Melbourne is alive with the annual Melbourne Food and Wine Festival. A special event as part of the two-week festival is 'A Taste of Slow', held this weekend. There aren't a lot of spoken word events at the Festival; there are a lot of interesting demonstrations, classes and dining experiences. By 'spoken word' I of course mean something more than 'this is how you cook ingredient X' — I'm looking for something more intellectually stimulating than that.
Three years ago, the Festival held a number of interesting panel discussions in conjunction with a trade fair (Fine Food) and the level of information and discussion was reasonably good. Since then, my memory tells me that the only spoken word affairs have been on the Slow Food side of things. Nothing wrong with that per se, but the topics for discussion are narrowed by the simple fact that Slow Food has specific things it wants to talk about and it attracts certain types of people.
That was a rather long preamble to a long comment about some of this year's spoken word events. I attended two of yesterday's sessions:
- What is Slow Food?
- Wellbeing and pleasure
I came away with a numb bum and the feeling that Slow Food is still failing to get its message across or perhaps even to know what its message is.
The events actually started on Friday evening, with a keynote by Greg Critser about his book 'Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World' and the reactions to it. I had to miss this due to a more important commitment, but in hindsight it's a pity, because this talk seems to indicate a new direction for Slow Food.
The first Saturday session, 'What is Slow Food?' was billed as:
Did you know that Slow Food supports a gastronomic university and a foundation for saving rare and endangered foods? Speaking from personal experiences, members of the Australian Slow Food movement, Daniela Mollica, Bob MacLennan and Christine Bond explore the concepts and projects that ate at the heart of the Slow philosophy.
If it had started on time, my bum wouldn't have got as numb on the attractive but really rather hard seats in the BMW Edge auditorium at Federation Square. Mistress of Ceremonies, radio personality Helen Razer, thought she was being funny when she hoped 'that everyone had travelled here at snail's pace'. The organisers certainly had.
Daniela Mollica gave us a bit of her resumé, talked about her rare-breed cattle (Chianina), and provided a brief history of Slow Food in Melbourne and the Convivium (local chapter) that she helped found. She's aware of many of the issues which concern Slow Food and the misconceptions about what Slow Food is, and she covered many points in an attempt to make a few things clear.
Bob MacLennan (Brisbane) talked about the 'Ark of Taste' which acts as a sort of registry for endangered traditional foods. He told us a little about the four Australian foods in the Ark (bunyanuts, bullboar sausages, leatherwood honey, Kangaroo Island Honey), showed us a mini-documentary about the breeders of mangalica pigs in Hungary and the starting of 'Presidia' (quality control projects), and then some film of initiation rites in Papua New Guinea. The latter was ostensibly relevant to his mention of giant yams, but the focus drifted.
Christine Bond (Darwin/Top End) started off by talking about food and history in the Top End but rapidly moved to telling us all about her Convivium's activities and the practicalities of setting up and running a Convivium. At times it verged on the irrelevant for a Festival audience. Finally, we heard that her Convivium runs basic cookery classes. A noble endeavour, but it begs the question whether 99% of cookery books and classes are therefore 'slow'.
It's difficult running a movement-profile session when much of your audience might already know what Slow Food is, but others may have come because they knew nothing. A diverse audience requires a bit more than this hodgepodge. 'Convivium' was defined eventually. 'Ark of Taste' wasn't explained fully, if I recall correctly, and the mysterious 'Presidia' suffered grammatically and conceptually. I don't know if the speakers were given a clear brief, but after Daniela's fairly good start it became less and less clear what the session wanted to achieve. As it was running so late, there was no chance for audience participation either — it would have been interesting to see why people attended and what they really wanted to know.
The second Saturday session, 'Wellbeing and pleasure', was described as:
Author Sherry Strong explains how slow, local and organic were never fads in nature, but simply the most convenient way to eat. Jane Dixon discusses how the supermarkets have weighed in on the debate about healthy eating. Chef Tony Chiodo demonstrates how easy it is to savour the simple pleasures of fresh, seasonal and healthy food.
And then it ran off the rails a bit. I didn't expect to hear clichés about obesity and culture, or endure junk science and scare-mongering. That's what we got to listen to.
Jane Dixon's well structured talk (an academic with a clear Powerpoint presentation) started interestingly, looking at the conundrum of supermarkets offering healthy convenience food and, more broadly, the oft-ignored fact that supermarkets have offered a lot of improvements for our health and diet. It was inevitable that these topics would be left underexplored in a fairly short presentation with a diverse audience, but I wished there was a little more information beyond the very general facts.
However, Dixon then wheeled out a few clichés which work well with a sympathetic audience but leave a bad taste if you think about them:
- she placed interesting emphasis on 'supermarket aisles full of fruit juices with their sugars' and that set off an alarm because part of the obesity-crisis lobby is currently targeting fruit juice as a villain.
- She then cited a study showing that time spent in one's car is linked to obesity (and supermarkets cause us to sit in our cars).
- Then we had the 'Europeans value quality over quantity' claptrap — that's right, France has no burger chains full of adults and teens, French cheese isn't heavy on fat, and the ever-popular 'formules' (set menus) aren't too large and nutritionally unbalanced.
Somewhere close to the end we heard the wonderfully incongruous 'food is fuel now' (as opposed to in the good old times when women slaved at the stove churning out meals for their (presumably not always taste-interested) husbands and children to eat, or (heavens!) when people had access to barely any dietary variety and of course were stone-soup gourmets as they dined in their medieval huts). Food is just 'fuel' now, yet we spend so much time talking about it, dining out, trying new food fads, falling victim to gourmet-product markups… ??
Sherry Strong's talk was passionate and well rehearsed, but in the way an evangelist spreads a message through motivating or scaring and choosing their rhetoric very carefully.
'The further we deviate from nature, the sicker, bigger we're getting.' 'In nature you'd never think to store an apple for twelve months or to cover it in chemicals.'
I'd love a definition of what 'nature' is in this sort of empty argumentation. Individual overweight humans have been observed for quite a large part of history. Preserving food using almost any technique and useful substance available isn't exactly new. Burying food stuffs or storing them in caves to get through long cold (or hot) periods is simply the precursor to the cold cabinet.
Perhaps the absolute stunner for the day was the broad-stroke assertion that processing things with chemicals makes them dangerous to you. Let me paraphrase closely: No-one has an addiction to poppy seeds, but look what happens when you make heroin out of them. Now think about all that over-processed oil and refined sugar. Oh my god. I think I need one of those Jamie Oliver 'Flavour Shakers' — I'd fill it with powdered nuance and sprinkle it liberally.
On a lighter note, pleasant and likeable chef Tony Chiodo chatted about health and healthy eating and whipped up two soups.
I'm sure there are lots of people caught up in the ideology being spruiked in this session and who would have agreed wholeheartedly with what was being said. By its very nature, Slow Food must attract people concerned about issues, but it can also serve an educative role. So much of the public discourse about food and eating exploits fears, misconceptions and rose-tinted nostalgia to persuade people to believe. Was this what the organisers of A Taste of Slow wanted in this session?
Across these two sessions, there was interesting information provided and points for discussion raised, but I felt the weaknesses were embarrassing. Spoken word events could be used to inform, explain, elaborate and challenge, but instead the first session was poorly thought out and the second (and perhaps other parts of the program as a whole) seem to be a path of ideology. It worries me, particularly, that the obesity-crisis lobby is gaining a voice under the Slow Food banner. I don't see what legitimate role obesity clichés have within a movement that is meant to focus positively on food and cultural tradition. Daniela Mollica ended her talk by saying that Slow Food was about being 'inclusive and positive, not exclusive and negative', but those values will be hard to maintain if people who spend their time obsessing about negatives (evil supermarkets, evil industry, evil scientists, evil processed food) are embraced without question by Slow Food.