My first encounter with the Slow Food movement was in New York, with Maya. We were having tapas at a crowded Tía Pol when, with the help of a little cava, we became friends with the couple next to us, one of whom happened to work for Slow Food USA. “Excuse me,” one of us asked, “is that chorizo good? We were thinking of ordering…” Within minutes, the four of us were sharing one another’s tapas and another bottle of cava(on the house, strangely enough, as the bartender mistook us for being important). We ended up in the couple’s home, playing Trivial Pursuit, and by the end of the evening, I announced (grimace) that we – Maya and I, and the couple whose names I now forget – would be friends forever. Ah, cava.
Slow Food People, in my experience, exhibit two unique qualities: an academic interest in food and a ardent desire to share said food. In retrospect, as I get more and more acquainted with the people from Slow Food Columbus, it’s not a surprise that our barstool neighbors invited two strangers into their home that night.
I spent some time in the past few months going on a bit of a food hunt for a Slow Food tasting the store hosted, one that featured a variety of items from the foodie club’s Ark of Taste series. Ark of Taste is partially where the academics come in. Simply put, foods get nominated and accepted into this exclusive list if they’re in danger of becoming extinct or if they have a distinct sociological connection with the culture and identity of a geographic place. The goal of Slow Food USA, in creating this list, is to increase awareness and consumer demand for these products, so they do not disappear. In short, demand protects the pawpaw.
After years of putting together cooking classes, themed dinners and tastings at the store, this was the first time an event was like a scavenger hunt, and I’m certain that it was the first time guests consumed head cheese, the undereducated (and more fun) cousin of pâté.
“May I speak with Juanita?” I asked. Mumbled spanish on the other end of the phone eventually produced a woman in New Mexico to whom I’d hesitatingly sent a check, in hopes of receiving two pounds of chicos. Retailers rarely use the U.S.P.S. to pay for or receive product these days and for good reason. Miss Juanita, an aunt or sister or daughter of one of the suppliers that the Slow Food website recommended for the dried corn used in Mexican and Native American cooking, did not remember receiving a check, did not remember sending anything to an Ohio address and certainly did not remember instructing me to send a check (with estimated shipping costs included) to her home. I never did receive the chicos.
Not all the searches were difficult. To be fair, the deck was stacked in my favor, produce-wise. My personal CSA supplier (and one of the store’s local produce vendors) specializes in growing the weird stuff. My interest in the Ark of Taste list had been piqued several months ago when I was passionately informed by the grower that the turnip I was holding came with its own adoption papers. Wayward Seed Farm supplied five of the endangered products, some of which have (to the joys of Slow Food People everywhere) found their ways onto the produce floor of the store.
The Early Blood Turnip-Rooted Beet (above), Gilfeather Turnip (also above), Green Mountain Potato, Aunt Molly’s Ground Cherry, Amish Paste Tomato, and Jimmy Nardello Pepper all have proper names, histories and a special place in the hearts of Jamie and Adam from Wayward Seed Farm. And they were all served at the tasting, in one capacity or another.
I did have to acquire some of the products in ways that looked questionable. The Cushaw Squash, pictured above, was carried out of North Market (with the help of their produce director / Slow Food Person) and deposited into my trunk (along with two others) to live a cozily (for a while, anyway) next to the dehumidifier I store in my trunk at all times. And the aforementioned head cheese (souse) was purchased through the side door of a south-side deli during off hours. “Just call before you come and make sure you knock loudly,” my pork provider told me. When I arrived he stressed a few times that I needed to refrigerate it immediately so that it doesn’t melt. So, yes, I drove across Columbus to buy $4.50 worth of a meltable meat product that was once served by every butcher in southern Louisiana.
All in all, I acquired, by various means, close to 20 products from around the country. Salts and honeys and rice and shrub and boiled ciders and peppers and pawpaws congregated on the table in front of 20-something people who didn’t mind that it’s tough to pair a charbano with real sauerkraut. As they tasted one course after another, they discoursed about the origins and histories of their dinners.
Halfway through the evening, some unsuspecting friends of mine wandered into the wine department (where these types of events are held) and were sucked in. Within minutes, food, drink, meat product and five different types of sauerkrauts were thrust upon them. It is no surprise, of course; the Slow Food People wanted to share.