Life in the Slow Lane

Jerry and Mary Ellen Spinelli promote Slow Food culture at their Park Hill grocery.
Anthony Camera

Here's what Boulder chef and Slow-Foodie James Moore suggests you do when confronted with a bottle of olive oil: Pause to consider the color -- is it greenish, yellowish, somewhere in between? Inhale. Assess the aroma. Pour a little oil onto your hands, rub them until they feel warm, cup them below your nose and inhale again for "the true scent of the olive in the oil." Taste a little of the oil from a spoon. Taste again with bread.

You may notice a bit of burning in your throat as you swallow. That's pizzica -- the bite from the oleic acid in the oil. The extent of the bite is determined by the extraction method and also by whether the olives used were black -- that is, ripe -- or still green. Black olives are sweeter, Moore says. In Tuscany, where there are fewer days of sun than elsewhere in Italy and green olives are used for oil, pizzica is considered a bonus.

There are other things to consider, too: the location of the olive groves, that year's weather, which pressing you're tasting, how skillfully the oils were blended.

Olive oil is pretty trendy right now. So are artisan cheeses. But you can bring the same respect and curiosity to any foodstuff, including the lowly potato. "Is it locally grown?" asks Moore. "If so, because it hasn't been stored a long time or transported long distances, the starches haven't developed as much, and you have a wonderful sweetness. How can you cook it to make the most of that?"

If this sounds unendurably precious, it's because we live in a culture that has no respect for food. Americans think of it as fuel. We want lots of it to fill us up, and we want it cheap. We shove it mindlessly into our faces while driving, walking through the mall or watching a movie. We expect to have it prepared for us, or to spend no more than thirty minutes preparing it ourselves. We gorge when we're upset and then do penance with limp, undressed salads and flavorless tofu dishes.

The mammoth food industry has stolen our grandmothers' recipes and made us forget the taste of ripe peaches. It has also skewed the way food is produced, driven small farmers off the land, contaminated our meat supply and created an army of powerless and exploited fast-food workers. It is spreading tasteless, obesity-promoting, unhealthful foods across the planet. "To avoid the McDonald's chain entirely you would have to go somewhere really remote," suggests England's Manchester Guardian. "Afghanistan, perhaps, with its land mines, civil war and Islamic fundamentalism. Or there is Bhutan, a small, esoteric Himalayan kingdom of few tourists and no beefburgers, where there exists a long tradition of skepticism towards dubious Western ideas."

How can this juggernaut be stopped? Simple, say the organizers of Slow Food, an international movement that began in Italy in 1989 and has now come to Denver: one delicious mouthful at a time. "A firm defense of quiet material pleasure is the only way to oppose the universal folly of Fast Life," says the Slow Food manifesto (check it out at

Slow Food educates the public about organic, locally grown food, and it supports small farmers. It promotes handmade, locally crafted products -- cheese, salami, wine, sweetmeats -- and attempts to preserve foodstuffs in danger of dying out, including varieties of plants and breeds of domestic animals. The organization also sponsors projects that feed the hungry.

Slow Food has over 2,500 members in the United States, and the movement grows monthly. Peggy Markel, a Boulderite who owns a cooking school near Florence, Italy, was one of the first to introduce the movement in this country; she brought Slow Food to Boulder five years ago.

Denver has been working on its own Slow Food convivium (from convivial, defined by one dictionary as "fond of feasting and merry company") for a year, and last month saw the official inauguration of Slow Food Denver at the Cook Street School of Fine Cooking. Over sixty attendees mingled and chatted, while sampling olive oil, wine and artisan cheeses on extraordinary locally baked breads.

Cooking teacher Judith Sarchielli, who lived in Florence for twenty years, provided the original impetus for Denver Slow Food. "In Italy, everything's a farmers' market," she explains. "I became used to a better quality of food and a much more personable exchange with the people who sell the produce. The whole Italian culture is based on eating together."

Sally Kennedy, another one of the organizers, describes planning sessions held after hours "in a grocery store in my own neighborhood over a glass of wine and with some wonderful antipasti, talking about food and feeling like I'm in a little town in Europe, like I'm in a story."

That grocery store is in Park Hill, and it belongs to Jerry Spinelli, a passionate Slow Food adherent whose market was inspired by the neighborhood grocery stores he and his wife frequented during visits to New York City. Spinelli provided much of the cheese for the Cook Street meeting -- chèvre from Colorado's own Haystack Dairy, a raw-milk blue cheese from Massachusetts, a Spanish manchego. "I like to turn my customers on to American cheese because nobody thinks we have great cheeses," he says. The cheese was served on pieces of the Puglia bread baked daily at Spinelli's grocery. "The minute the loaves come out of the oven, they're gone," Spinelli says, laughing.

Dee Pallasch, owner of La Groceria in Aurora, also attended the Slow Food inauguration. She grew up in an apartment behind the grocery store her father owned in Ohio. "The shelves went way up to the ceiling," she remembers. "We had to use pinchers to get the top boxes. People would call any time and say, 'Oh, John, we've got company,' and my dad always opened the doors and cut up whatever meat they needed.

"I gave change at the age of eight or nine -- before machines told you how much. At five, I would meet the produce man at the door and bring stuff in, help Dad arrange it. I went to meat-packing houses and slaughterhouses. My games were playing hide-and-seek in the boxes in the basement."

Pallasch's father was driven out of business when a supermarket went up in his neighborhood. Pallasch was ten. Today photographs of her father's store adorn the walls of Pallasch's own market, where the scale from his produce section is also displayed.

Pallasch knows that not everyone has time to cook. In addition to offering regular grocery fare and unusual treasures found at food shows, she sells prepared foods. They're made by a chef who, she claims, has "no ego" and a group of helpers who love food. "I have an open kitchen," she says. "People walk in and smell the food. It takes five or ten minutes -- it's not prepared ahead of time. We talk. They walk around; they debate dessert. We have more people in here holding hands, hugging and kissing."

The area's Slow Food organizers are planning dinners and tastings, tours to local producers, visits to schools. But members stress that there's nothing formal about their movement. Wherever a group of people sits down together to eat, the spirit of Slow Food is flourishing. It's just "getting back to the basics of what food can be," says Boulder chef Jason McHugh.

"We're not trying to replicate the Italian experience," says Moore. "There are Colorado wines. There are all the local things at the farmers' markets -- cherries, apricots and peaches from the Western Slope. Local cheeses and honey. Wild mushrooms from the foothills. Root vegetables.

"This is not for, quote, gourmets. This is for everyone."

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