It is Labor Day weekend in San Francisco. And the only thing keeping us from inaugurating Itching Man, our long-proposed rival event to Burning Man, was Slow Food Nation ’08.

For a little background, we mentioned this event in a post last week. Given how it had been billed, we had hopes there would be elements of Torino’s Eataly, hopes of good discussions about the many insidious and harmful trade-offs we’ve made in modern society to heavily industrialize food production over the past 50 years (think Michael Pollan), and hopes there would be a lot of drinking of, and conversation about, good coffee. It delivered at least something on all counts.

But in the end, our feelings about the event are rather mixed. While it has achieved some of its goals, it totally missed the mark on others.

View from above the Slow Food Nation Taste Pavilions at Fort Mason The Slow Food Nation welcome trailer at Ft. Mason

Throng at the Taste Pavilions The real version of the Pickles & Chutney Taste Pavilion design we showed in a previous post

About Slow Food

Take Slow Food itself. This event seems to have successfully developed a much greater awareness of Slow Food here. Yet the event seems to have done little to clue in many attendees, let alone most of the general public, what Slow Food is really about. If we had not previously immersed ourselves in the land of Slow Food’s birth, we’re not sure we would have come away from this event with any of the social and cultural understanding we developed in Italy.

Slow Food Nation has admirably tried to keep the message as simple as “good, clean, and fair.” It has exposed many consumers to the notion that good, clean, and fair aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, and it has also done a very effective job at not merchandising itself. However, its events have been a bit chaotic and incongruous — seemingly espousing different or unclear themes in different places. Is it a foodie thing where people just gorge on different foods? Is it some green politics thing that just adds to the cacophony of causes out there?

Slow Food farmers' market at the Civic Center Plaza Northern Californians always seem to find a way to botch up a good imported idea by hijacking it with our own local political biases and causes to make it into our own. From what we could tell at the events, some people thought Slow Food belonged to the “buy local” movement. Others thought it was just another elitist food thing in support of food snobbery and selling $25-a-pound turkeys. Even some of the people representing Slow Food U.S. were among the guilty: one of the speakers at the Civic Center Plaza yesterday told the audience that the event was more than just a Bay Area thing — implying as if the movement was invented here, oblivious of its Italian roots as a means of standing up to the clear-cutting of the American fast food and factory farming machines.

It’s in these areas that Slow Food Nation has, thus far, failed at its mission. Though to be fair, this is just a first step in the U.S. as an inaugural event.

Did someone say 'Spirits Pavilion'?! Pours at the Wine Pavilion

The Bread Pavilion at least got into the Slow Food spirit with its trademark snail Creative use of olive oil at the Olive Oil Pavilion

So why do we support Slow Food?

Cause fatigue is at epidemic levels these days. Much of the world, and even the Bay Area, seems tired of being told what to do — and that whatever you have been doing is most assuredly wrong. So it’s no surprise that people respond with cynicism and defensiveness to things like Slow Food. Greenwashing is also rampant. I often joke to my wife that some day soon I expect to see a glossy, feel-good oil company magazine ad placement — informing me of how, in an effort to help combat the effects of global warming, ExxonMobil is using recycled petroleum products to provide drowning polar bears with water wings.

And the aforementioned food elitism argument against things like Slow Food is very real. At the Slow Food Nation farmers’ market in the Civic Center Plaza, we found organic strawberries going for $8 a pint (!). Meanwhile, at the regular Heart of the City Farmers’ Market, just across Larkin St. in the U.N. Plaza yesterday, we found certified organic strawberries at three pints for $7. How can a lay consumer not feel they are being gouged by elitists?

...and yet organic foods are considered weird and factory food the normAnd yet, when it comes to Slow Food, the $8-a-pint organic strawberry argument is completely missing the point. Last May when I was in India, I read media stories on the Web about the rising costs of food and the developing U.S. recession. American mothers were lamenting that they could no longer afford to shop for organic and whole foods for their families. I read this while I was waist-deep in some of the most heartbreaking poverty on the planet. And yet, looking around, I noticed that virtually everyone in India eats organic food almost exclusively. Unless we’re prepared to call the destitute of the Indian subcontinent “elitist snobs,” what’s wrong with this picture?

Wil Edwards of fame discusses the merits of cheese The Ice Cream Pavilion wasn't exactly unpopular either

There’s plenty of statistical debate about the causes of obesity and the reduction of life expectancy in the U.S. But we support the principles of Slow Food because, first of all, the food is often better than the alternative (and our factory farming lifestyle is the alternative — not the other way around). And because we are making ourselves sick as a society through reduced biodiversity, fish collapses, corn-dominated diets and other monocultures, a Farm Bill that rewards corporate farms for not producing anything, and unsustainable factory farming.

Slow Food dares suggest that knowing who produces what you eat, and how it is made, can lead to a better standard of living for both producer and consumer. It’s a system that, at least in Italy, creates potential levels for both quality and accountability that would be difficult to achieve otherwise.

The Taste Pavilions decorated with coffee trees Signage along the Coffee Pavilion Ritual Roasters' Eileen Hassi is not giving haunted house tours, despite appearances

So what does any of this have to do with coffee?

A lot, actually.

We don’t believe we qualify as some of the city’s stereotypical green lemmings who support a prefab checklist of causes. For example, we’ve made no secret of the fact that we’ve never supported the Fair Trade system. But Direct Trade, on the other hand, is another story. In the Slow Food Nation message of “good, clean, and fair,” “good” comes first: it has to be about making a better product. Similarly, “good” is a key value and differentiator of Direct Trade, and it’s certainly a big reason why Intelligentsia buyer Geoff Watts dropped their Fair Trade affiliation two years ago in favor of their own Direct Trade route.

On Saturday we visited the Coffee Taste Pavilion at Slow Food Nation. The pavilion was split with attendees forming lines in two distinct areas: one for sampling a variety of espresso shots from a row of La Marzocco GB/5s, and the other for performing taste comparisons of brewed filter coffee. Behind these was a service area with Clover brewers and a lot of classic brown Nuova Point cups getting a wash for the next round.

The La Marzocco GB/5 row: the espresso tasting bar at the Coffee Pavilion The espresso bars at the Coffee Taste Pavilion

Andrew Barnett behind Barista Magazine cover girl, M'lissa Muckerman My wife models a shot of Colombian Finca el Guayabo from Huila

Unlike the structure of, say, a barista competition, this was more an informal line-up of people who wanted to sample and learn about different coffees — with baristas and coffee professionals all too happy to enjoy and discuss it with them. Almost nothing was written down — to encourage conversation and to not give credit to any one coffee estate, roaster, café, or whatnot. Roughly the same approach was followed at all the other taste pavilions. While it avoided partiality and encouraged conversation, this was one area that differed dramatically from our Slow Food Italy experience — where restaurants will take a certain pride by meticulously listing all their purveyors for butter, flour, salt, etc., on the menus.

As a result of this approach, our notes were sketchy at best. But a few things stood out, including the very sweet Ritual Roasters‘ espresso of single origin Finca el Guayabo, Huila of Colombia. (My wife noted how neither sugar was required — nor, to be sheepish for her to notice, was it available.) Then there was the interesting, well-rounded, wet-processed (and vacuum-sealed 18 months prior!) single origin Yirgacheffe Konga Cooperative espresso from Ecco Caffè that curator Andrew Barnett walked us through.

Another highlight was a comparative tasting of filter brewed coffee with Edwin Martinez (mentioned in an SF Chronicle story yesterday). After sampling some Panamanian and Ethiopian coffees (details long since forgotten), I had noted how many of the Indonesian coffees have fallen out of vogue lately — along with untrendiness of blends and darker roasts. Edwin noted how he once sat at a tasting of some 300 Indonesian coffees, and the rich-bodied, vegetal earthiness ultimately made them all taste like V8 Juice after a while.

Andy Newbom of Barefoot Roasters, among others, guides patrons through a coffee comparison Edwin Martinez pours coffee samples out of, would you believe?, a Superior Coffee pot

The Coffee Pavilion 'back stage' of Clovers, coffee, and dirty cups Too much coffee, or too much of everything else?

In conclusion…

So to summarize some of our experiences at Slow Food Nation, and particularly the Taste Pavilions, we bring you an analysis we used for the last Western Regional Barista Competition (WRBC)…

The good

  • The Fish Pavilion — Clearly the best food and the best pavilion design at the Taste Pavilions. Hands down. Some of the most interesting food offerings and great conversational opportunities. And their use of black, sheer screens with the X-ray images of fish skeletons was art.
  • Good food, and even better coffee — But oddly enough, the consumer-oriented experience at Torino’s Eataly still blew this out of the water. While the Taste Pavilions offered some really good food items, Eataly leaves you thinking that you’ve just had some of the best-in-class food items of their kind available on the planet.
  • Slow Dough — The Taste Pavilions had their own currency, which many vendors marked off for your tastings. Given the $65 entrance fee to even get in the Taste Pavilions, this seemed a bit of a gouge at first. However, the amount of Slow Dough provided with the entry fee was more than plenty (and the Coffee Pavilion required none of it).
  • The mixing of food groups — Perhaps the best part of the entire event was seeing the co-mingling of vendors and enthusiasts for different foods. For example, the specialty coffee world is often a rather insular lot. But here, they were exposed to people in entirely different markets that hold many of the same principles and values of quality, sustainability, and fairness. Just seeing Ritual Roasters’ Eileen Hassi sampling ice cream with friends at the neighboring Ice Cream Pavilion gave you a sense of connections that wouldn’t happen elsewhere.

Some of the designs around the Fish Pavilion Screens and samples at the Fish Pavilion

The Charcuterie Pavilion - no vegetarians allowed Hand-outs in line at the Charcuterie Pavilion

The bad

  • Slow Food, Slower Service — While organizers were wise to sell out the Taste Pavilions for different blocks of time and meter out the crowds, it still resulted in a number of very long lines for different food tastings. Think the lines at Disneyland, but with a payoff being a few samples of cheese. Thankfully the organizers caught on by offering tastes to those waiting in line, otherwise some patrons might have starved to death waiting in line at a food festival.
  • Lectures were too packed — When the likes of Charlie Trotter come to talk about Slow Food cooking, a separate lecture space larger than 2,000 square feet would have been a good idea.
  • Compartmentalization — One way in which the Taste Pavilions were very much like Eataly was that you had to wait in line at several different stations if you wanted to put something close to a meal together. But more critically, the separate Taste Pavilions each seemed to have their own confusing set of protocols and rules of engagement that patrons had to learn anew each time.
  • Lack of published information — Sure, you could say a main point of the Taste Pavilions event was to inspire conversation. But even after talking up a storm about various consumables, the notable absence of any labeling, note-taking, and take-home materials left very limited opportunities for follow-up.

The ugly

  • Too much caffeine — As with the 4th Machine at the WRBC, there can be too much of a good thing. Fortunately we were able to pace ourselves out and consume a lot of other things between caffeinated doses. But it sure makes for a long night.