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Slow Food versus The Farmers and You and Me, Part 1

Normally this space is dedicated to posts about soaking beans or pruning cactus. Unfortunately, a recent book by someone supposedly fighting the good fight for pure, good, local food has caused such a stir that I felt the need to comment and present the point of view of a grower who previously was cheering Slow Food and selling at the San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmers Market.


Carlo Petrini is the head of Slow Food, an international organization that mostly raises awarness about the deplorable state of modern food production. They’ve done a lot of good and opened many eyes. I’ve made some good friends and learned quite a lot, so I don’t want to discount the whole organization. Petrini has written a new book, Slow Food Nation, and the bulk of one short chapter is spent describing his trip to Ferry Plaza with his friend, restauranteur and local food icon, Alice Waters.

I’d like to share the passage with you:

Morning. The cool morning began quite early: if you are going to the market it is best to be ready by seven o’clock at the latest. The sun was not yet warm enough when, in the company of my chef friend Alice Waters, I entered an elegantly refurbished area of the docks; pretty little coffee shops were serving warm mugs of excellent organic fair-trade coffee; sumptuous bakeries were putting out all sorts of good things, spreading the fragrant aroma of some wonderful kinds of bread. Oil and wine producers were offering samples in marquees, while hundreds of open-air stalls were selling excellent products: fruit and vegetables, fish, meat, sausages, and even flowers. Fresh, healthy-looking food, all carefully marked organic.

One could have easily spent a fortune there. The prices were astronomical, twice or even three times as high as those of “conventional” products. But how hard it is to produce things so well, and what costs are involved in obtaining certification! I am convinced that the farmers’ intelligent productive efforts deserve to be paid for generously, so I was not too scandalized by the prices, even though they were those of a boutique. Yes, a boutique: for I soon realized I was in an extremely exclusive place (bear in mind that this is one of the oldest and most important farmers’ markets in town, la crème de la crème). The amiable ex-hippies and young dropouts-turned-farmers greeted their customers with a smile and offered generous samples of their products to a clientele whose social status was pretty clear: either wealthy or very wealthy.

Alice Waters introduced me to dozens of farmers: they were all well-to-do college graduates, former employees of Silicon Valley, many of them young. Meanwhile their customers, most of whom seemed to be actresses, went home clutching their peppers, marrows and apples, showing them off like jewels, status symbols.

Two of the producers in particular struck me: a young man with a long beard and a man who was selling oil. The former, with long hair and a plaid flannel shirt, held his lovely little blond-haired daughter in his arms and told me, in a conspiratorial tone, that he had to drive two hundred miles to come and sell in that market: he charged incredibly high prices for his squash, it was “a cinch,” in just two monthly visits he could earn more than enough to maintain his family and spend hours surfing on the beach.

The latter, who wore a tie, extolled the beauties of his farm: it consisted of hundreds of hectares of olive trees, stretching as far as the eye could see, and nothing else. While I was tasting his excellent organic oil on a slice of bread which reminded me of Tuscan bread—absolutely delicious—I was thinking of what he must have uprooted and cleared away in order to grow all those plants, each one of them impeccably organic.

-from Slow Food Nation by Carlo Petrini. ©2007 Rizzoli Ex Libris

There are a number of disturbing suggestions and some flat-out lies. The easiest finger to point is at price. Yes, the price of food at Ferry Plaza, both in the shops and at the farmers market can be high. You can spend over $3 for a single peach. You can also find bunches of spring onions for 39 cents, juicy oranges for 99 cents a pound and lettuce mix for less than five dollars a pound, all comprable to an average grocery store. Petrini full well knows that “regular” prices are artificially low and I would say it’s downright irresponsible to bring up price without mentioning what it takes to bring a 69 cent head of romaine to a grocery store. For the small independent grower, expenses add up quickly. There’s gas, business permits, labor, ag department fees, farmers market fees, organic certificatrion, water and even seed stock just to start. But as long as we’re talking about price, did you know your Slow Food membership starts at $60? For this you get a little pin of a snail, probably made in China and not by “artisan” labor, and a quarterly magazine that is always late and rarely of interest. And you get the chance to got to events like meeting Petrini and eating a hamburger for $100. I don’t believe Mr. Petrini is in a position to discuss value.

Petrini mentions that most of the customers seemed to be actresses. In my mind, this conjures up images of women in furs with big Breakfast at Tiffany’s sunglasses strolling with their snow leopards on a platinum leash. Or at least unusually gorgeous and well-turned out women. I apologize to my customers, whom I love dearly, but San Francisico’s fashion motto could easily be “Dare to be dowdy!”, especially on a foggy Saturday morning. Try Beverly Hills or even nearby Walnut Creek if you want to see “actress types”. I mentioned this to a friend and he said, “There is a sense of glamor to the place. Maybe that’s what he’s picking up on.” I doubt it.

I think it’s great that Alice Waters introduced him to “dozens” of farmers but to see the farmers market through her eyes is not to see the market. She doesn’t even shop there! She probably knows her regular suppliers and thought she was doing them a favor by introducing them to Petrini. I sincerely doubt that all of the farmers introduced by Waters were all Silicon Valley dropouts and college grads but if they were, how wonderful! To turn away from a cubicle and work the land and show off the fruits of your labor should be something to induce pride. In an interesting article, A Plea for Culinary Modernism (Gastronomica, Fall 205), writer Rachel Lauden accuses Petrini and Slow Food of being “culinary luddites” and I suspect they are “ag luddities” as well. What’s even more offensive is that these two farmers who left such an impression on Petrini simply don’t exist. He made them up as a way to illustrate his points but since he doesn’t really understand the California farmers market system, the Bay Area food scene and the dynamics of suburban sprawl, he’s caught off guard. He writes about the olive oil grower who wears a suit and tie (why is this relevant at all? Oh! A big bad business man!), “I was thinking of what he must have uprooted and cleared away in order to grow all those plants, each one of them impeccably organic.” Since this farmer and this grove of olives don’t exist, it is hard to say what was uprooted, but if it’s in Northern California, there’s a better chance that this olive grove prevented more suburban sprawl rather than destroy native habitat.


The surfer example is the worst, in my book. The subtext here is that the farmer, the one Petrini chose to write about, is gouging the customer in order to go surfing. There is one rather famous surfing farmer and it’s Joe Schirmer of Dirty Girl Produce. Yes, he surfs, sometimes for extended periods, in Baja. But he’s an innovative farmer, works like a dog and sleeps in a tent on the beaches of Mexico. Joe and I exchange seeds from Baja, always looking for the elusive wild beans (frijol silvestre) of Baja and saving wild tomatillo seeds and studying legumes. But so what if all Joe did was surf on his well-earned vacations? Is this any of Petrini’s business or even mine?

The subtext is that it’s not enough that we grow food as Petrini has suggested in the past . Now we need to sell to a particular customer, charge a particular price, wear certain clothes and spend our leisure time according to his vision. I think he’s irresponsible and Slow Food should be ashamed for giving him an unrestricted platform, despite all the good things he may have done in the past.

Next: Rancho Gordo Meets Carlo Petrini in person!

Be sure and click on the Comments link below to add to the discussion or hear how others are feeling.

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