Part 2: Q&A With Slow Foodie Andrew Bonamici

Andrew Bonamici has been affiliated with the Slow Food Eugene convivum since 2002. He is the the Associate University Librarian for the Media and Instructional Services at the University of Oregon. Bonamici, whose father’s side of the family calls Italy home, recently sat down to talk with J361 reporter Leah Olson about slow dinners, the roots of social movements, eating seasonally and how students can eat Slow.

Andrew Bonamici. (Photo from University of Oregon archives).

Leah Olson: What is the premise behind Slow Food?

Andrew Bonamici: The Slow Food movement got its start in Italy in the late 80’s. They were putting a McDonald’s in Rome and Carlo Petrini thought this was really outrageous that a fast food outlet would be coming to Italy. They have such a longstanding tradition of regional food, local food and recipes that are passed down for generations, food that takes a long time to prepare and everybody sits around the table and has a great time eating and talking and connecting with each other. We don’t want to lose that cultural heritage just because some corporation wants to put fast food in our marketplaces. If we were to lose these traditions, we wouldn’t just lose the food, but interactions between people. Why not make food a meaningful part of the culture?

LO: How is your family involved in the Slow Food movement?

AB: My father’s side, my grandparents, come from Italy and we have all these recipes in our own family. My wife grew up in a really small town in Western Massachusetts and there were all these farms in the area. So, she grew up preparing food from scratch. They did a lot of entertaining, so all these things really spoke to us. Our kids are adults now, but when they were young, we had some pretty strict patterns about dinner. We always sat down for dinner. We always put candles on the table and we would always put music on. Both my kids are now really good cooks but they also are keeping up some of those traditions of really sitting down and making at least one meal a day.

LO: Do you still sit down every night for dinner?

AB: I will confess, now that we have the “empty nest” situation we’re more relaxed about it. We find ourselves eating later and sometimes we might eat while we’re watching a movie. But most nights we’ll sit down to a very nice meal, just the two of us and have a glass of wine and a nice dinner. My wife is an excellent cook.

LO: It seems like you need to have a pretty good income to afford some of these foods. Do you think the Slow Food movement is accessible to people who are low-income or under-privileged?

AB: That’s a hot-button issue that every Slow Food chapter deals with. It’s like a lot of social movements or organizations. They tend to start out with a lot of retired people who have some disposable income, they’re “foodies,” it’s kind of a gourmet society in a way, but that’s not the mission of Slow Food even if some of the chapters start out with people who have those interests. The social justice and access to food is a really important aspect of this. To eat gourmet food all day long is definitely a luxury. To understand where your food comes from, to make choices, to try to support local farmers in the bigger picture, doesn’t really require a huge amount of income, but it does require some priority setting. If what you are interested in is the cheapest price on any possible food item, then you are probably not going to pick a local farmer. But if you are willing to make some tradeoffs because you think society as a whole, as well as your individual health and happiness might benefit from support of a local food system, then yeah, it’s worth it. Yes, the foodies and the gourmet society folks tend to grab on to this at the start, but as people start to absorb the mission it becomes a little more explicit. It’s a quasi-revolutionary organization. We’re not just here to enjoy something for ourselves. We want to challenge some of the prevailing systems, and we want to at least understand more about how we are getting our food.

LO: Would you call the Slow Food movement a “rebellion?”

AB: Yeah, there is a little bit of an edge to it. I think much more so in some other countries. Certainly in Italy, they have protests. It is closely associated with some of the farmers’ movements in Europe. I think there is a little bit of an anti-corporate, or at least a questioning of the globalized food system.

LO: What are some ways that you recommend for people who are lower income, maybe students or people who have been affected by the downturn of the economy, how can they participate in this without spending a lot more money than they would on something like McDonald’s or food with high-fructose corn syrup in it?

AB: If you went to a market, like the Kiva that buys a lot of their produce from local producers, you can make some choices. One of the real keys is learning how to cook. Learning some basic kitchen techniques, basic pantry stocking techniques, shopping tips and planning your meals seasonally. All of those things add up together as a skill set that lets people eat pretty reasonably. Eggs are very nutritious, and people around here grow chickens and raise eggs in very sustainable ways. You can make a bistro salad with some local greens and some hard boiled eggs and maybe a strip of local bacon. Also, learning to cook with things like beans. Vegetarian cooking can be very inexpensive. You might want to round out with a casserole. A lot of the raw materials are really inexpensive but really good.

LO: What kinds of things should people think about when going to the grocery store?

AB: One of the main goals of Slow Food is eating seasonally. Because of our transportation infrastructure and large scale farming operations that are spread all over the planet, we have access to just about any kind of food at any time, whether it’s in season or local or not. Even if we don’t pay the costs out of our pocket, there are a lot of costs to shipping food all over the place. To be eating pineapples every day in Oregon… they have to be shipped from somewhere. There are ecosystem costs that we don’t really think about. You have to remember that it came from someplace else.

LO: Is Slow Food more about the actual food or the community experience?

AB: I would say it is pretty hard to separate the two, but in general I would say it is more about the community and about the awareness of how food contributes to the community. But, who doesn’t like to eat? And have a glass of wine? You kind of kill two birds with one stone. You do something that you are going to do anyway and it is an opportunity to share. I can’t image anyone trying to make the separation.

LO: There are so many more women in the workplace and households where both partners are working. Women aren’t necessarily fulfilling the role that they were 40 years ago. How can people make time for this when the mothers who were traditionally home cooking aren’t home any more? How can people fill that hole?

AB: I think there are some strategies. First of all, it’s important to get the whole family in. This isn’t something that just one person in the family should be responsible for. What is everybody’s role in shopping and preparing food and cleaning up, etcetera. Get the kids involved, get both partners involved and let that be a fun and active part of the family life, not just a chore. If people have some sort of rigid expectation that everything is going to be on the table at 6 o’clock when I get home from work, that’s a really old-school mindset. Let the prep time be a social time, get everybody involved in it, work on it together. It builds up an interest and an awareness of food as a skill. Find other people in the neighborhood and have more meals together. Have potlucks, make them casual. That might make it more convivial, too. Eat with friends.

Resources and ideas from Andrew Bonamici:

-Bonamici recommends eating food that is in season for the region in which you live. Check out the “In Season” feature on Slow Food Vancouver’s website to discover what is in season in the Northwest.

-Want to find out what fruits, vegetables and nuts are in season during which months in Oregon? Take a look at this Seasonality Chart from the Agri-Business Council of Oregon.

-Want to learn how to stock your pantry? Follow some of these basic tips on how to stock and what items are handy to have around, from eHow.com.

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