It's taken a while, but the Slow Food organization has finally come to metro Phoenix.
Chrysa Kaufman, chef-owner of Scottsdale's Rancho Pinot Grill, has formed a convivium (an Italian word meaning chapter) to promote the international group's philosophy here in the Valley.
What is Slow Food? The Italian-based organization's manifesto reads like Thomas More's Utopia, tempting its members with visions of a perfect society through a return to traditional farming, cooking and good eating. But in a nutshell, Slow Food is a group of gourmets who celebrate local growing and cooking traditions in an age when technology and speed have affected most people's eating habits. It's a large cult, active in 35 countries worldwide, with 60,000 members and about 400 conviviums.
The Slow Food movement actually began in Italy in 1986, but we could hardly expect a hurried entry into Arizona from an organization that's represented by a snail, could we?
The Slow Food group has a clear message: Good-tasting food is not just a privilege, it's a human right. As its literature says, Slow Food is aimed at food and wine enthusiasts: people who don't want to lose the myriad tastes of traditional foodstuffs from around the world and people who share the snail's wise slowness (in savoring life). Uniting for the "Defense of and the Right to Pleasure," the international movement supports quality food over mass production, emphasizing the carefully crafted work of farmers, artisans and chefs.
What this means, says Chris Bianco, chef-owner of Pizzeria Bianco and a Slow Food member, is that rather than eating "stuff that flies out of the kitchen in eight seconds" and accepting "whatever chefs can find with a single phone call, or consumers can grab off the grocery shelves," Slow Foodies demand the best possible dining experience.
"It amazes me that some people don't care what they eat," Bianco says. "They'll be happy with a gas-ripened tomato, or a chicken that was grown on a tree. It's a cultural crisis I don't want to be part of."
Restaurants displaying the Slow Food logo promise diners that they support small, fine-food purveyors -- a glorious universe of specialty meats, cheeses, cereals and vegetables. As such, guests won't find any processed foods on Bianco's or Kaufman's menus. These chefs use locally grown, organic ingredients as much as possible, including beef from Ervin's Ranch in Safford, shiitake mushrooms from the Farm at South Mountain and eggplant from the south Valley's Victory Farms.
As an orthodox hedonist, I'm thrilled to see the movement take hold here. The Slow Food group reminds us, to borrow from Shakespeare, that "there are more tastes in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your gastronomy." Or found in a can.
I'm a firm believer that homegrown foods offer unparalleled flavor and character -- it's possible to make Velveeta anywhere and in any quantity, whereas a mountain cheese can only achieve brilliance in a specific environment, under fragile conditions and with the skill of a caring artist.
Slow Food supporters hope to achieve more than protecting our palates from the onslaught of fast-food and supermarket culture. As more people demand a return to traditional taste, the group hopes to "protect the small purveyors of fine food from the deluge of industrial standardization" (i.e., keep specialty farmers in business) and to ensure the survival of endangered vegetable, fruit and animal breeds. Bianco, for example, is happy to hear that the Italian chapter of Slow Food is working to reintroduce a breed of cow that, 200 years ago, was reputed to produce "mind blowing" Parmesan. The bovine's existence has been wobbling, pushed out by cows that produce four times as much milk on the same feed rations, he says.
Kaufman plans to spread the Slow Food message -- you guessed it -- slowly. In addition to running her restaurant, she's eventually planning to host special dinners, product tastings, seminars, field trips to local purveyors, and possibly travel to other conviviums around the world.
Membership is open to anyone who cares about protecting the group's philosophies -- chefs, diners, even children. Cost to join is just $60 a year and includes a personal membership card; a subscription to the quarterly magazine, Slow; invitations to attend all events organized by the Slow Food movement throughout the world; and discounts on all Slow Food books.
If you support Slow Food's first and foremost goal -- to have fun, unabashedly immersing yourself in pleasure while meeting people with the same dedication to promoting local traditions and superior food quality -- give Kaufman a call, or check out the group's Web site at www.slowfood.com.
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After Dinner Mint: How many of you have been wondering what that weird-looking blue-and-copper-painted mosque is at Kierland, next to P.F. Chang's? It's been driving me nuts -- almost as much as the question: What drugs were Scottsdale's zoning officials on when they approved the design?
The building's sign finally went up the other day, and oddly enough, the Arabic-looking edifice is simply a Cheesecake Factory.
The Cheesecake Factory is a national chain that serves, of course, cheesecake. But it also features more than 200 other items, like avocado egg rolls, Tuscan chicken salad, specialty pizzas, steaks and pastas.
Another Cheesecake Factory is going in at Biltmore Fashion Park, sans mosque.