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A Slow Foods dinner feeds the body, mind and soul

The recent Slow Food dinner at Arugula was a delicious learning experience.
mark manger

We're seated at a long table in Arugula, a Boulder restaurant devoted — like most good restaurants these days — to local, fresh and seasonal food. This is a Slow Food Boulder event, and while I haven't closely followed this branch's activities, all the chatty, well-dressed, prosperous people in attendance are tending to reinforce my prejudices about the U.S. Slow Food movement in general, which seems to have devolved from a pointed critique of the devastation caused by agribusiness — along with a focus on preserving traditional foods — into a bunch of rich people holding olive oil tastings in various cities around the country while throwing around words like "grassy" and "pizzica." Slow Food has taken on school lunches — the kind of project that has a lot more traction in wealthy places like Berkeley and Boulder than in areas where it's really needed — but you won't see a thing on the organization's website about hunger or the fact that one in eight Americans is currently on food stamps (except in Denver, apparently, where people can't even get the stamps they're entitled to). Nor will you hear a peep from Slow Food Boulder about the persistent depradations of Monsanto, currently pressuring the Boulder County Commissioners to allow genetically modified sugar beets on county land, to companion the genetically modified corn that was okayed by those commissioners seven years ago.

A salumi plate appears in front of me: Colorado's Best Beef bresaola, pork tenderloin lomo, pickled shallots and yellow beans, beets, Haystack goat cheese. This isn't just a plate of exquisitely prepared food by chef Alec Schuler, whose restaurant just marked its first anniversary, to be nibbled and appraised, though it is that, too. It's a web of interlinked narratives — cultural, social, personal, political. The lomo, for example, an almost transparent rosy blossom of air-dried meat, the most refined manifestation of pig flesh imaginable, carries myriad stories all by itself. The pig this blossom came from was raised by John Long, who supplies much of the pork you find in decent Denver restaurants. A short, round, garrulous man, John knows everything there is to know about raising pigs, and he'll also give you a lot of information about Colorado's farming history and the vagaries of federal legislation if you run into him at the Boulder Farmers' Market. He once told me that in parts of Germany, pigs are let loose in the orchards to get drunk on fallen apples before slaughter, making the process far less stressful for them, and then he smiled a little at my enthusiasm for this idea, the knowledgeable smile of the experienced pig farmer at the squeamishness of people like me, who want their meat but don't like thinking about where it came from. Yet talking to ranchers, I've found there's often hesitation about killing, even among the most professional of them, a kind of constant internal re-negotiation of the decision that it's okay to eat flesh, that death is an integral and appropriate aspect of our nourishment. Many of these farmers observe that pigs are especially troublesome because they're among the most interesting and intelligent of animals. "I like pigs," Winston Churchill once said. "Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals."

The attractive, knowledgeable woman to my right tells me a story about how the Kitchen's Hugo Matheson bought a pig from the family who had raised it, and then explained to them, point by point, how he intended to use the carcass, every tiny bit of it — an explanation that on some level justified and even sanctified the death.

There's another, very different memory attached to the lomo, of the Saturday four years ago when my grandson was born. My daughter had been in labor — in another city, much too far away — half the previous afternoon, and then all night long. We'd kept the phone by the bed and slept uneasily, until finally news came in the early morning of a healthy boy and an exhausted but healthy mother. I dressed and drove to the farmers' market, drifted, half-asleep, toward the row of stands that, this being September, were stacked high with tomatoes, eggplants, melons and cucumbers, and saw John Long at his wooden counter. I'm a grandmother, I said. He set down whatever he was working on, walked silently past the stand and put his arms around me.

Wyatt Barnes and Amy Tisdale, who run Red Wagon Farms, are seated at a table nearby. Amy is tall, red-haired and healthy-looking, and I've bought honey and pickling cucumbers from her stand — where there are always a few varieties of vegetables I've never encountered before and have to try — for years. A pickled Red Wagon shallot sits on the plate next to the lomo. Chefs like Schuler, who buy hundreds of dollars' worth of local produce weekly in summer, are one of the primary reasons farmers here survive. The shallot is also a reminder that the timing of this almost-all-local dinner was a challenge for Schuler, who tends to eschew frozen ingredients. Last fall's winter squash, potatoes, onions, shallots, carrots, beets and garlic might still be serviceable; Hazel Dell's impeccably cultivated mushrooms can be had year-round, but there's precious little in the way of fresh fruits, herbs and vegetables available at this time of year. For this dinner at the start of March, Schuler has chosen to utilize tomatoes and peaches that he canned at the height of their flavor last summer, and a few pickled vegetables. "I kind of took the theme that they should be foods and techniques our grandmothers would recognize," he tells me later.

 

Plate two holds yet more "gorgeous little nibbly things," as Patsy used to say in Absolutely Fabulous: squash ravioli in sage brown butter (Schuler raided the sage plant in his own garden for this; the leaves weren't very green, he says, but "once you fry it up in some butter, the flavor is even more concentrated"), Hazel Dell mushrooms, and squares of kabocha squash from Toohey and Sons in Longmont, whose owners (father and son) are also at dinner. Then another plate on which a deeply delicious heirloom tomato sauce accompanies tilapia, along with a scattering of Long Farm bacon bits. The fish, of course, tells its own story. The oceans, as we all know, have been over-fished; the agribusiness response to this — fish farming — is also environmentally unsound. This tender piece of tilapia comes from an aquaculture facility called Colorado Catch improbably located in the San Luis Valley, high above sea level. The business is run on sustainable principles, with water from the tanks used to irrigate crops during the growing season.

Michael Brownlee of Transition Colorado stands up to speak. The primary criticism directed at those of us who dislike agribusiness, grow vegetables and shop at farmers' markets is that these things can be practiced only on an individual level, and only by the relatively well-off. To provide affordable and sufficient food for everyone, we need big agriculture. Brownlee has a plethora of facts, figures and observations at his fingertips, and it takes him only a few minutes to demolish this argument.

By the time the main course arrives — a beef shank roulette with marrow butter, accompanied by fingerling potatoes and sweet onion slices — I'm too full to really enjoy it. This is a pity. When I was a little girl, my sister and I fought passionately over the gray, fatty globules of marrow in the bones my mother used for soups and stews. This marrow is just as desirable, but far more grown-up, one of the richest and most delectable things I've ever had in my mouth.

By this point, my skepticism has quieted down, and I'm charmed by the scene and the integration of elements it contains: Schuler's imagination and skill, the bonds being formed between growers and consumers, the experts on hand to give out information, the cat's cradle of biographies, food ideas and preferences, passions and ideas webbing the room. Advice is flying on how to preserve food, how to freeze, how to can, people are gobbling, nibbling, sipping wine from local vineyards, wiping greasy lips, and I'm wondering if it's all a matter of focus. In our culture, we tend to think there's something greedy and louche and vulgar in caring too much about food. Most American kids have never pulled up a stem of rhubarb and sucked it, or even seen a live pig, and when their parents discuss food and eating, it's usually in terms of nutrients and calories – little bits of good-for-you and little bits of bad-for-you. According to food writer Michael Pollan, ask a French person his response to the word "chocolate," and he'll probably respond, "Pleasure." An American will come up with something like "Sinful" or "Fattening."

There's a lot to be said these days about sustainability, the provenance of our food, antibiotic overuse, animal cruelty, the pollution of soil, air and water, the exploitation of agricultural workers, the death of small farms, but what also needs to be emphasized is the sheer joy and sensuality of eating, the way great food can be as simple as an apple eaten at exactly the right stage of crispness and sweet-acid balance, or as sophisticated and multi-faceted as the meal Schuler has managed to create out of his limited winter ingredients. So now, facing the final plate of the evening, I'm starting to appreciate Slow Food's focus on pleasure, starting to think that perhaps really tasting food is the strongest motivator for change.

 

A quenelle of slightly sweetened goat cheese sits in front of me, crumbles of biscotti scattered over it, moistened with peach coulis, and I can see in my mind the folks from Ela Farm on the Western slope who grew this fruit. In a month, they'll be at the market with applesauce and dried apple and pear slices. Later in summer, they'll bring a few wildly-sought-after blackberries (get there first thing in the morning or lose out). And then there'll be a few fruitless weeks until finally the stand will be piled with gorgeous, juicy peaches, peaches like the one whose sweet fragrant ghost I have in my mouth.

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