald's ramparts and tear down the joint--in the summer of 1999, a handful of outraged French farmers did just that to a McD's franchise in their country--Petrini and his foodie firebrands struck back by promoting what their Web site terms "the fundamental importance of conviviality and the right to pleasure." They set up shop in the tiny town of Bra in Italy's southern Piedmont region and began to champion 1) regional dishes, 2) cooking with fresh, local ingredients, 3) eating leisurely meals that allow people to savor foods' innate flavors, and 4) cherishing "local customs and ancient production techniques."

As word of the insurrection spread, disciples founded other chapters (each known as a "convivium"), first in Italy, then elsewhere in Europe. Three years later, with Petrini installed as the Movement's president, Slow Food representatives from 20 nations converged on the Opéra Comique in Paris to ink the Slow Food Manifesto. Two hundred years after the French National Assembly promulgated its Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen--liberty, fraternity, equality, and all that--the Slow Foodies proclaimed, in a pithy 250 words, that "We are enslaved by speed and have all succumbed to the same insidious virus: Fast Life, which disrupts our habits, pervades the privacy of our homes, and forces us to eat Fast Foods. . . . A firm defense of quiet material pleasure is the only way to oppose the universal folly of Fast Life. . . . Our defense should begin at the table with Slow Food. Let us rediscover the flavors and savors of regional cooking and banish the degrading effects of Fast Food. In the name of productivity, Fast Life has changed our way of being and threatens our environment and our landscapes. So Slow Food is now the only truly progressive answer."

To the barricades! Slowly! And to punch home their manifesto with a trace of humor, Petrini and his cohorts adopted the Snail as their movement's logo.

A decade after the Slow Foodies issued that culinary call to arms, Monyka Berrocosa-Marbach, a food and wine consultant and educator (and one-time City Paper contributor) who had recently moved to Baltimore from Wilmington, Del., and her French husband, Thierry, were visiting Tuscany in Italy. "We ended up in this fantastic town called San Gimigniano," Berrocosa-Marbach recalls over tea at Hampden's Café Hon. "And we haphazardly came across a Slow Food event at a trattoria." Up until then she'd never heard a peep about Slow Food.

"Being North American and rude, I talked my way into it," she continues. "They said, 'You can stay, but we're doing everything in Italian, and if you don't speak Italian, so be it--you'll just have to live through it.'"

They proceeded to live through a five-hour, seven-course meal. "I'd never had so much fun," she remembers. "And I thought, 'My goodness, I want to do this more often.'" Upon leaving, she remarked upon a framed picture of the Snail, and, in her "halted Italian," asked the event's host what it represented. He told her (and here she segues into mock-Italian-accented English), "'This is Slow Food. Of course you don't know what Slow Food is--you're from America where everything is fast.'"

She returned to the United States determined to learn more, but quickly forgot about it until a year later, when she ran into a Slow Food chapter leader at a wine event in Philadelphia, who encouraged her to found a Baltimore convivium. After receiving the benediction of the Slow Food national office in New York, Berrocosa-Marbach, her husband, and two friends inaugurated a convivium here in August 2000, staging their first event a month later at Parkton's Woodhall Winery. Thirty-five people attended. "Boom!" Berrocosa-Marbach says. "Slow Food Baltimore existed."

Since then, by her estimate, the group has grown to approximately 100 members, presenting 40-some events over the past two and a half years. These began simply, with what she describes as "enjoyable-but-pedestrian food and wine stuff." A Latin Night, for example, wherein South American wines were discussed, and after which those assembled dug into Latin cuisine at Reisterstown's Fiesta Grill.

As membership swelled, Slow Food Baltimore gatherings gradually increased in both frequency and complexity: a raw-milk cheese seminar, a maple syrup seminar, visits to farmers' markets, and outings to spots such as the Olde Malt Shop in South Baltimore to eat coddies, the legendary--some would say dubious--local blue-collar "delicacy." Additionally, the group held "Taste and Talk" sessions at members' homes, during which, Berrocosa-Marbach, now 32, explains, "We would focus narrowly on one food product--say, olive oil or salt--and we would taste 12 kinds of them." (Taste and Talk, she adds, is presently on hiatus while Slow Food Baltimore searches for a venue that can comfortably accommodate current members, their spouses or partners, and nonmembers.)

Since breaching U.S. shores five years ago, the Slow Food Movement now comprises about 70 American convivia, with more than 10,000 members. (Worldwide: 83 different nations, nearly 700 convivia, and more than 70,000 members.) A nonprofit organization, Slow Food USA charges annual membership dues of $60 ($75 per couple), which grants a discounted entry to Movement hoedowns all over the globe, seven issues of the quarterly magazine Slow and five issues of the newsletter The Snail, plus a nifty membership card.

Over the years the Movement has expanded and refined its philosophy: While retaining its celebration of the Slow Life's gustatory values, it simultaneously has concentrated energies on what it describes as "Eco-Gastronomy." To wit, Slow Food USA's mission statement declares, "Recognizing that the enjoyment of wholesome food is essential to the pursuit of happiness, Slow Food USA is an educational organization dedicated to stewardship of the land and ecologically sound food production; to the revival of the kitchen and the table as centers of pleasure, culture, and community; to the invigoration and proliferation of regional, seasonal culinary traditions; and to living a slower and more harmonious rhythm of life." Its Ark USA, a spin on the one constructed by Noah, "seeks to identify, promote, and protect foods in danger of extinction, such as the Delaware Bay Oyster, the Bourbon Red Turkey first bred in Tennessee, and Aged Dry Jack Cheese." Not forgetting coddies.

Berrocosa-Marbach, who also serves as chairwoman of the national organization's communication committee, says "the 'Eco' in 'Eco-Gastronomy' stems from 'ecologically conscious.' We pride ourselves on reconnecting with where our food comes from. It's beyond appreciating food, wine, beer, et cetera. It's understanding who made it, how they made it, why it's important that we encourage the artisanal production of food and wine and beer products, and how much traceability is becoming a factor in food consumption. The basic premise is: No farmers, no food." She worries about the "disconnect from the source of our food," that we've come to treat food as "just another commodity, like gas."

Her group's sushi classes, tequila tastings, dinners at the Black Olive, Gertrude's, and Aldo's, plus annual get-togethers such as its recent evening of "Slow Death by Chocolate," aim to reel in that cultural drift, beating back what she calls "wasteful consumption." Of course, fetes such as "Slow Death by Chocolate" and pricey meals at the Black Olive also invite accusations of elitism. "I spend a good deal of my time counteracting that notion," Berrocosa-Marbach admits.

Back in the late '90s, when she taught cooking classes to disadvantaged kids in Wilmington, Berrocosa-Marbach "came across an ingrained misconception that healthy food is more expensive. But enjoying good food, good wine, good beer is not only for people who make X amount of dollars--it's for everybody. Everybody has taste buds, not just people who have large wallets."

While applying Slow Food tenets to a fast-paced lifestyle might seem somewhat daunting--an hourlong commute to and from work, overtime at the office, ferrying kids to sundry activities, the gym, films, reading, the Internet, never missing an episode of The Surreal Life (just kidding)--Slow Food Baltimore member Mary C. Riley, regional sales director for Crystal Food Imports, an importer/distributor of cheeses and specialty food products, contends that it remains within the reach of most people.

"It does require a conscious effort," she admits, but says the key lies in "making it a habit. You can start, for instance, by deciding not to buy things that aren't in season, like asparagus in the middle of winter. And you can do things in your personal life: You can insist on dinner together--maybe not every night, but at least once or twice [a week]. You can be conscious of what you are putting in your mouth. That's what the taste-education aspect of Slow is all about--showing people how gorgeous the inside of an apple is."

Riley allows that she was fortunate to grow up on a self-sufficient farm, where Slow Food philosophy reigned long before it was formally codified. But as the local convivium's director of taste education, she maintains that everyone can, if they so desire, embrace the movement: "You have to think about what you're doing and if you like it. Is it OK with you that you only get a decent meal once every two weeks? Well, OK. But if it isn't OK, then you have the right to change it."

Embroidering on that theme, Berrocosa-Marbach asserts that eating well and affordability are not mutually exclusive: "It may take a little more time than running to the takeout, but down the road it will be less expensive. In Italy they have some of the best fast food--meaning quick snacks that are easily accessible--available. They're healthy and taste wonderful. Why on earth would you want to eat something that has a homogenized taste and is more of a concept and a marketing idea than [it is] nutritious food?"

And yet she doesn't completely pooh-pooh McDonald's and its fast-food brethren. "I've eaten there," she confesses. "I don't have a personal problem with McDonald's. I just choose to encourage the little guys who make hamburgers themselves."

Accordingly, Slow Food Baltimore urges its members--and the public--to patronize local farmers' markets, regional cuisine advocates, and Snail-endorsed entrepreneurs and merchants; visit institutions such as Lexington Market, which Berrocosa-Marbach characterizes as "one of the city's greatest culinary resources"; and become involved in Community Supported Agriculture programs. The latter, she emphasizes, is a particularly important endeavor, because Community Supported Agriculture programs allow a person "to buy a share of food for the growing season or split a share with a friend. It helps to support a farmer and ensures a steady supply of the freshest fruits and vegetables--more than you'll know what to do with. This way, you know the farmer, so you know who grew your food, and you're helping him remain a farmer, because we lose farmers every day."

Glen Breining, owner of the Hampden café Common Ground, does just that, endorsing what Slow Food preaches despite the fact that he hasn't even heard of the movement. He buys free-range meats and eggs from Springfield Farm, plus organic produce from Calvert's Gift Farm (see sidebars), for his small restaurant as a matter of "personal choice. We don't charge any more [for the food] and we don't tell people that we use it. I simply think it's a better product, and better for everyone all around." While he pays twice as much as he would to a conventional food-service distributor, Breining points out that his diners "like it better," and ultimately, "I'll recoup my money by having more customers come in."

That kind of synergy jibes perfectly with what Berrocosa-Marbach and her Slow Foodie brigade actively seek. Setting down her teacup to make a point, she personalizes the Slow Food ethos. "Look, I'm involved with Slow Food because I consider myself a sensualist," she says. "But I don't have to be eating chichi, la-la to enjoy myself. I have a very simple palate. I'm happy with just fried chicken and iced tea. This is pleasurable activism. Every time you choose the slow way to eat, you're making a statement, you're making a difference."

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