Often, our meals are wolfed down as fast fuel to keep moving. Slow food adherents take time to appreciate the bounty on their plates.
Recently, on a sunny Sunday afternoon, surrounded by snow-capped mountains, blue skies, green pastures and roaming cattle in Waimea, Hawaii, some 50 individuals gathered for lunch. The menu was distinctly regional: Waimea greens, salads of haricot verts and tomatoes of all colors, Big Island-raised beef and lamb, ratatouille, Meyer lemon tarts, pineapple cheesecake—a potluck of dishes provided by the attendees.
This was a gathering of members of Slow Food Hawaii, orchestrated by its passionate leader, Nan Piianaia. Just three years ago, Piianaia and four others organized a wine and cheese tasting in Honolulu that began Slow Food in Hawaii. There are now 150 members organized into two convivia, Hawaii and Oahu.
Slow Food is an international organization that boasts 80,000 members in 100 countries, organized into 800 convivia. Its aim is to protect the pleasures of the table from the homogenization of modern fast food and high-speed life. In other words, eat, drink and be merry, slowly and locally.
“We were in Bra, Italy, and happened upon the Slow Food office,” recalls Piianaia, a professional chef, food writer and historian on the Big Island. “I was entranced by the idea that there were people trying to make others aware of what they were eating. It was all about eating well and eating products of the area they lived in.”
Slow Food members in Hawaii have gathered over meals at restaurants, visited farms and ranches, tasted artisanal cheeses and wines, learned about beer production and cupped coffee. “We’re really about education and making people aware of where food comes from and making choices in how we buy and how we eat,” said Piianaia. “We want to support local producers and local restaurants and make the connection between food, culture and history.”
Slow Food International is also trying to preserve food traditions on the verge of extinction, supporting them to promote agricultural diversity. An effort it calls the Ark of Taste catalogs foods that are near extinction. Last fall, Piianaia sent poi to the official Ark tasting, and it has now become one of the many endangered foods that members will try to preserve, alongside such vanishing rarities as the Italian Valchiavenna goat and a variety of fava bean found only on the tiny island of Santorini.
In the United States, chef Alice Waters of the Berkeley, Calif., restaurant, Chez Panisse, is leading a Slow Food mission to create food gardens in every school in the nation. This effort has reached the Islands, too. With support from the Hawaii convivium, Ambrosia, the Culinary Garden at Waimea School is getting underway.
Each convivium is a diverse group of folks of all ages and professions, engaged in a grass-roots movement that hopes to keep choices alive and food and conviviality at the center of the table. “There’s a broad expanse of interesting foods being produced locally without recognition; I want to see that change,” commented Waimea attorney and newly elected viceleader Shelby Floyd. “Slow Food is an organization whose time has come.”