Slowing down supper

OTTAWA magazine, January 2005

The Slow Food movement comes to Ottawa-Gatineau

When Bruce Wood found himself driving down Highway 17 at midnight with a dead 105-pound rare-breed pig strapped into the passenger seat next to him, all he could think was – what am going to tell the police officer if I get pulled over?

Ah, the things people will do for their Slow Food.

When he’s not chauffeuring livestock around the Ottawa Valley, Wood is a chef, cooking instructor, and leader of the Ottawa Gatineau chapter of Slow Food. The pig was part of an event organized by his Convivium (that’s Slow Food-speak for a local chapter) , a summer feast that revolved around an outdoor spit-roasted organic Tamworth pig. With 17 hours of cooking time required, Wood had to get the main course on the fire the night before.

“I set my alarm to wake me up every hour during the night to go check on it,” he says, “I felt like a new parent.”

In case you’ve been too busy grazing the food aisles at Costco and guzzling Big Macs to hear about it, Slow Food, founded in Italy in 1986, is an international movement that wants to change the way we think about eating. Consider it a culinary traffic cop that’s works to reduce the speed with which people turn to drive-thrus and industrial tomatoes and redirects them to a slower, more regionally-focused and sustainable route to the table. Today the organization has some 77,000 members in 48 countries, organized into 700 Convivia.

Web-strategist Denise Eisner met Wood at a cooking demonstration at Loblaws. “We forged a bond over foie gras ,” she says. Traveling in Italy had already sparked her interest in the Slow philosophy of preserving locally-produced products, but she hadn’t considered how it could be interpreted at home. All that changed when she met Wood, a passionate promoter of the quality and diversity of food that is raised, grown and produced in the Ottawa-Gatineau region. As one of the founding members of the fledgling local Slow Food chapter, Wood was determined to get the word out to food-enthusiasts like Eisner, rather than restricting membership to an elite group of people in the food industry.

Now an active member, Eisner admits the local Convivium has been pretty much “running on fumes,” with only about a dozen card-carrying members that has dwindled to four over the last year. There are many more people who express interest and want to attend events, she says, but few of them are willing to pay the $100 annual membership fee to join Slow Food International. The lack of volunteers is another challenge. She hopes the group’s new will provide the added exposure and credibility to get things off the ground in the months ahead.

Perhaps one reason that Slow Food has been well, slow to catch on in the capital region is the perception of elitism. Wood says the Convivium received some “vitriolic emails” when it advertised a $96 three-course meal matched with wines and a cheese-tasting at Beckta, a restaurant known to bear the maximum number of dollar signs in any guide book. The event was sold out, but Wood says the group makes a point of hosting some more casual, potluck-style dinners as well. Last year he hosted a summer solstice BBQ that showcased the guests’ local finds. “Some people had picked oyster mushrooms that day, some people caught fish and we sat around in the driveway and barbecued it all. It was unbelievable,” says Wood. “Someone brought birch syrup they got off their own land and we used it to baste chicken on the grill,” adds Eisner.

If it’s the image of food snobbery that needs to be shed, perhaps the Ottawa-Gatineau chapter might consider trading in the classic Slow Food snail mascot for a pig wearing a seatbelt.