Thank goodness for the man from Hope. No, not Bill Clinton. And not Barack Obama, either. I’m talking about the guy from Hope, Minnesota.
Victor Mrotz appeared like a vision, holding a huge tray of bread slices, slathered with slabs of butter from the Hope Creamery. I was standing in a looooong line, waiting to get a plate with three little pieces of cheese at Slow Food Nation, the big event celebrating American foods that was held in San Francisco this past weekend.
Slow Food Nation made me cranky – or at least the Taste Pavilions portion of the event did. With 2,000 people swarming only 16 pavilions for samples of charcuterie, seafood, pickled items, jams, honey, cocktails, chocolate, ice cream, coffee and other goodies, there were bound to be bottlenecks.
Very nice volunteers were slamming bits of chocolate or scoops of scrumptious ice cream onto paper plates and dealing them out at a breakneck speed to attendees who were mostly obsessed with tasting everything available before their 4-hour ticket expired. Slow Food? Really?
But what upset me most of all about the situation is that I didn’t get to connect or chat with the producers – the people who grew, cooked, cured or stirred the things I was queuing up to taste. One server couldn’t even tell me what the ingredients were in a seafood dish she handed me. That’s why I was so happy when Victor showed up and actually talked to me and my line neighbors about the butter his company makes in small batches, using an old churn from the 1940s.
Contrast this with Slow Food International’s big event, Salone del Gusto, held every two years in Turin, Italy. In 2006, there were more than 500 exhibitors from around the world, and at each stand, it was possible to chat with someone who knew the item intimately. It was like encountering Victor Mrotz – times 500.
I learned about cured goat leg “violino” from an artisanal producer, quizzed a man from Sicily about his manna, learned all sorts of details about jamon Iberico (“It is a sacrilege to cut off the fat!”), watched a fish trap being made and found out the Portuguese fleur de sel I was buying came from an area where salt was harvested in Roman times – and the young people selling it were trying to prevent the tradition from dying out by learning the techniques from the few old men who still knew how to work the salt pans.
Yes, Salone del Gusto gets crowded with thousands of people, but throughout the massive convention-style exhibition, it offers an intimacy that Slow Food Nation failed to achieve. In the two times I’ve attended, I felt like I didn’t just sample the food – I got the real flavor of the people who were behind the food. And that always makes things taste so much better.
There were many commendable things about Slow Food Nation – the banning of water bottles, lively panels about food justice, and valet bike parking.
If the event is held again, I’ll cross my fingers that the organizers will take a lesson from Salone del Gusto – and the man from Hope, Minnesota.