Bits ‘n’ Pieces: ‘U.N. of Food’ an inspiration to slow down

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian Arts & Features Reporter

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Vancouver foodies fighting the opening of a McDonald’s fast-food restaurant on Main Street might not be aware that they’re continuing a proud tradition that began in Rome.

That was in 1986, when the Golden Arches rose one block away from the historic Spanish Steps, a beloved meeting spot in the center of the ancient city. It was a potent symbol of modern industrial food colliding with a potent symbol of a truly cuisine-loving people.

“It was a stake in the heart of a culture and an economy,” said Warren Neth, and locals protested in a logical and tasty way: by taking to the streets with feasts of traditional local foods. They battled lab-engineered burgers and fries by publicly savoring “your grandmother’s own penne,” he said. “It was a strong political moment in the Italian consciousness, a new awareness of the need to conserve their food heritage. We haven’t had a political moment like that in America.”

McDonald’s prevailed in the heart of Rome, but the foodie meetings and conferences that followed led to a full-blown global “slow food” movement, aimed at preserving local cuisine, local ingredients and traditional agricultural practices — as well as the lost art of slow, convivial mealtimes. The very name of the movement is a slap at speedy, homogenous factory food production that dumps identical hamburgers on Sifton, Santiago and Singapore.

Neth, the leader of Slow Food Southwest Washington and prominent in the national Slow Food USA, told a small group Sunday night at Torque Coffee in downtown Vancouver that he’s feeling extra inspired about such things, having just returned from a late-October trip to Italy for the 10th anniversary conference of what folks like to call “The United Nations of Food.”

Neth was one of 3,000 delegates who journeyed from all around the world to Turin, Italy, for the Terra Madre conference. Scientists and policymakers, food gurus and environmental activists all came together to discuss the current state of food affairs. Neth said he was particularly thrilled to meet some of the “rock stars” of the slow food movement, including founder Carlo Petrini, the man who first sounded the alarm about McDonald’s at the foot of the Spanish Steps.

Alongside the serious foodie conference was the Salone de Gusto, which can only be described as the hugest international food, beer and wine court you’ve ever seen — the equivalent of three Rose Garden arenas full of homemade delicacies lovingly prepared by chefs from all across the globe, Neth said. He met a farmer from the Hudson River Valley of New York who’s working to preserve and grow ancient grains, he said, and an Italian farmer who’s growing the very same sweet, nutritious pears that his grandfather grew generations ago.

Closer to home, Neth and Slow Food Southwest Washington are urging Clark County policymakers to preserve local farmland and boost the farm economy. You can take a look at their policy recommendations and sign on to a petition at www.slowfoodswwa.com.

“It is so exciting to see what people of the world are doing with foods,” Neth said. “We’ve got a lot to do right here in Southwest Washington.”

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Bits ‘n’ Pieces appears Fridays and Saturdays. If you have a story you’d like to share, email bits@columbian.com.