Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXII, No. 45
 
Wednesday, November 5, 2008
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Chef Says Slow Food Is Right Choice: “It All Comes Down to Gastronomy”

Dilshanie Perera

Hosted by the D & R Greenway’s Johnson Education Center, “From Legislature to Table,” a program presented by Congressman Rush Holt (D-12) and chef and owner of Princeton restaurant Tre Piani Jim Weaver, detailed the process by which food production can become more sustainable.

The evening’s program also included speakers who elaborated upon farming in New Jersey, land acquisition and farm preservation efforts undertaken by the state, and a bill in Congress supporting Community Supported Agriculture operations (CSAs). Since Mr. Holt was unable to attend the event due to the death of his sister, he was represented by his counsel on agriculture, Michelle Mulder.

As the co-founder of the Central Jersey Convivium of Slow Food, which is a part of the organization Slow Food U.S.A., Mr. Weaver contrasted slow food with fast food, declaring that “it all comes down to gastronomy.” He said that “to know the essence of what you are eating, you have to go back to the farm and who produced it and where it came from.”

“In New Jersey, a lot of farmers sell their product at auction, and it is swiftly shipped out of the state … and finally gets shipped back to me several days later,” Mr. Weaver said, observing, “I’m getting a product that’s older, anonymous, and more expensive.”

“These days, consumers and producers are completely separate from each other,” acknowledged Mr. Weaver, but by growing, selling, and consuming food locally, that divide could be bridged. Such food can “feed us in a sustainable way” that is “good for the land, clean, and fair,” he added.

The goals of the movement are to “preserve, protect, and promote local food, all while promoting conviviality,” which Mr. Weaver summed up as increasing “happiness on a lot of levels.”

Mr. Weaver said that his interest in the slow food movement had been piqued about ten years ago, after his research into its emergence in the mid-1980s in Rome and its growth into an international grassroots movement.

He described the response he received when inquiring about starting up a local branch for the movement as, “New Jersey!? Are you kidding me?” Such associations are “exactly why we need a chapter here,” he replied.

In 1999, there were between 500 and 600 members in Slow Food U.S.A., while today, Mr. Weaver reported, there are over 100,000.

One of the programs of the movement is called the Ark Project, which locates endangered food including agricultural products, wines, and aquaculture, and endeavors “to open up niche markets” for them.

An example of such a success dealt with four rare breeds of turkeys. Having been promised that the organization would sell all of the birds in time for Thanksgiving, farmers were challenged to raise 100 turkeys each in an organic, environmentally and animal-friendly way. Owing to demand for more, the species were bred in the following years as well, thus shifting them from an endangered to watch status. “Effectively, we saved the species by eating it,” Mr. Weaver noted.

Introduced as the D & R Greenway’s “resident farmer,” naturalist Bill Rawlyk, who is the director of land preservation, hails from a farming family, and described the farm economy of the previous generation as “very strong” in that it had “diverse agriculture, orchards, grains, and there was stability in that.”

Characterizing the advent of large-scale agribusiness as a move toward a “debt-structured economy,” Mr. Rawlyk said that farms that began mass producing big commodities tended to be trapped in an unstable and less than viable mode of existence.

In recent years, Mr. Rawlyk has noticed a shift back toward increased diversity of products that farms produce and increased excitement about the locally grown movement. He envisioned economically feasible agricultural practice “on the horizon or coming back,” noting that “the Princeton area is an epicenter for that.”

Saying that “it’s really shocking how some people have completely lost touch with their food,” Ms. Mulder elaborated upon a bill that Mr. Holt “designed to facilitate the development of CSAs.”

Defining CSAs as places where “members of a community can buy shares in an agricultural operation and get goods from it,” Ms. Mulder reported that Mr. Holt’s proposal would support the transition of community and municipally-owned land to CSAs, community kitchens, locally-based livestock processing plants, and would support training new CSA farmers.

The benefits of the bill include increased community food security, which would decrease the likelihood of food scares that affect much of the country, such as the questionable tomatoes and spinach in recent years, noted Ms. Mulder. She also observed that the proposal could spur community development and education and increase cost savings since “the farther food goes, the more expensive it is, and the less fresh and less healthy it is.”

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