I sat sandwiched between two women from Burkina Faso and Kansas City. After 48 hours of planes, trains, and automobiles, I was exhausted to the point where I could barely keep my eyes open. I heard French on my left, Chinese on my right, and Italian all around. The lights dimmed and the music began: I had arrived at the opening ceremony of Slow Food’s Terra Madre Conference.
Slow Food is a non-profit organization that promotes good, clean, and fair food. Chapters across the world use these values to host gatherings, promote social change, and invest in heirloom and specialty foods so that they can flourish in a world where commercially produced foods reign supreme.
Every other year Slow Food International hosts the “Terra Madre” (Mother Earth) conference in Turin, Italy. The conference is made up of representatives from every country from around the world (including the Arctic and Syria this year) coming together to talk food. The intent is to listen, discuss, and share ancient traditions and new innovations in food production and consumption. This year, Slow Food selected me to attend as a participant, and further as a Slow Food Congress Delegate from the United States.
Love this tagline: “Eat Local, Act Global”
The conference was overwhelming in its bounty of inspiration, but I would like to share a few highlights with you here:
Friends and Gelato
I started making friends in Paris as we waited for our flight to Turin – and the friend making continued throughout the whole experience. While on the Paris/Turin flight I met Kathryn Underwood, a city planner who is creating food policy in Detroit, while on the bus from the airport to the Opening Ceremony, I met an Ethiopian archeologist helping to preserve seeds and food traditions. At my hotel, I quickly became friends with Gabriela Othon Lothrop, the president of Slow Food Orlando who has created a three-tiered events system where they throw inexpensive to no cost events like potlucks, mid-range events like biking farm tours, and high-end events such as fancy farm dinners. This way, Gabriela’s Slow Food chapter is able to reach all audiences at all price ranges. She says the expense of the event is dictated by the talent of the chef, while the ingredients used are all high quality and sustainable. The conference continued to serve up an inspirational person around every corner. I met my food world heroes: Alice Waters, Vandana Shiva, Nikki Henderson, Curt Ellis, Carlo Petrini (founder of Slow Food), as well as many others. But just when I was beginning to think the conference was all about getting to know amazing people, I began to taste…
Meeting Alice Waters
Klippfisk from Norway
Walking through the conference center, countries were arranged by world region. As I traveled from place to place, I sampled food from as many booths as I could. I had ancient grain crepes filled with fig spread from France, sliced melon from Northern Italy, maté tea from Brazil, cured white fish from Norway, real vanilla bean from Madagascar, all while walking from one end of the arena to the other. It was a true celebration of food. This part of the conference was really something you have to see to believe. There was a street food from around the world section, an entire room dedicated to wine tastings, and an indoor “African Garden” created with fruit and vegetable plants from all over Africa. There were taste workshops for everything from wine to coffee to bread. In these workshops you heard from the farmers, chefs, and creators of the product you tasted. I participated in two workshops. One was presented by Lavazza, an Italian coffee company, and included coffee from around the world a part of their fair trade initiative. I also attended a taste workshop entitled “Awaken the Senses”, organized by students from Slow Food’s University of Gastronomic Sciences in Bra, Italy. This workshop included an exploration of taste, sound, touch, and scent – all to discover ingredients making up a meal (which we had to guess!). Then we dined on re-creations of classic dishes, such as caprese gelato. My exploration of food continued post-conference in Italy, and led to the following experiences…
“Reawaken the Senses” workshop
The Nougat Man
Food from around the world!
When the conference ended I had nine days to spare, very little money in my pocket, and no plan. Through the friends and connections I made at Terra Madre, I capped off my adventure with trips to Cinque Terre, Florence, and Rome, followed by a three-day farm stay. I traveled with two wonder women: Stephanie, who works for Georgia Organics connecting organic farms to citizens in Atlanta, Georgia, Nicole who is starting a local foods co-op in Bent, Oregon, and I navigated trains, drank lots of espresso, and wandered around these magical cities together.
Nicole, me, Stephanie
In between these adventures with friends, I broke off to work on an olive farm an hour north of Rome. I picked olives all day, climbing trees to reach the little red and green harbors of delicious oil, and ate delicious meals most of the rest of the time. Two chefs from Canada were visiting the farm and cooked for their stay – much to my reward.
The Olive Farm
It was the most exquisite food I have ever tasted: wild boar sausage with roasted fennel, freshly baked sourdough bread, apple torte made with wild apples chef Dana found, the list goes on and on. While the work was hard – it was worth every meal a hundred times over.
One night, I was able to see how olive oil is made by visiting the ancient olive stone press in town. Olives must be pressed with stone so that no heat is conducted at any point in their processing into oil. Did you know really fresh, delicious olive oil is green at first?
The farm trip rounded out my trip to Italy and brought everything together for me: Farming is hard work, food is love, and enjoying food with others is one of the best ways to create peace.
There is no other event such as Terra Madre in the world. Closest would be a United Nations conference or the Olympics. Terra Madre brings together a unique crowd of farmers, chefs, and activists alike – all passionate about good, clean, and fair food. These values are more important than ever as the world confronts staggering numbers of undernourished peoples – both hungry and overfed. The conference reinforced my own mission to create a paradigm shift towards delicious, healthy, and reasonably priced food for all. I am one person, but being a part of this conference assured me I am not alone.
Tossing a coin into the Trevi fountain, ensuring my return to Italy!
As I embark on a journey here in Mississippi to help create better school lunches for the students of Oxford Public Schools, I feel more ready then ever. The ground is moving, these changes are coming, and we can all look forward to sharing many good, clean, and fair meals together. I encourage everyone reading this blog to explore food – meet your local farmer and discuss their struggles, eat a locally grown meal with friends and family, discover the food scene in your town – there are many avenues to make these delicious discoveries with me and I look forward to what is to come!