Grace Before Dinner

Photograph by Pablo Balbontin Arenas, used with permission

I FELT A NUDGE AGAINST MY LEG. The bare black foot of a farmer had crept out from beneath a green and gold caftan; the jet-lagged Senegalese behind me was stretching in his seat in Turin’s cavernous Palazzo del Lavoro. I looked around me. A cluster of women from Ladakh walked by in brightly colored dresses, striped aprons, and black hats. Two women from Russia were wearing suede and beaded clothing reminiscent of American Plains Indians. I saw reindeer-meat smokers (were they Lapps?) in red and blue outfits and big soft boots, Peruvians in red hats and embroidered capes, elegant women from Kenya adorned with finely beaded neckbands and bracelets. A bevy of Caribbean women flounced by in pink dresses with silver threads and puffy sleeves; the Bolivians were dressed in voluminous skirts and tiny hats.

As a cook, I am beside myself when I encounter even ten varieties of tomatoes at a farmers’ market. But to see such diversity among people was deeply moving; people from everywhere with great rough hands and fine, weathered faces. Five thousand farmers from 130 countries were gathering for the first time in history, creating an event called Terra Madre.

Vandana Shiva, the Indian small-farmer advocate, looked out over this vast audience and said, “If this were an agribusiness meeting, the faces would be white and the clothes black. But you are full of beauty and color, the colors of the earth.”

We were gorgeous, but most importantly, we were “we.” Perhaps such an experience is particularly meaningful for us Americans, for we tend to be isolationist, given our geography and political profile, even when we don’t mean to be. In spite of our bumper stickers that tell us to “Appreciate Diversity,” we simply don’t often meet others in a meaningful way. Terra Madre, this four-day gathering last October of tillers and keepers of the Earth, gave us the opportunity to correct that.

TWENTY-FIVE YEARS AGO I started Greens restaurant in San Francisco, then left to live in Rome, where I began writing on food and cooking. I departed Rome just as the Slow Food movement took root there in 1986, and I didn’t become formally involved for another ten years. (Among other things, I now run Slow Food’s Santa Fe chapter). But I was informally supporting Slow Food concepts all along. My deepest sympathies have always been with the landscape of food and farming, and that led me to join the Santa Fe farmers’ market, near my new American home, as a manager and board member. I spent five years visiting markets and farmers across the country as I researched my 2002 book Local Flavors. At Terra Madre I reconnected with many of those same food producers and farmers. I had the chance to introduce a fine honey producer from Hawai’i to his counterpart in South Texas, and to connect two growers of Suncrest peaches to each other. Such connections, it turned out, were the lifeblood of Terra Madre, its raison d’etre.

As Slow Food has evolved, it has come to unite the pleasure of food to the necessity of recognizing its place in culture, history, and the environment. Carlo Petrini, Slow Food’s founder, says, “It makes no sense to become connoisseurs of rare delicacies while ignoring the need to prevent the disappearance of those who actually work the land and supply the products.” Vandana Shiva, describing the shift to chemically driven systems of farming and food production, said, “We are eating the leftovers of World War II.”

The time was ripe for Terra Madre, where small-scale food producers could address the homogenizing pressures of globalization; the power of the World Trade Organization to pursue corporate control and standardization; the lack of a holistic integrity in industrial food production; and the concomitant decline of human health, soil fertility, water quality, and water itself. Add to these the displacement of rural peoples into overtaxed urban areas, and it becomes clear that those involved with traditional, small scale, sustainable food production must meet, grasp the gravity of our situation, and figure out how to help one another.

Terra Madre was our answer to the WTO, a meeting not of brokers but of the actual producers of food — farmers, cheese makers, bakers, ranchers, poultry people, grain growers, honey gatherers. In all, twelve hundred communities of food producers were represented, constellations linked by specific foods or geography. These communities, whether made up of individuals or co-operatives, produce foods that don’t lend themselves easily to industrial processes and therefore are most distinctive for their quality. They embody culture, knowledge, practice, and wisdom that often struggle in isolation but deserve — even need — wide appreciation and support to thrive in our globalized world. Their names paint a picture of diversity: Blue Egg Hen Community (Chile); Community of Groundfish Fishermen (East Coast of the United States); Lake Aral Autochthonous Sheep Breeders and Dairy Farmers (Uzbekistan); Community of Tuber Farmers and Traders (Bolivia).

Michael Straus of Straus Family Creamery in Marshall, California, told me of a conversation his sister had with a jam and tea producer from Zimbabwe who said, “We have never seen people like you before. White people. We’ve always been seen as ‘Poor African Farmers.’ Now, here we are, getting respect.” Later, Michael wrote in an e-mail that this conversation made him realize that “we are here [at Terra Madre] to support and encourage each other; to realize we are all in the same boat with our own unique struggles.”

This was the power of our gathering: the realization that we, right here right now, are the body whose common concerns and endeavors in food and farming relate us to one another and to our communities at home. Again and again, as we mingled in our national finery, people said, “It’s so good to know we’re not alone.” (An American farmer, upon overhearing these very words, turned to me and said, “I don’t understand this thing about people feeling alone. Maybe we’re just lucky in California.”)

In these whirlwind days people from all countries took the stage even when they weren’t listed as speakers. We were, it seemed, simply holding big conversations. On the conference’s last day, Massimo Bernacchini, an Italian fisherman, described to the entire body how members in his tuna-roe co-op had believed that their success lay in tightly guarding their secrets — a common practice among food producers. “But,” he said, “Terra Madre has suggested to us that there’s a greater need of sharing information and developing trust, pooling rather than hoarding knowledge.”

OUTSIDE THE SEMINAR ROOMS, in a corner of the Palazzo del Lavoro, the proceedings were completely unscripted. Blankets were spread on the floor, card tables set up; Terra Madre had become a marketplace not only of ideas, but of things you could pick up, hold, touch, eat — things that connected you to others. An Ecuadorian woman sat on the floor with a display of a dozen different kinds of corn and packages of exotic potatoes. They were not for sale, but to show and to talk about. An Algerian stood at a table with his dates, a hastily penciled map of Algeria pinned to the wall, a star marking his oasis. The ladies from Ladakh had bags of skinned barley to show, and a few scarves to sell, while Bolivians were buried in a mountain of little alpaca purses and Nigerians were busy unfolding indigo-dyed cloths.

At one table Chinese men sat smoking, their handmade sign proclaiming “organic foods.” Mr. Wu, who displayed his organic teas, said, “The biggest problem in China is honesty. There is such mistrust of the Chinese government, that even though our food is certified organic, no one believes it’s true, so they won’t buy it.” Thus, most of their tea goes to Germany, where its organic pedigree is appreciated.

A Sicilian from the Instituto di Granicoltura showed thirty varieties of wheat, each used for making particular breads and pastries. Across the hall were sixty varieties of squashes and gourds grown by the students in a nearby Italian high school. Dave Fresquez, a New Mexico farmer who is passionate about cucurbits, was ecstatic. He pointed out those he had grown and wondered aloud how he could get seeds for the rest. When I left he was making arrangements to visit the school, where he would no doubt find just what he was looking for.

An English farmer and his wife mentioned that they had a retail store on their farm and had, most improbably, just met a young woman from Burkina Faso who produced the dried mangoes they sold. I, too, found her, and she described her work in a co-op mostly of women, the Cercle de Secheurs. (The fruit was delicious, with an intense, pure mango flavor.) Another woman, from Chad, offered to share her dried caterpillars (not quite as tasty as the mangoes, and a lot crunchier).

I watched a young man from India unwrap layer upon layer of newspaper, revealing, at last, cookies. “These are organic cookies from India! Try one!” Rich and spicy, with a hint of curry, they were possibly not at their best after their journey and given the fact that they should have been eaten hot, right out of the oil they were fried in, but they weren’t bad, either. There was butter, cheese, and a kind of “vodka” made from yak milk, offered by men from Kyrgyzstan. There was a very dry Tajik cheese in the shape of a marble, also made from yak milk. Meant to keep for a long time, it had the texture of chalk, and I didn’t make much progress with it. I found it, minus a bite but otherwise intact, in a pocket when I got home to New Mexico.

Lunch provided another chance to talk, as did waiting in the considerable lunch line itself. Mas Masamoto, the writer and peach farmer from California, and I got our bowls of pasta, vegetable salads, and Parmigianio-Reggiano, then joined a table of Senegalese. We talked with a half-dozen farmers in their early twenties, members of a large co-op who grow corn, sesame, rice, and millet. Women from the co-op joined the table, their trays heaped only with fruit; they raised fish. We spoke in French about what problems they faced (cricket infestations); where their food goes (to nearby communities, not overseas); and asked, if they could have one technology, what would it be? The men were at a loss for an answer, but the women knew right away: a refrigerated truck for their fish. Mas asked, “What would you want to share with us, in America?” This was not an idea they could easily grasp. What could we possibly want of theirs? After many attempts at rephrasing the question — and trying to go beyond their wish to sell us sesame seeds — the eldest farmer said, “We would like to have an equal exchange of ideas.”

On the final day, the Native American author Winona LaDuke, a defender of true wild rice and its place in Native American culture, rose to the microphone and gave a fierce speech reminding us that “whether wing, fin, or roots, all life forms are related and sacred; we are all mutually dependent on each other. Human beings share the world with thousands of other beings who have an equal right to their lives.”

Britain’s Prince Charles spoke last. “The one resource the developing world has in abundance is people, so why are we promoting systems of agriculture that negate this advantage and seem bound to contribute directly to further human misery and indignity?” he said. “Left to its own devices, I fear that globalization will, ironically, sow seeds of ever-greater poverty, disease and hunger in the cities, and the loss of viable, self-sufficient rural populations….At the end of the day, values such as sustainability, community, health, and taste are more important than pure convenience. We need to have distinctive and varied places and distinctive and varied food in order to retain, if nothing else, our sanity.”

The prince was loudly cheered. As he sat down, a wildly upbeat Romanian brass marching band began to pull dancing delegates into its wake.

IN THE WEEKS THAT FOLLOWED Terra Madre, I heard from delegates who spoke of the profundity of the experience and the work that might come from it. Ric Gaudet, a former classics scholar who grows heirloom vegetables in northern New Mexico, e-mailed that “The energy that was created there is actually a spiritual force each of us carries inside to share with our own communities. I listened to hundreds of stories with the same theme: Faced with huge obstacles from the powers that oppress, individuals and organizations are finding ways to combat those forces, and to thrive on their farms and in their communities.”

Les Harrison-Inglis, home-schooled by his northern New Mexico cheese-maker parents, came home with a fresh sense of himself as future artisan cheese maker. “Before this event, I often thought about ways of growing our family business. Now I am inspired to think in terms of ‘Slow Cheese,’ meaning to remain small and to work in our local economy.”

Some of my colleagues talk of creating regional meetings of food communities here in the U.S., and possibly in Canada and Mexico — our own NAFTA. As for me, I had been struck by an idea that Carlo Petrini expressed, that we think of ourselves not as consumers but as co-producers with small-scale agriculturalists and fishermen — a twist that makes us active rather than passive participants. Terra Madre left me with a sense of urgency to do something that would continue bringing farmers and producers together with each other and those who buy their foods. I now know why I’ve been talking to farmers all these years, saving the cards of cheese makers, visiting date growers, honey producers, bison ranchers. Somehow, I’m going to find a way to bring them together, not in a hall but on paper, where their stories and products can be known by — why not? — millions of co-producers.

DEBORAH MADISON is the author of multiple cookbooks, including Local Flavors, and the winner of the James Beard Award and the Julia Child Cookbook of the Year prize. She is a Slow Food convivia leader in Santa Fe and a board adviser to The Center for Sustainable Environments at Northern Arizona University. She lives in Santa Fe.

PABLO BALBONTIN ARENAS is a photojournalist living in Turin, Italy. His book, The Custodians of Biodiversity, was undertaken in collaboration with many international food and agriculture organizations, including the International Potato Center in Peru and Ethio-Organic Seed Action in Ethiopia.