Thoughts on Slow Food

For the several years I’ve been interested in the Slow movement. Possibly the most well-known element of this is ‘Slow Food’, made rather famous by the group in Italy who became very outspoken when McDonald’s wanted to open a store near the Spanish Steps in the middle of Rome.

Since then, there seems to be an increasing awareness of slowing down, and an ever-increasing body of work aimed at promoting a slower life.

I was fortunate to hear Carl Honore a few years ago when he spoke as part of an author’s circuit for Microsoft employees. His book, In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the cult of speed seemed rather out of place as a featured topic at that fast-paced company. But Honore’s smart ideas and accessible writing caught my attention (as well as his sardonically entertaining presentation style) continued to open a new threshold of possibility for me. What would it be like to take a foot off the treadmill? To take a break from the Habitrail? Honore, Petrini, Fearnly-Whittingstall, and others helped me to really think about the possibility, rather than continuing on the path I’d been following, which consisted mostly of feeling unfulfilled and trapped, with a hefty frosting layer of complaining.

More recently, I’ve become a fan of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and the River Cottage philosophy pertaining to food and food resources. Stephen Fry makes the most hilarious and accurate observation of Hugh that I’ve read: “Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is quite my favourite of all the prominent food-writers and presenters. Never quite as shaggy, messy and disgusting as he first appears, his great knowledge, passion, insight, intelligence and skill are hidden under the silliest hair in Europe.”

Silly hair notwithstanding, Hugh has also made quite a reputation for himself by being a huge fan of offal. River Cottage cookbooks consistently feature recipes for many forgotten (with good reason??) parts of our food animals. But Hugh makes an incredibly interesting case for these cuts – and how we think about food altogether, especially meat animals – in his Meat Manifesto.  This Manifesto encourages us, among other things, to:

“Think about the way you cook meat. Do you respect it? Do you do it justice? Would you like to understand a little more (or even a lot more) about what happens when you cook a roast or a bird in a very hot oven, or when you simmer meat slowly, for hours, with subtle flavors? To discover the remarkable difference that resting roast meat, for 15 minutes or more, before carving it will make to its texture, and therefore its taste? A few small adjustments to your cooking habits could bring big benefits.”

Reading this Manifesto right when I was really thinking about how to change my approach to food, in conjunction with a lot of learning about food science I’d been researching on my own, was just the kick in the pants I needed to consistently approach many aspects of my life with a Slow attitude.

But regarding Slow Food specifically, I am fascinated by it. Someday I want to travel to England to personally experience a few of the River Cottage sessions, and to be one of thousands to let Hugh and the RC crew know how much they have inspired and influenced my thinking about food and I approach life, in a very intentional way that laughs in the face of our current, post-modern consumerist culture.

In the meantime, I content myself with an ever-increasing focus on knowing exactly where much of my food comes from. And also I am absolutely intentional about knowing what I am cooking, and exactly how the cooking will impact, enhance, or affect the ingredient.

Sometimes that means doing a bit of research or reading to understand the piece of meat I purchased on sale, labeled only as “ROAST” – to know whether that means the cut is an oven roast that needs dry, hot cooking to bring out it’s best, or whether it is a tougher piece filled with marbling and connective tissue that will only break down under a simmer-soak at medium-low heat for hours so that everything melts away and tenderizes into ultimate succulence. And sometimes it means knowing what spices or herbs I’m using, and what will really make them sing in a particular dish: maybe I’ll toast my peppercorns first to make them a little more nutty than biting, maybe I’ll heat my chili powder and saute it in a bit of oil before adding the pan vegetables, knowing that the chemical bonds that create the flavors work much differently when they bond to oil vs. water. Maybe it means using a dried herb rather than fresh because I want to avoid a sharp or bitter taste (which might be perfectly desired and delicious in another recipe). Maybe it means that I toast the cinnamon and red chili pepper for just a moment before I melt chocolate on top of them, mixing to meld the fat and spice together… and only then adding milk, making certain that the fat has coated the powdery-fine spices so that I don’t have a floating skin of yuk atop my hot chocolate… but instead a perfectly creamy, warm, exoticly spicy xocolatl.

Intention, intention, it’s all about intention. And, surprisingly, I’ve found that it takes no more time to cook this way – in fact, it seems to be taking less. Knowing the best way to prepare any given cut of meat or how to manipulate condiments and flavorings to do what I want them to, well, it seems to make everything super-simple. Things have a tendency to turn out spectacular, almost like a magic kitchen fairy was doing the work for me. And meals are rarely so-so, or need extra work at the end to ‘fix’ them. This experimentation has been a blessing, an adventure, and a gift.

I know so many of you reading are interested in the same things, also trying to be mindful about what you make and feed to your families and cared-for ones. Please comment with your own experiences and experiments – I’d love to hear!

In the meantime, here are some of the resources that have made a dramatic impact on my understanding of the things I write about above:

  • America’s Test Kitchen: Steaks, Chops, Roasts, and Ribs. Wow. You will never wonder how to cook meat again. Ever. Every single thing I’ve made from this book (that is not an exaggeration) has turned out perfectly and delicious. These guys are pros at teaching and making things taste just right.
  • River Cottage: MEAT Book. A master class in food animals, butchering, cooking, and very mindful eating. Awesome.
  • James Norwood Pratt: A Tea Lover’s Treasury. When I really love an ingredient, I tend to learn all I can about it.
  • Jacques Pepin: La Technique. This was my dad’s book, and he gave it to me when he moved from his home to a care facility. It is filled with incredible instructions on how to Frenchify everything, from folding napkins, to creating a perfect Bouquet Garni, to properly tying a roast, to boning a capon. Par excellence!
  • Homan and Pratt: Radical Hospitality. The polar opposite of what Madames M. Stewart and C. Roehm might say – this is about how we open our minds and hearts (rather than only our pocketbooks and craft stashes) to think about hospitality in every moment and corner of our lives. It changed how I think about sharing my home with anyone, including my husband, and how my own perspective on everything is where true home-making begins.

 

There are many other wonderful cookbooks that are in similar veins; they aren’t listed here because I don’t (yet) own them or they haven’t been as critically impactful on my own cooking journey as those listed above.

Blessings on your slowness!

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2 thoughts on “Thoughts on Slow Food

  1. Another great post, Shawn. Very interested in reading the Radical Hospitality book, since I suck at the mints-on-the-pillow side of things. And while we’re talking books, I actually think a really inspiring Slow Food book is *Little House in the Big Woods* by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Talk about using every part of the animal (pig bladder volleyball, anyone?) and taking time to think about food! Just the other day, when my 6th grader cheered at the sight of orange cheddar cheese, I reminded her that Ma used to color her butter with carrot juice. And then there was how the Ingalls girls used stored produce as play furniture. Top that, Slow Foodies!

    • Shawn says:

      Heck YES! Didn’t we also talk about *On the Shores of Silver Lake*, and the to-DIE-for pantry setup the surveyors left & the Ingalls took advantage of that winter? I can still vividly recall the description of glass jars of home-canned goods on the shelves, boxes of crackers (pretty sure those weren’t made in a factory…), and bags of nuts, grains, flours, etc. That room would be my version of FAO Shwartz, baby.

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