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by Whitney Brown, UNC-Chapel Hill graduate student in Folklore
I have never seen such a spectacle in all my life. It was like the UN meets the Olympic opening ceremonies meets a populist farmer rally, and it was beautiful. I found myself alternately laughing with delight, scrambling for photos, wiping away tears evoked by moving speeches, and excitedly scribbling notes about Slow Food International’s politically-charged, inspirational rhetoric.
By the time of the opening ceremony, I had already met so many extraordinary people that I was beginning to wonder what I was doing there, graduate student that I am. I don’t farm or work with impoverished youth or run farmers’ markets. At this stage, I mostly trade in ideas, and I’m no great thinker, though God knows I try. But I was there to observe and network and learn, and I did all of those every day until I simply couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore. It was an overwhelming trip in terms of people, tastes, and ideas, and I think I will be processing it well into next year.
Selected by Slow Food USA to join the ranks of the 700+ youth delegates from around the world, I got to know my fellow youth delegates best of all. I apply the term “youth” to myself only loosely now at age 25, but there were folks there as “youth” who were in their 30s as well. Whoever we are, the “youth” were all housed together out in a little mountain town called Bardonecchia, which is almost in France, and was home to Olympic snowboarding in 2006. In fact, we stayed in the former Olympic village, generally four to a room with folks from our own respective countries. Our commute to and from Torino was about an hour and fifteen minutes or hour and a half each way, depending on traffic, so we had a lot of time to get to know each other on the buses. It sounds strange to say, but in four days of bus rides, hurried breakfasts, and dinners with table wine from a seemingly endless tap, I know I made some lifelong friends and colleagues.
Because nearly all the delegates relied on scheduled buses and our accommodations were literally spread out in towns across northern Italy, I didn’t have time to get to know many people who weren’t in the youth delegation. I was on the hunt for Winona LaDuke, Poppy Tooker, and a farmer/extension agent named David Kendall from Madison County, NC, but I never found any of them. In a crowd of over 7100 people, it was almost impossible to find specific people, but that made the random sightings of familiar faces even more exciting and rewarding. Difficult as I found it to link up with certain folks, this was undoubtedly one of those times that it helps to be a 5’11” woman with big, curly hair; you are easily spotted by your friends. (Surprisingly, my stature did not give me leverage over 5’6” Italian men as we jostled for free samples in Salone del Gusto. I quickly learned that the Southerner in me is not aggressive enough in crowds.) Since I’m so easily spotted, I did manage to run into fellow NC delegates April McGreger and Phoebe Lawless several times, and I also had the chance to meet Alex and Betsy Hitt from Peregrine Farm through Phoebe. I also talked with some NC cheesemakers at the US Raw Milk Cheese Presidia booth, which was fun and tasty, and meeting these folks leads me to my next point:
In general, since my Italian skills are almost nonexistent, it was a relief to find places to speak English and hear English spoken to me without having to wear headphones. It was the only way to get that farmers’ market vibe that I crave. There were literally hundreds of booths where I simply couldn’t talk to people, though many anticipated this and had brochures in English. There were also a few notable exceptions when particularly exuberant Italians were determined to communicate directly with me despite our lack of a shared spoken language, including a cheesemaker who, with kisses on my cheeks, wanted me to know that he had two vintage Willy’s Jeeps that he drove around his Italian farm and that that they came from Toledo, Ohio. I think. (I honestly believe we had only five words in common: America, Willy’s, Jeep, Toledo, Ohio.) That incident was amusing and endearing, but I was otherwise shocked at the amount of frustration I felt at my inability to communicate with people about the fascinating foods they were feeding me; I just take it for granted that I can do that around here. As a veteran traveler, I didn’t expect to find the language barrier so bothersome, but I guess my curiosity about new foods really heightened my communication needs. Luckily, in addition to my new raw milk cheesemaker friends, I found similar English-speaking respite with the Ojibwe manoomin (wild rice) crew from Minnesota in the Presidia and at the Salone booth of the American Association of Brewers, where I tasted some unfamiliar American beers and met Dogfish Head brewmaster Sam Calagione.
Before I left for Italy, I’d been seriously contemplating the class and race issues embedded in food–and Slow Food–so I was pleased to see them tackled head-on in Italy by both the US delegation and the international leaders. As much as I love to grow things and cook and eat, I am most interested in the socio-economic and cultural politics of food. Under the expert direction of Dr. Rayna Green, I am taking a class right now at UNC called “The Life, Death, and Rebirth of Native Foodways,” so Native American issues in particular have been on my mind lately. (I’m especially interested in Native foods recognized by the Ark of Taste and Presidia and also the many others in the Ark of Taste that are described as having Native origins/ties. Who’s growing this stuff, and why? What, if anything, does this mean for Native peoples?) Over the years, I’ve done a lot of work on African-American history and culture, including a stint as the one [relatively] radical white girl in a history class at the University of Alabama on the Black Power movement. I myself am descended from people who were tenant farmers in the foothills of South Carolina only two generations ago, relying completely on the land and the seasons for sustenance. My grandmother remembers always having plenty of good food to eat, but the family never got ahead until they got off the farm and into wage labor in the textile mills and the military. All of these things have helped to shape my interest in food and farmers and land and marginalization, which are on my mind more and more these days.
So, yes, I was pleased that the rhetoric and the literature at Terra Madre were outwardly political, relying heavily on concepts of “rights” to good, clean, fair food, as well as handing out “manifestos” on the future of seeds and food policy. I definitely felt momentum building for social justice at home and abroad. Many leaders referred hopefully to the upcoming US presidential election and the role our next president must play in crafting better US agricultural and food policy and in addressing the world food crisis. I admit I went to Terra Madre feeling a bit embarrassed to be an American, and I hate that. Actually, each of the three times I have gone abroad in the last eight years I have felt the same way: embarrassed at our wealth and our waste and our war… And our president. In truth, I don’t know anyone who loves this place more than I do, problems and all, but I guess that’s why I’m so disappointed in us at the moment. It was clear from day one at Terra Madre that America–and America’s food policy–has a disproportionate amount of influence on the rest of the world, and our influence has been an increasingly negative one in recent years. Still, Carlo Petrini’s even-handed speech made me feel hopeful and proud. It was refreshing to me to hear that although people around the world are angry at America (and rightfully so), they still believe in our potential for greatness and our ability to impact positive change across the globe. And speaking of change, it was quite clear who the world wants us to elect. I can’t tell you the number of folks who wanted to talk to me about Obama, which made me even prouder to live in a state that might just swing his way.
Anyhow, as these big ideas began to sink in, it struck me how lucky the Slow Food movement is to be guided by such great thinkers and powerful speakers. Call me a neophyte, but Vandana Shiva, whom I had somehow never heard of before Terra Madre, absolutely floored me during her opening ceremony speech on GMOs and big agriculture, during which she explicitly railed against American agribusiness giants like Monsanto. In the US regional meeting, Winona LaDuke gave us a powerful glimpse of the Native American perspective on Slow Food and GMOs and sacredness of certain crops. “We are not fighting to eat at Whole Foods,” she said, as she explained that we must care for our crops as if they are our family members, and they will care for us in return. Stressing the importance of cultural diversity alongside biodiversity, as did many others, she declared, “This movement cannot be a monocrop.” Though rushed for time due to earlier speakers running over their allotments, Will Allen and his daughter Erika Allen nevertheless gave a moving talk that echoed LaDuke’s sentiments about the need to diversify the movement, and they called for us to reach out to folks like the poor, urban African-Americans with whom they work. They explained yet another perspective on food and agriculture that I think is important for us to understand, which is that agriculture is a politically loaded endeavor that is often viewed unfavorably by the descendants of slaves and sharecroppers who fled Southern plantations for Northern cities in the twentieth century. Agriculture is often seen by those folks as a regression, and others are wary of Slow Food as an elitist white thing, to be frank. It’s just something most of us–and by “us” I generally mean middle to upper class white people–driving the movement here in the States don’t think about. For a lot of us, it just hasn’t been part our world.
In the end, what I took away were series of important questions: what are our goals? Whom are we serving? What can we do to be more effective? The most current rhetoric calls for inclusiveness regardless of race or income and declares the “right” to good, clean, and fair food at a price that works for both producers and consumers. The biggest question for me is, what can I do to help? There certainly were many inspiring models around me; I’ve just got to figure out how to apply some of what I learned there now that I’m back here.
I don’t know what it was like for the producer delegates, but the youth all agreed that we could feel the hope and enthusiasm pulsing through our segment of the delegation. Indeed, I came home inspired to do more and to do better in every part of my life, whether in my academic work, my political activism, my gardening, or my cooking, but also to find ways to make my work affect people’s lives for the better. The ongoing discussion of the importance of preserving cultural diversity and ensuring its representation in the movement made a lot of sense to me as a folklorist. Carlo Petrini’s call to document and continue the traditions of our ancestors validated in one speech everything I’ve done since I started graduate school, as well as my lifelong impulse to honor and preserve the traditional. In a more immediate, pressing sense, our attention was drawn to starvation and waste and the world food crisis, and in their speeches, US and international leaders emphasized the importance of the youth delegation and the work we will do in the coming decades, as well as the need for the older members of the movement to open their homes and lives to us in order to establish mentoring relationships.
Let us hope that all of the delegates will take these ideas back home and transform them into something more than just talk. My experience at Terra Madre convinced me that we are already off to a good start.