When delegates from 15 countries met in Paris to sign the Slow Food Manifesto three decades ago, it signaled a sea change from the factory food industrialization then sweeping the globe. Eschewing processed, packaged foods, Slow Food supporters dedicated themselves to clean, seasonal, environmentally friendly and humanely sourced sustenance.
And 5,500 miles away in Sonoma County, most people yawned.
Because here, in this abundant agricultural food shed, Slow Food has long been a way of life. Surrounded by family-run farms and farmers markets, many of us already seek out what’s freshest and most delicious.
These days, the culinary movement is growing to feed our minds as much as our bodies, furthering the conversation about food justice and equality. The Food Justice movement works to solve economic pressures that prevent access to healthy, nutritious, and culturally appropriate foods. As Slow Food’s mission statement notes, one goal is “accessible prices for consumers, and fair conditions and pay for small-scale producers.”
It’s true that in its earlier years, the Slow Food movement was often seen as a wealthy pursuit, appreciated by people with the money to buy pricey ingredients and the time to meticulously cook them. Even in food-rich Sonoma County, terms like “cult” and “snobby” were heard, with rarified ingredients showcased at $100-a-plate restaurants and not always available to low-income groups.
“There is a history of people thinking that Slow Food in the USA is elitist,” says Paula Shatkin, a 20-year member of Slow Food Russian River. “But our efforts have always been focused on environmental justice, and we have many events that are low cost or free to share local bounty. We were never just a restaurant movement — one of our recent gatherings was a potluck at a member’s home to share the stories of the simple foods of our immigrant ancestors.”
The message seems to be being heard, as more and more, a Slow Food lifestyle is obtainable by everyone. CalFresh food assistance can be used to pay at many farmers markets, and in 2015, Market Match was launched to offer CalFresh users a dollar-for-dollar match of up to $20 at participating Sonoma County farmers markets.
Chef Sheana Davis of Sonoma’s The Epicurean Connection even offers classes showing people how to cook slow food at home using all CalFresh approved ingredients, including fancy-sounding handmade cheeses ranging from a silky creme de ricotta, to vegan smoked tofu miso ginger cheese crafted with soy milk. Each cheese requires just four ingredients, simple mixing skills and tools, and about a half hour to make an ample batch.
“Slow Food is just real food,” says Carol Diaz, an officer of Slow Food Sonoma County North. “If you take real food, especially if it has come from a local farmers market, and prepare it simply and quickly, you can easily turn it into the most delicious meal. You don’t need 10 boutique ingredients, a long recipe, and a lot of time, you just need some basic staples, like good olive oil and salt.”
Slow Food members cross a wide spectrum of economic levels, she explains, united by the quest for flavor and nutrition. “People care about what they are eating,” she says. “They want food that tastes good, that’s local or organic, healthy and not overly processed, that’s grown in a way that is good for the environment.”
In fact, Sonoma County’s two Slow Food chapters work hands-on to show communities how to incorporate goodness from the garden into their everyday routine. The Russian River group, for example, helps establish organic gardens at local elementary and high schools, teaching students how responsible planting practices bring long-term soil fertility, an economically feasible healthy diet, and delicious food to generations.
For even easier Slow Food, many casual eateries across Sonoma County focus on top-notch ingredients as well, offering chef-driven menus with seasonal salutes once reserved for high-end restaurants. It’s difficult to get more down-to-earth than a horse trailer converted into a pizzeria, as is the case at Santa Rosa’s Red Horse Pizza, which parks at HenHouse Brewing Company on Bellevue Avenue.
“We wanted to show people that you don’t have to compromise taste to achieve health, and we are extremely lucky to be in Sonoma County where we can get a huge variety of fresh, organic vegetables and amazing meats and cheese,” says Kendra Stuffelbeam, who runs the pizzeria with husband Nate. “And who doesn’t love pizza and beer?”
The Stuffelbeams gained their Slow Food Snail of Approval certification in May of 2018, undergoing a rigorous approval process including visits from a three-person Slow Food team that tours each restaurant, interviews the owner and chef, and rates the business on 12 categories including use of seasonal ingredients and menus, sustainable ingredients sourced from local producers, humane treatment of people and animals, investment in fair labor practices, and green business practices like composting and recycling.
“The Snail of Approval project grew out of our wish to support local restaurants that feature and support local farmers and producers,” said Russian River chapter’s Paula Shatkin. An online “Snail Trail” map guides consumers to certified partners.
A look at a recent cheese class at Sonoma’s Epicurean Connection shows how the Slow Food movement continues to evolve and attract new supporters. A sold-out seminar of more than two dozen students, including cooks from their mid-20s to seniors, all crowded around Slow Food chef Sheana Davis as she led them through the easy, inexpensive process of making today’s popular plant-based foods, including velvety feta made with almond milk-soaked almonds, salt, whole black peppercorns, and Meyer lemon olive oil.
“I teach these classes to Sonoma Valley Mentoring Alliance, the YWCA, local schools, and CalFresh families,” she says. “And I teach Michelin star chefs with the exact same recipes.”
Slow Food in action
The Slow Food community in Sonoma County includes two nonprofit chapters, Sonoma County North and Russian River, that further education about where high-quality food comes from and how our food choices affect the world around us. Each group hosts events throughout the year including group dinners, potlucks, an annual heritage turkey auction, an apple-pressing event, and more.