Take a moment and think about what you ate today. Do you know where it came from? Hint: “the grocery store” doesn’t count.
In today’s fast-paced milieu, convenience can often trump quality and sustainability. It’s much easier to pop something in the microwave or order fast-food take out than to cook something from scratch, or even grow our own food. This has led to a reliance on supermarkets and industrialized food production, where livestock is crammed into inhumane living conditions and processed foods are filled with additives and GMOs, raising myriad health concerns.
Slow food, a global movement founded by Carlo Petrini in 1986, began in protest to a McDonald’s restaurant opening near the Spanish Steps in Rome, Italy. The idea was to promote “A healthy alternative to fast food that strives to preserve traditional and regional cuisine. The movement encourages farming, seeds and livestock that are characteristic of the local ecosystem.” This essentially means replacing fast food in favour of homemade, local and sustainable products. The international slow-food movement was founded in Paris in 1989 and there are now more than 1300 local convivia chapters around the world.
The objectives of slow food include developing an Ark of Taste for each ecoregion in order to celebrate local culinary traditions, creating grassroots organizations to promote the movement to the public, organizing small-scale processing, promoting taste education, educating consumers regarding the health risks of fast food and the drawbacks of commercial agribusiness, preserving family farms, lobbying against pesticide use and encouraging ethical buying at local marketplaces.
Edmonton’s convivia has more than 100 members—ranking it among the top five in the country, and it is one of four Canadian convivia that have adopted a garden in Africa. The convivia maintains a strong national and international presence at conferences like Terra Madre, which happens every two years in Italy, and is continuously working to expand its reach on a local level, which means more events throughout the year to expose Edmontonians to what slow food has to offer. But as newly-appointed president Chad Moss notes, there’s no pressure to join. It’s all done in the name of enjoyment and offering accessible opportunities to enjoy slow food, such as the upcoming Hawker’s Market on February 22 or the Hijacked event with Drift Food Truck on March 8. (Visit slowfoodedmonton.ca for more information.)
Moss points out there is often the misconception that the movement is elitist, but that is exactly the opposite of what slow food is based on. It is meant to be inclusive and encouraging, with members ranging from those who are just beginning to learn about slow food to those who maintain a staunch, 100-percent slow-food diet. It’s all about helping people reach what Moss calls the “ah-ha” moment about food on their own. Moss, a chef by trade, has been a member of Slow Food since 2007 and reached his “ah-ha” moment when he realized he didn’t have to settle for subpar, processed alternatives and there were better options out there—for himself and for the local economy.
“The first thing is just—and it costs no money at all—but just think about what you’re putting in your mouth. Just think about it and ask yourself, ‘Is this good enough for me? Do I want to change anything about this,” says Moss, who would place himself at the more hardcore end of the Slow Food spectrum, as he and his wife Thea (a past Slow Food Edmonton president) have adopted a complete Slow Food lifestyle. “If the answer’s no, fine; if the answer’s yes, well why don’t you go down to the farmer’s market and instead of shopping at the grocery store for that product, and maybe while you’re there pick up half a dozen things that you don’t need to get at a grocery store.”
“I think the big thing about Slow Food is it was started as an objection to fast and so if someone’s got a fast-paced life and they can’t make time for food, the first question isn’t about food, it’s about your priorities and how you’re living your life,” adds Kevin Kossowan, who has been a board member of Slow Food since about 2008, though he was introduced to the movement in Tuscany in 2001. He’s also teamed up with Moss for Shovel & Fork, which teaches classes based on slow-food practices. “Making some choices to spend more time with food, but also one thing I like about Slow Food that removes it a bit from the food purism sometimes that might get to be too much for people is it’s hugely about conviviality; it’s about people spending time together with food.”
Kossowan, who grows much of his own produce and sources meat and other products from local producers, notes that even if people do eat out frequently and don’t cook often themselves, they can still take advantage of slow-food practices by dining at locally owned restaurants where chefs haven taken an interest in slow food.
Despite there still being a prevalent reliance on industrially produced food, Kossowan says he has seen a shift, particularly among the younger demographic who seems to exhibit a new sense of pride in food.
“Honestly, I think it’s driven by the 20-somethings and 30-somethings who just seem to give a shit about food and are willing to spend more money on good-quality food and are willing to spend the time, largely often for health reasons,” Kossowan adds. “I think information availability and education is a huge part of it. Once people begin to understand what their options are—that was the kicker for me—I wasn’t militant in any way, shape or form but I was like,’OK, I can eat that pig, this barn is disgusting, I never want to be near this again or I can eat this pig and it lived in a chunk of bush and is super happy and doesn’t stink at all, not even close.’ It was a no-brainer what I wanted to eat and where I wanted to put my money.”
Moss and Kossowan point out that Edmonton is essentially food central, making it simple to find local producers who can provide alternatives to industrially produced products. A large part of Slow Food is celebrating regional cuisine, and the Edmonton area is a rich source of independently raised protein, grains and produce—and developing relationships with these producers ties into the educational aspect of Slow Food as well.
“Now when I eat something or I serve it to somebody else I pretty much know exactly where it came from, who grew it, who caught it, what it was fed down to the vegetables, is it organic,” Moss says. “So when I experience my food it’s like every night is like having a dinner party because even if I just look at my plate I can think of all those people and put a face to all those people … so the fact that all my food was cared about from the beginning just makes me feel better eating it.”
One such producer is Jeff Senger at Sangudo Custom Meat Packers. He and his business partner, Kevin Meier, bought the business from its previous owner nearly four years ago when Senger left his corporate job as an accountant to pursue an endeavour he felt was more fulfilling: providing quality, healthy meat products to consumers. Senger, who learned how to cut meat during hunting and fishing trips with his father, and his wife, Heather, also traded in their urbanite status in Calgary for a “pathetically slow” rural lifestyle on a 160-acre farm nine-and-a-half years ago. Now the Sengers grow their own produce, make their own honey and cheese and own a host of livestock, so it’s not uncommon for them to sit down to 100-percent homegrown meals.
Senger, a member of Slow Food Edmonton, was nominated to attend Terra Madre in Turin, Italy in 2012, and says he was surprised by the amount of regional pride exhibited by different vendors. Senger “caught the bug” and began thinking about what he could do that was unique in Alberta and began making bresaola, which is dried beef that he renamed Alberta Dried Eye Round. He also began delving further into dry curing, utilizing the 30 or so pigs Sangudo processes each year. None of the pigs are grain fed and are allowed to run around freely, rooting through the bush for their food, which Senger says has resulted in better tasting, higher-quality meat.
“When you’re eating just dried meat, the flavour’s concentrated and you really get to know the animal better and how it was raised because you’re tasting a super concentrated version of it in wafer-thin slices,” he says.
Sangudo specializes in custom meat cutting for local farmers as well as for the food-service industry. Sangudo products can be found on the menus of numerous locally owned restaurants such as Culina Mill Creek (it’s first restaurant client), Three Boars Eatery, Woodwork, Corso 32 and RGE RD.
“Once a week we deliver into the city to some really cool kind of slow-philosophy restaurants,” says Senger, who hopes to open a retail meat store in Edmonton in the near future. “So the really high-quality restaurants that maybe aren’t pushing through the volume, but they want quality and have supported us right from the beginning of us introducing ourselves.”
Chefs from these restaurants and food-lovers alike have been invited out to the farm on numerous occasions to see exactly how the slaughterhouse operates, from the processing floor to the cured meat products at the front. Senger has no qualms about visitors on kill days, and maintains an open-door policy for viewing—and even participating, if someone feels so inclined.
“We knew the mega industrial plant in Brooks would never allow cameras in, so we knew as long as we were doing the opposite of the giant, industrialized plant then it’s got to the be right because we’re not competing with them,” Senger says. “The thicker they build their walls and the more they excluded the press and media, the more we needed to include the press, media and relationship with producers and food bloggers and food consumers.”
Sangudo has nothing to hide because it has ensured its slaughterhouse operates in the most humane way possible. Animals ranging in size from lambs to elk and bison are moved through the facility, and their needs are accounted for. The plant is built around elk-handling facilities Senger and Meier visited and include larger holding cells where the animals are able to turn around—if they can’t do this, they get stressed—constructed of wood to prevent robbing heat and creating noise if the animal bangs into it. The chutes the animals are moved through are constructed using rounded corners, feature adequate lighting to remove shadows that could scare them and feature heated ramps. When the animals do make it to the knock-off cell, Senger says they’re often in a relaxed state (music is often played throughout the slaughterhouse to soothe them), and a mechanism moves into place so the animal is held tightly with padding to prevent them from hurting themselves before the final shot is delivered.
A great deal of care and time goes into the products Sangudo produces, but Senger notes that slow food is not a new concept—it’s simply getting back to basics and appreciating what goes in our bodies.
“It’s slow; nothing happens fast, but we don’t call it that anymore—it’s normal,” Senger adds. “I think slow food is another [term] for 18 000 years of human food culture, except for the last 50 … when people thought farming with chemicals was a better idea and on an industrial scale, which is sick.”