Thursday, January 10, 2013

New Slow Food Director

Slow Food USA has just announced that it has hired a new Executive Director: Richard McCarthy, of Crescent City Farmers Market in New Orleans.

Richard McCarthy 
Richard McCarthy

Earlier this year, the then-Executive Director of Slow Food USA, Josh Viertel, left the organization. The cause of his departure, at least in part, was a divide in the Slow Food community about what the primary goals of the organization should be. Because Viertel had been emphasizing the social justice elements of the food movement, some traditionalists within Slow Food thought he was turning away from the organization's roots, from its original emphasis on the aesthetic pleasures of good food.

As Viertel wrote in a January 2012 Atlantic article, "The Soul of Slow Food":
This shift has prompted some important and difficult conversations. Lately it has bubbled over into controversy. Some people worry we are turning our backs on our roots. Some people say we are being more faithful to them. There are real, difficult questions at hand. What does it mean to promote paying the real cost of food while also promoting social justice and access? Is asking people to pay more for food elitist? Is exploring affordability an affront to farmers? Can you both fight for the farmer and fight for the eater, or do farmers and eaters have competing agendas? Can we fight for serious change without abandoning our commitment to the simple pleasure of a shared meal? What changes will we seek to make and who will we fight for? Access vs, food traditions and biodiversity. Farmers vs. eaters. Rural vs. urban. Youth vs. elders.

So far, the basic question has been about our identity: Should we be a movement that meets the interests of those who are naturally drawn to us and who can afford to take part, or should we be a movement that meets the needs of those who are most dependent on our being successful -- and who are most vulnerable if we fail?

Now, in hiring Richard McCarthy, Slow Food USA hopes to appease its constituents on both sides of the controversy. In a New York Times interview, McCarthy seems to take an intentionally balanced, and somewhat non-committal, approach:
During my tenure, will Slow Food USA be where both leaders as well as vulnerable families come home to Slow Food for nourishing ideas and comfort? I have been asking myself those same questions. I have a great deal to learn as I step out from beneath the umbrella of the farmers’ markets into the wider food conversations. I will approach this larger venue with the same instincts that have served me well in the rough-and-tumble place where commerce meets community at markets: listen and build trust . . . I hope we can cultivate leaders who listen, who build bridges and who possess the skills to creatively address the conditions that prevent our food system from providing decent livelihoods for farmers, food access for all consumers and the cultural assets that define a sense of place for communities.
I, for one, am hoping that McCarthy continues the emphasis on food justice that Viertel promoted. I hope he recognizes that a food movement that leaves behind a large portion of American citizens, that does not address structural issues, is a food movement that will ultimately fail to make lasting change.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Meeting Michael Pollan

My brush with fame came last week at the American Historical Association (AHA) annual meeting in New Orleans. There, I got to briefly meet, and take a photo with, Michael Pollan!

This famed writer, scholar, and food movement leader has been one of my most important influences over the last seven years, shaping my interests, intellectually and personally.

He was at this professional conference (of a profession not at all his own), on the invitation of my graduate school mentor and AHA President, Bill Cronon. One of themes of this year's AHA, and of Bill's presidency, was "The Public Practice of History in and for the Digital Age." And because Michael Pollan is one of those people who manages to use history in fascinating and useful ways, without himself being a trained historian, his take on "public history" is a deeply valuable one.

Pollan spoke at two different sessions at the conference, both moderated by Bill Cronon, both of deep interest to me:
UPDATE: A video of the full "Food, Farms, and History" panel is now available online. It's worth a watch.
 (From left to right: Bill Cronon, Michael Pollan, Donna Gabaccia, Deborah Fitzgerald, and Brian Donahue)
After the second session, I mentioned to several friends how much I wanted to meet and talk with Pollan. They urged me to approach him and introduce myself, or to ask for an introduction through Cronon. I resisted at first.

Part of me chalked up this resistance to simple nervousness or to being starstruck. But another, deeper, part of me realized that meeting Pollan in this way, for a just a minute after a public lecture, would leave him seeing me as no different than any of the scores of others folks who clamor for his attention. I didn't want to just be a fangirl. I want to be his colleague, and perhaps even his friend. I feel such an intellectual kinship with him that I wanted more than just a passing hello.

Still, given that a passing hello and a chance to be a fangirl are better than nothing, I went for it.

A friend, AW, asked Bill to introduce me to Pollan, and although everyone was in a hurry to head out after the session, Bill kindly did the introduction, saying, "This is one of my graduate students, whose work you would find very interesting." I shook the man's hand, beamed at him, thanked him for being at the AHA, and gave a line about my work on the history of the canning industry. Pollan graciously told me how interesting and important that work was, and that I should be in touch with the University of California Press to publish it. Just as he turned to leave the room, I managed to ask for a photo. He agreed. His college-aged son, Isaac, who was there at the conference with him, played photographer, immortalizing the moment.

And there we have it. My encounter with Michael Pollan, deeply gratifying, yet insubstantial, all at once.

Later that same day, I also got to hear Bill Cronon deliver his Presidential Address, "Storytelling," a lecture filled with Bill's characteristic insight, nuance, and wisdom--plus some great stories. You can watch the full version, on Youtube, here.

This was a day packed with tremendous intellectual stimulation from two of my favorite environmental thinkers.

A perfect way to begin 2013.