“Nothing is lost. Everything is transformed”
September 2016. Graison S. Gill. Slow Food New Orleans.
Food is a human right, not a privilege. How do we uphold this self-evident truth socially and politically? Paradoxically, globalization has globalized our problems. I also think it has globalized their solutions. Same architecture, different furniture. This is an essay through my journal about my first trip to Italy, and first time at Slow Food’s Terra Madre:
Terra Madre, Sala Gialla, 24 September: Cold shower. That’s the initial feeling. Thrust into a cacophonous womb of immediate, tactile contact. Confrontation: just like Italy, Terra Madre confronts me immediately, onto a mattress of now. There wasn’t a pensive moment, not a minute to think, to reflect, to process. It is a visceral now, a liquid experience of time which ebbs like water’s tide. Chewing, smelling, talking, listening, seeing, tasting, walking, wandering—mostly it’s watching. Looking—like a first trip to the Grand Canyon—a poetic panorama, a digestion of this incredible human portrait. This entire carnival of sensual horizons.
Not France, or Mexico, or Germany. This isn’t a place of contemplation, of stepping back, of taking a breath. Italy isn’t known for its poetry, its contemplation—the dogma here is a catechism of public life: opera, theatre, living architecture, and restaurant terraces. Tragedy and triumph, unlike other places in the world, are not behind closed doors with shy locks. Life here is an embroidered drama, stitched by the threads of food, the threads of stories.
Our personal relationship to food—no matter where we are in the world—is our compass, our gravity. It is, whether we accept food and its implications or not, the sole factor that determines how, or how not, we live our lives. Food connects us first to ourselves, then to everyone else, and lastly to the earth from which it comes. From where we come. Like no other human language or endeavor, food and eating determine, then dictate, our personal and communal lives. How we eat, when we eat, who we eat with, and why we eat is the most fundamental human act, more pertinent than shelter, clothing, or any other behavior.
How do we connect with each other? That depends how we connect with ourselves. And we connect with ourselves most intimately with—or without—the passion of food. (In the words of our Slow Food USA President in his opening address to our delegation, this is inclusive and democratic access to the “pleasure of food”). Flesh was put onto this bone of a fact when I arrived in Turin. For years I have been struggling with connecting dots. As a baker, miller, business owner, eater, shopper—every role I play is always frustrated by a lack of cohesion. It is, in one metaphor, the loss of looking up at the sky and recognizing no patterns. When we see the carpet of stars above, our appreciation of them and our understanding of ourselves is illuminated when we comprehend their relationships, their organization, their meaning. But, like any discipline, or like any pleasure, passion and respect and indulgence require training, require patience. Threads are teased, meaning is massaged. This is enrichment.
If we want to change the future, we must learn about the past. In order to be a better Slow Fooder, this lesson hit me hard at Terra Madre. Despite being an avid history student, I recognized the need for understanding the constellations better. For understanding the policies, the facts, the relationships. Negotiating the bigger picture, the gestalt, is fundamental in order to deconstruct what is immediately in front of us. We see a flower first, and then we register the petals…John Lewis, a Civil Rights pioneer and Congressman, made a very pertinent and simple observation. Regardless of one’s opinion about the erosion of the Civil Rights Movement in the end of the 1960s, Mr. Lewis noticed that the language, the attitude, and the comportment of activists changed. It went from members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), who had familiarity with the Scriptures and wore overalls with denim shirts to men and women in dark sunglasses holding semi-automatic rifles and using coarse language. He cautions that anger and confrontation is a strong, positive trait in a mature set of hands. But, antagonism—denigrating others, deriding others—is not healthy, nor constructive. And if we seek to change the world and how it eats, that commitment requires us to be twice as civil, twice as gentle, twice as understanding, and twice as educated as that system we seek to usurp. We have to dress the part, metaphorically speaking, too.
Einstein said that one cannot “change the old problem with the old thinking.” Nor can we change the current behavior with the same attitude, or the same thinking. We cannot think in terms of failure, of struggle, of scarcity, of fear, of binaries; we have to exude thoughts of success, of possibilities, of empowerment. How do we reach Middle America with a message that every single American agrees with, if only the wording is correct? Who, I seriously question, would disagree with “Clean, good, and fair”? I’d argue no one in America, if they were asked in conscientious language. It is how we present ourselves, and our message, that tips the scales of ally or alien. Truth and honesty are our ballast, and we must simply learn to promote our message—to evangelize its democratic truth—to everyone we encounter.
We are missing a fundamental audience in America, one that had strong presence at Terra Madre. Commerce. What I witnessed at Terra Madre was an incredible harness of transaction, of trade. My most impressive experience, really, was witnessing how effectively the European and African and Asian vendors secured this. Instead of allowing Whole Foods and other corporate giants to appropriate our message and our food, leaving us victims in other ways, these artisans were self-steering and self-organized. Anyone who attended Terra Madre can corroborate the fact that the sheer scale of goods (food, clothing, beverage) being consumed was incredible. A lot of overwhelming things were happening, and they weren’t in supermarket aisples.
Why is the commerce of Slow Food so successful in Europe? Policy. Support. And what is missing in our success at home? Policy. Support. I had a great conversation with Richard McCarthy at Terra Madre where he clarified that this was not capitalism, but commerce. It was clarifying because each of those foods, those spices, and those flours were created (ideally) by small producers buttressed intuitively by good, clean, and fair. But each of those producers, from what I understand, had their government’s support in the protection of their integrity as artisans, as small producers. That is precisely what we lack in the United States. There may be a clutch of support on the coasts, or in more progressive states, but the vast majority of our country is under the boot heel of corporate government. Until we understand and begin to change the narrative from that of revolution to transformation, we will not be as successful as any of us can be. There are some people who, no matter what, may never wear a seatbelt. But, when the law dictates that you must wear a seatbelt or face a $500 fine, a lot of people will begin wearing seatbelts. If the law requires farmer market vendors to use 50% local ingredients in their value added products; if the law requires that school lunch contract bidder use 50% of local ingredients in their kitchens; if the law requires that each Land Grant University establish an Organic Department…then bingo. Until then, we will rely on philanthropy and bourgeois chefs to popularize and democratize fresh, local, and organic food. Until good, clean, and fair become rules of our government (for the people and by the people) instead of just a effective slogan, we will never make our goals as equitable and accessible as we need them to be. We must learn the knots before we untie them.
Carlo Petrini, in his written address to delegates, said that, “Loving the earth means defending diversity in all its forms.” In Slow Food USA we need a serious diagnoses of privilege. Winona, for those of you who attended the SFUSA opening meeting, spoke incredibly on this reality. Privilege is, in my opinion, healthy water in dirty jars. That is, good intentions with misguided behavior. (All birds fly the same wind). Sometimes, in an effort to preserve or annunciate or defend diversity in all of its forms, some of us with more privilege—educational, financial, gender-based, emotional—muffle or impede the voice of others, the lives of the more diverse. And that is, to rip the band-aid off, reflected in our organization of (mostly) middle-aged white males. Myself included. (To take it even farther, I noticed an uncomfortable privilege in Mr. Petrini’s presence, one in which he came to speak, rather than listen, and he came on his time which caused the mortgaging of others’. I don’t think it was a just, healthy example to set. And that behavior, the two times I saw it, did not mirror the verbal sentiment for caution, solidarity, and respect). But, instead of ignoring or erasing or deprecating privilege, we should embrace it. We should speak to what makes others uncomfortable. And most importantly, we need to take a clean deep look at ourselves and understand what is so ingrained from the old system, the old ways, that we’re trying to dislodge. All of us, in the words of economist Stefano Zemagni who spoke at Terra Madre, need to “decolonize our imaginations.” Because no matter who we are, or where we come from, we have in myriad ways been colonized in our behavior, our endeavors, and our attitudes. Slow Food is about, through the conduit of food, razing that colonization. The sooner we accept, understand, and ultimately embrace our privilege and its implications, the sooner our movement will roll. Privilege, at the end of the day, is responsibility. Every one of us who had the privilege of traveling to Terra Madre in 2016 has the responsibility to alchemize that knowledge into wisdom at home.
What did I learn at Terra Madre? Not much. What did I realize at Terra Madre? So much. It was an incredible weekend of epiphanies. I need to slow down, I realized. We control time, we are not controlled by it. I also realized that I must not resent what I want, but do not see. Too often, leaders talk twice as often as they listen, they teach twice as often as they learn. I know that it would behoove us all to present more good news, not bad. I spoke to many delegates and attendees who, despite a deep empathy and sympathy, heard enough narratives.
We were inundated with problem-sharing narratives at Terra Madre; let’s move towards solutions. Let’s change our perspective from victim to protagonist, from re-active to pro-active: imagine a perfect world and start there. We all know how dire and desperate the situation is. What we are all thirsty for are solutions. We need cohesive agendas for change that are welded to the ethics of inclusivity, access, and empowerment: good, clean, and fair. We want to democratize the movement. We want blueprints, inspirations, pivots for engagements. We want models, tactics, goals, architecture. Show us, don’t tell us. We are, in all sincerity, an army of love. An army in defense of pleasure, of food. But I felt, and feel at home, a lacking cohesion in agenda. What I realized at Terra Madre was the fact that we cannot wait to find or stumble upon solutions. We cannot wait for leaders to drop out of the sky like religion. We all, in our own unique and positive way, posses the qualities we so desperately seek in the world. It is fear and maturity that keep us away from ourselves. In some cases for a lifetime, in some cases a few years. This is the wilderness.
Leadership is sacrifice. We cannot wait to find solutions, or for them to find us. We will create solutions create by diagnosing problems like a doctor. They are giants, but we are millions. They have the power, yes, but we have the influence. Think of all the titans of justice in human history. Mohammed, Cesar Chavez, Fannie Lou Hammer, Harvey Milk, Harriet Tubman, Bayard Rustin, Edna Lewis, Diane Nash, Grace Lee Boggs. These heroes—and scores of countless, countless others—agitated and organized. They, figuratively or metaphorically, went to the doctor. They checked in, they diagnosed, and they prescribed cures. Social movements are simple in that perspective because it’s a matter of origins, of ontogeny. Locating the origin of a disease in order to develop its cure. Angela Davis said that, “Radical simply means grasping something at the roots.” We are all doctors, and we are all patients. Human rights, just like food, need to be cooked before they’re eaten. Every harvest, every victory, is an opportunity to put more back into the soil. Nothing in modern American history is given. We live in a country with a history of withholding, and everything we have as citizens today was purchased with the blood of integrity from people who believed, people of faith. Civil Rights, LGBT Rights, Women’s Rights, Union’s Rights: seeds of justice were sown and respect was the harvest.
Milan Airport, 29 September: Life has become diluted and distended and fast; but if we can and when we do slow down our food, then everything else will slow down with it. And the gears spin, and they spin fast, because of commerce. When we commodified food—in factories, on farms, and in freezers—we relinquished sacred control over our most human endeavor. Just as religion lost it essence when it was moved to the church, so was our humanity lost when we put food on the stock market. Lost, yes, but misplaced is the more accurate direction. For something to be lost, it must be impossible to find. But our foodways—our mother earth—is the only thing in this life that will never be lost. It will always, always be the one place where we will be found. Try as we may, forget as we will, we will always and only find our way back home. Sankofa, with that Trail of Breadcrumbs leading us back to Terra Madre.