Cafe Society

A Slow Foods dinner feeds the body, mind and soul

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.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman

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