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Take Notice of Trends Before They Become Apparent

by Alf Nucifora

The adept marketer can normally anticipate forthcoming trends. It's simply a matter of interpreting the research and reading the tealeaves with studied interest. Everything from political positions to lifestyle issues are sliced and diced ad nauseam in order to divine consumer intent. But, sometimes a natural confluence of elements results in a trend that percolates quietly under the water line. Nobody pays much attention until the trend grows to tsunami strength.

One such instance is a growing desire on the part of the more discerning American consumer to regain the quality and taste of food as they used to be. One must freely acknowledge the dominance of fast food in the time-deprived environment in which most Americans live. It's cheap, quick, requires little thought in the ordering process and fills the belly with relative ease. It is to gastronomy what the Lethal Weapon movies are to the cinema.

But a countervailing force is at play, a stirring and a reaction to the Philistinism of fast food and bad taste. Why so? For one thing, there is growing concern about the safety and composition of the nation's food supply. Eric Schlossar, in his recent best-selling book, Fast Food Nation, aptly put his finger on the issues from unfit meat processing plants to cholesterol-clogging hamburgers to antibiotic-drenched meats and poultry. Tie that together with a growing fear of pesticides, and it becomes understandable that purer foods, like organic produce, are being scarfed up at an unheard of rate. Notice also, the growing interest in local food markets. And don't ignore a gnawing hunger on the part of many Americans to revisit the times when the basic commodities, a tomato, banana, apple or head of lettuce, actually bore an identifiable taste. Nowadays most of the food that hasn't been processed has been chilled, frozen, gassed or genetically altered to deliver the consistency of a bowling ball and a taste to match. Great for shipping but lousy on the taste buds.

Introducing Slow Food

It's a fast-growing international organization with 65,000 members in 50 countries and 5,000 scattered among 62 chapters in the US where membership has grown twenty times in the last three years alone, and most of it, incidentally, the quiet way through public relations and word-of-mouth. Like the early Christians hiding in the Catacombs, Slow Foodies find each other through mutual disenchantment with supermarket produce aisles and fast food strips. Chapters exist in every major market and the smaller ones too, from Chattanooga, Tennessee to Bozeman, Montana. One thing about the desire for good tasting food, unlike politics and religion, it always manages to transcend region, race and class. Slow Food USA professes not to be an elitist organization for the wine and cheese crowd, populated by pompous gourmands, insufferable food snobs and chefs to the affluent. Although the demographics skew upscale, membership is drawn equally from the ranks of the common people--students, farmers, and good middle-class stock, myself included.

Slow Food USA bills itself "as a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting and celebrating the food traditions of North America. From the spice of Cajun cooking to the purity of the organic movement; from animal breeds and heirloom varieties of fruit and vegetables to handcrafted wine and beer, farmhouse cheeses and other artisanal products." The organization believes that many of these foods, relics of small farm America, are at growing risk of succumbing to the effects of the fast life which is evident in the industrialization and homogenization of the nation's food supply.

Local chapters carry out the mission with organized educational tastings, cooking courses, trips, visits to restaurants and lectures. Inspired by Noah's Ark, the organization's ArkUSA seeks to identify, promote and protect foods in danger of extinction, such as the Delaware Bay Oyster, the Bourbon Red Turkey first bred in Tennessee, Aged Dry Jack Cheese, and naturally grown, hand-parched wild rice from the lake regions of Minnesota and Wisconsin. Members are kept current with publications including Slow, a quarterly journal devoted to food culture around the world and Snail, a newsletter dealing specifically with the US marketplace.

Ironically, as Patricia Unterman notes in the San Francisco Chronicle, "Slow Food started years ago as a response to the arrival of the first McDonald's on the Spanish steps in Rome by Carlo Petrini, a northern Italian food journalist lamenting the erosion of civilized dining." Continues Unterman, "the growth of Slow Food is a cry against the indignities of modernization – the irresponsible use of technology, the homogenization and standardization of food and the abandonment of the dinner table."

According to spokesman Patrick Martins, Slow Food USA "is not a protest organization." Its mission, he states, is to "celebrate American food heritage and, in doing so, document and save the food traditions" that existed before Wendy's, Taco Bell and Swanson's held sway. As of yet, the movement is too small and too silent to provoke a response from the big agricultural conglomerates and food processors. In all likelihood, the movement won't demand their attention until it gets big enough to be stamped out or bought out. According to Slow Food leadership, they're more than happy to remain a micro economy, providing support where necessary by matching producer with consumer albeit on a slow, small scale. The real question is whether Slow Food will remain a movement or develop into a fully-fledged force to be reckoned with. The American public finally rebelled against the Detroit-made automobile. Don't be surprised if it takes up arms against the mega-supermarket and the fast food chain.

Contact Slow Food USA at 212-988-5146 or www.slowfood.com.

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