Sonoma is easily the most delicious town I have ever lived in, easily the most delicious town in the states. From our spectacular farmer’s markets, wonderful grocery store, and farm-focused restaurants it is truly simple to follow the ‘Slow Food’ way of living and eating: a global, grassroots movement with thousands of members in over 150 countries, linking the pleasure of food with a commitment to community and the environment.
Our own Sonoma Valley chapter of Slow Food has a new president, local Margarita Ramirez, who I recently had the pleasure of chatting with.
Kristin: Tell me a bit about yourself, your travels, your history with Slow Food?
Margarita: I am a northern California native. My father emigrated from Puerto Rico and, through his military career, ended up in San Francisco. I would like to give him credit for his gift of storytelling or at least what I imagined and made more fantasy than fiction, that left an unmistakable mark for my wanderlust of travel and peoples of the world. I did not grow up with television but the images of National Geographic magazines. I was the sibling in my family that was most curious and asked far too many questions, which lead me at a young age to hit the road exploring.
The income earning years saddled me into the corporate world where I was surrounded by professionals seeking a respite from the daily grind. That was in the mid 80s when the not yet named Slow Food movement here in America was beginning to take hold, especially with Alice Waters and Chez Panisse, the first organic and locally sourced restaurant.
I focused my corporate work on then launching professional activities of local travel, food, and cooking school experiences. My main shift happened when I left corporate world to reinvent myself as a certified travel guide and seller of group travel. From the Atlas Mountains of Morroco, the Andes of Peru, northern and southern rural India, Africa, and my second country of citizenship, Ireland, I witnessed first hand with the groups I was leading that food is about stories. Quite innocently, before Slow Food terminology, my passion for connecting people to place fueled the importance to me of community and food. Even what would seem a simple ritual of observing tea making in a remote foreign country inspired the group to share stories connected to their food and cultural traditions.
Kristin: I think people hear the term ‘Slow Food’ and think it means the anti-fast food. What does it really mean, and why is it important to you?
Margarita: Great question. There is so much confusion around the term ‘Slow Food.’ Perhaps we could define the original definition with indigenous people, hunters and gathers spending all day providing for themselves. Slow Food is food that is good for the people who eat it, good for the people who grow, pick and prepare it and good for the planet. Slow Food is about eating locally produced food and wine.
I believe Slow Food is the answer to most of us living busy lives and if we are not always able to cook our own meals everyday, we have the ability to purchase nourishing ‘fast food’ with access to the knowledge of its production source. Slow Food is the response to slowing down with community. Sitting down, rather than standing to eat on the go, and sharing our stories; whether homegrown, homemade, or purchased healthy food, it can conjure up stories and memories.
From its historical perspective, Slow Food is an International non-profit movement in 150 countries, which originated in Italy. Our chapter here in Sonoma Valley is just one of many throughout the U.S.A and abroad. It was founded by Carlo Petrini from Piedmont, Italy in protest of a McDonald’s 1986 opening in Rome, causing the people of Italy to protest the first processed food retail outlet. The movement has grown since then with a mission statement of Good, Clean, Fair food accessible to all and advocates for fair wages to the people to grow, pick and prepare it.
Food is a common language and a universal right. Worldwide, Slow Food programs focus on educating children and adults, to eat locally, biodiversity in protecting foods, farms and traditions at risk of extinction and connecting communities. Terra Madre, the largest convening conference in Turin, Italy, unites global communities of local food producers.
Kristin: I think the Slow Food movement is most important to help change the way children eat in the US, tell me about your thoughts on that and Slow Food’s position there?
Margarita: All of us living in California and especially Sonoma are living in a pristine, small agricultural area dotted with small farms and dairies. We have the opportunity for the farm to table experience. I would say we are doubly blessed. A huge focus on Slow Food is changing the way children look at food, especially healthy snack choices. There is great concern that the internet age is causing more sedentary lifestyles and health issues for children as a result of the lost connection to nature. Parents must make conscious choices to set the boundaries and encourage activity outside the smartphones and computers. Slow Food USA website gives a plethora of current updates on advances in this arena. The movement of school gardens across America is the best example of teaching children how accessible good food can be.
Kristin: Tell me about the local chapter. What are y’all up to, working on, the history, and what are your goals or plans locally?
Margarita: It is an oxymoron to say the Slow Food Sonoma Valley group is slowly and diligently determined to establish our mission and best use of resources as a chapter. We are surrounded by our community gardens, ecology garden, school gardens, local laboratories for teaching, for example: Green Strings Farm, Paul’s Produce, Oak Hill Farm, and organic wineries. At some point we as members had to ask ourselves about taking responsibility as a chapter to give back to our farmers and educators to make connections toward greater awareness with our youth on biodiversity and sustainability — perhaps giving a bit more thought to what, where we buy and how we use it.
SFSV is under the guidance and policies of Slow Food National but many changes are currently underfoot. Each local chapter will be able to focus more exclusively on growing our own chapters. The current Slow Food members have been evolving for many years. Formally I became a member in 2008. There are actually about 40-plus active members in our local chapter. Like all volunteer organizations we need more people to come join us as we continue to be a player in our community. We have a dynamic leadership team and each of us hold a position that is not fixed or rigid. We encourage conversations that allow each person’s voice to be recognized and ideas to flourish.
I just accepted the role of President this past May. The immediate past president was Kathleen Leonard and I held the vice president position. We are slowly making our group known and have several projects and incubating others as we integrate new members. With the assistance of our new secretary and membership chair David Barnard we are working on the infrastructure — member list, database, website, etc. — all those pesky but important details of any organization. We are involved with collaborating with other organizations’ projects such as Earth Day, Food Education Day, Heirloom Festival, Sonoma Valley Grange, School Garden Project, the Jr. Cheesemakers Project, and past collaboration with the Pollinator Pals and Cittislow. Sounds like there is enough to keep the group busy; none of this happens without a passion for community and volunteers.
I envision SFSV as a ‘portal or resource’ for connecting, promoting and celebrating. The local chapter will focus on our community of farmers, restaurants, chefs, and food purveyors doing great work. An immediate goal is to have a monthly meet-up at local restaurants and venues that are aligned to the Slow Food message, to get to know what is unique and not necessarily known about each place that Slow Food can learn and support. I welcome interest by emailing me at [email protected] We have local community organizers already doing this through print media and community centers. Local food purveyors, farmers and wine makers appear at the Epicurean Connection, The Community Cafe, and the Sonoma Valley Grange.
Kristin: I hear you went to Terra Madre with some other SFSV folks! What is Terra Madre, who went, and what did you experience?
Margarita: Terra Madre, Salone Del Gusto (Mother Earth) is literally the largest global food convention, and it’s held biennially in Turin, Italy. I had just completed three group itineraries in Italy and the ability to attend was a dream come true. However, even after experiencing the generous hospitality of my Italian guides, chefs, artisans, and visiting biodynamic wineries, olive and cheese producers, nothing could have prepared me for the explosion of the biggest gastronomy and food event in the world. The conference honoring the peoples and foods from around the globe provided an even greater demonstration of passion and commitment to cultures and traditions.
We were well represented by SFSV Chapter members; Nancy Lang, Kathleen Leonard, Mark Feitchmeir, and Debby Doughtery. If you asked each of us the same question, we would all have our own personal stories. From the gastronomic 15-course dinner created by the superstar Chef David Scabin in the wing of a Thirteenth Century medieval castle, to attending well executed educational-tasting workshops with small producers, to putting miles on my feet around the world in the exhibit halls, all are beyond description. The colors, sights, sounds, and smells elevated the excitement and made it a challenge to know what to choose to see and taste. At the heart of the conference was the educational focus and none other than Carlo Petrini who founded the vision of it all. His newest project, 1,000 gardens in Africa, engages the young people of Africa to be self-sufficient as an example of the responsibility we have to assisting other countries toward food sustainability.
We, as a local chapter, discussed how great it would be if we could collaborate with another organization to raise funding to send one of our own local farmers or food purveyors to Terra Madre. Without our farmers we would surely not be having this conversation.
Kristin: How can we be more slow foodie in our daily lives?
Margarita: Simply put: strive to eat locally and responsibly. Share what we have. Recently our local chapter had a meet-up in the Plaza for a fantastic potluck picnic. It was wonderful to see these lovely dishes come to our community table, all with their stories about ingredients or where purchased. It is about community and slowing down to share yourself and food. Invite your neighbor over that perhaps needs a nourishing meal or share that fresh catch! Reading volumes on food issues may not be available in your schedule, so share the conversation as often as possible, it is the most immediate way to learn and is so gratifying. On a responsible level, join a local project and join Slow Food Sonoma Valley. Strive to stay humble and appreciate what we have enjoying one bite at a time. This is truly food for thought.
You can learn more by emailing: [email protected] or visiting slowfoodsonomavalley.com or slowfoodusa.org.
Kristin Jorgensen is one of Sonoma’s most passionate, food obsessed residents. In this weekly column, she covers all the delicious happenings, foodie events and restaurants in Sonoma, the rest of Wine Country and beyond. Email her with comments, questions, or your food related events at [email protected]