Tom Barkin loves a good adventure. In 1972, after two years of law school, Barkin decided to take some time off to go traveling with his wife. They had four goals for their trip: hike north of the Arctic Circle, climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, ride a camel across the Khyber Pass and climb the Himalayas.
“We did all of them, except Kilimanjaro,” Barkin says. “We took a train from Istanbul to Tehran and it was only $26!”
The trip took Barkin and his wife across Spain, Italy, Switzerland, France, Germany, Czechoslovakia, the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Yugoslavia, Greece, Austria, San Marino, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, and Nepal. The year, which cost $5,000 for two people including airfare, was packed with adventure and, of course, tasting lots of foreign cuisines.
Barkin’s enthusiasm and adventurousness has translated to many aspects of his life, especially food. For Barkin, food is not just about eating. He doesn’t think of food in terms of caloric intake or energy efficiency. For Barkin, food is never an afterthought.
Barkin is the president of the Slow Food Eugene Convivium. In 2003 he read a Register Guard article that mentioned Slow Food. He called up the organization, asked when the next meeting was and quickly became an active member of the group.
Barkin is the type of person who could likely strike up a conversation with almost anyone. He is funny, eloquent, amiable and loves to talk about food. Barkin has glasses, a grey and black mustache and wears a faded blue, knit sweater over a dark blue t-shirt. He gets comfortable in a dark wooden chair at a downtown coffee shop to talk about his role in Slow Food Eugene.
Slow Food is a social movement that was founded by Italian journalist and gourmet Carlo Petrini in 1986. The idea for the group was born when Petrini and others gathered outside the historic Spanish Steps in Rome to protest a McDonald’s restaurant that was set to open in the area. The Slow Food organization, Petrini’s response to globalized fast food culture, has spread to some 132 countries and has over 100,000 members (See “What Is Slow Food?” for more background).
When Barkin heard about the movement, he says that the ideas behind it immediately resonated with him. Food has always been an interest for Barkin: he bought his first Julia Child cookbook in the early 70’s and since high school has enjoyed experimenting in the kitchen.
“I’ve always loved food, and I’ve always been pretty political and had strong feelings about social justice. I finally found an organization that melded the two together,” Barkin says with a laugh.
“I always tell people that it’s the only organization I’ve ever been part of that you can be self-righteous and hedonistic at the same time,” Barkin says.
Slow Food aims to create awareness about the origins of the food we eat. The organization encourages people to buy food from local farms and producers and eat sitting at a table with other people.
Barkin says Slow Food is not just about the physical act of cooking and sitting around a table, but it is a way of looking at food as something more meaningful than simply the packages that contain the calories that keep us alive.
“Food has a more fundamental purpose in our lives. It’s about recognizing that food comes from some place,” he says.
Of course food comes from some place, but Barkin emphasizes understanding exactly where that place is and who was involved in the production. For example, where did that package of beef come from? Was the cow fed corn, which fattens the animal extremely fast, before slaughter? Was the cow grass-fed on a local farm? Were veterinarians involved with the animal by administering growth hormones and antibiotics? Did the animal come from a feedlot, where it stood alongside hundreds of other cows in its own waste?
Barkin says these are all questions that should be taken into account when purchasing meat.
“In Slow Food we like to talk about ourselves as ‘co-producers’,” Barkin says. “For example, if I go to Saturday Market and buy an apple from Grateful Harvest farm, I’m saying: ‘I want to purchase that food and I want to support you.’ So it’s much more of a tie between people, rather than an arms’ length transaction.”
Barkin prefers to get to know the people who produce his food rather than buy food produced by mega-corporations. He cites Sundance, Capella Market, Market of Choice and the Eugene Saturday Market as a few of his main food stops.
“When you actually talk to the person who’s got his or her hands in the dirt, you feel a level of comfort about the care and their concern for their product,” Barkin says.
Although Barkin is a determined spokesman for socially just and righteous food, he tries not to take everything too seriously.
“The Slow Food goals are really aspirational,” Barkin says. “This isn’t a religion. It’s not like if I eat a McDonald’s hamburger I’ll go to hell,” Barkin adds as he twirls his Blackberry on the table.
But all joking aside, Barkin says there are some serious public health problems that stem from the overconsumption of industrialized fast food. He says one of the main problems is diabetes in both adults and children. The other problem is obesity: two-thirds of US adults are now considered obese or overweight.
“The other side of the equation is what fast food has done to the food production process in the United States,” Barkin says. Because of the enormous fast food market, Barkin says McDonald’s has the power to dictate what a farmer produces and how the farmer produces it, preferably as cheaply as possible.
Barkin says factory farmed meat is one part of the food industry that is especially problematic.
“In the feedlot, you feed them corn,” Barkin says about mass produced beef. “What that corn does is it puts on fat as quickly as possible… On the feedlot, their weight increases dramatically.”
“They’re standing around in their own manure in a very unhealthy environment,” he says. “They give the animals growth hormones to make them grow as quickly as possible. All of a sudden, your food is saturated with growth hormones.”
According to Barkin, fast food once in a while is not an issue. The problem is that people are eating fast food more than once in a while. Forty-seven million people eat at McDonald’s every single day.
The Slow Food organization focuses on the chain of food production. The group emphasizes the importance of a short food chain. For example, a short food chain would be a local farmer who grows a potato and sell that potato at the local farmers market. A longer food chain might be: an Idaho potato farm that grows hundreds of thousands of potatoes, those potatoes are trucked in semis to processing plants, then the processed potatoes are flown to a grocery store near you. One of the goals of Slow Food is to encourage consumers to consider the implications of the longer food chain.
In terms of meat, Barkin says the long food chain is simply unsustainable.
“That hamburger at the end of the line is a product of petrochemicals, pesticides, herbicides, genetically modified corn, animal abuse and sick animals. It’s just a whole chain of things,” Barkin says. “All that is resultant in a sicker population. It’s really sort of spooky.”
It all sounds like some sort of horror movie. So, why not more public outrage?
It’s simple, says Barkin. The reason people don’t seem to care: dirt cheap food.
“Food is cheap because of this industrialization of the food industry,” Barkin says. Although this cheap food may be causing widespread health problems, it is to be expected that people will buy industrial food.
“What the family is trying to do is make a rational economic choice. And that is buy as many calories as you can with as few dollars as possible,” Barkin says. “There’s a lot more calories in a potato chip than in a carrot, so the rational choice is to buy the potato chips, but what are you missing? You’re missing vitamins, you’re missing minerals, you’re missing roughage.”
Especially in this economy, dishing out cash for local leafy greens and bags of carrots may not make financial sense for people on a budget. Somewhere along the way, the Slow Food movement seems to have gained an elitist reputation, probably because the organization emerged from a group of Italian gourmets and academics.
Barkin says all Slow Food chapters have to deal with this reputation, but he insists eating “Good, Clean and Fair” food (the group’s motto) is not some privilege reserved only for the rich.
Barkin’s advice for people who don’t have a lot of money but still want to eat well is to stick to the edges of the supermarket.
“That’s where the fresh vegetables are, that’s where the fresh meat is. You don’t buy the canned stuff, you don’t buy the frozen stuff,” Barkin says.
The point of Slow Food is not to sit around sipping expensive wine, eating gourmet cheese and artisanal bread, although most Slow Foodies wouldn’t be opposed to that. The point is enjoying the process of cooking, supporting local farmers and growers and sharing meals with loved ones.
Barkin says the Slow Food ideals don’t require a lot of money, but they do require a lifestyle change for people who have become used to eating quick and easy industrial fast food. He believes a great deal of food knowledge and basic cooking techniques like what goes well together and tastes good has been lost because of fast food culture.
Barkin says adhering to the Slow Food ideals makes us healthier, but perhaps equally important, it creates a support system that goes far beyond just sustenance. Rather than eating an isolated meal from a drive-thru, perhaps consumed in a car, Slow Food encourages eating with others while sitting at a table.
“It creates a sense of community and a sense of cohesion in our families that is absolutely critical,” Barkin said. “There’s nothing like sitting around at dinner, from 6:30 to 7:30 and just talking about stuff. It’s around that food experience.”
Want to learn more about food? Here are four book recommendations from Slow Food Eugene president Tom Barkin: