Taking their time are (left to right) Mary Kay Hardwick, Elizabeth Kueny, Mark Hardwick, John Thiel and Rachel Saunders.
It’s 9:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning at Alameda’s Ploughshares Nursery, and Vera Ciammetti and Steve Rich are setting up an outdoor table. They fill a basket with long crispy loaves, fresh from the Feel Good Bakery oven. They slice the succulent heirloom tomatoes picked up from Dan’s Produce. They daub this impressionist’s palette of variegated shades of orange, yellow, red and green with leaves of fresh basil. They sprinkle sea salt and drizzle olive oil from one of two bottles left from a fundraiser held at Pappo. They encircle a runny, perfectly ripe Brie with organic strawberries, slice more into a bowl with blueberries and open a jar of “grown-up” strawberry and Drambuie Blue Chair jam.
Ciammetti is the founder of Slow Food Alameda. Rich is a co-founder and co-president, along with fellow Islander Mark Hardwick. This newest Bay Area chapter of Slow Food USA (until recently they were called conviviums) had its launch at Rosenblum Cellars in February. “It was a membership kick-off drive,” says Ciammetti. “We thought about 20 people would sign up. In fact, we had a turnout of 300, and 150 joined that night.” Within seven short months, the Island chapter had more members than Berkeley and East Bay, both long-established Slow Food groups.
The Rosenblum event highlighted Alameda’s deep and distinctive food roots. Many, like Ciammetti, had been living the principles and practices of Slow since long before they heard about the movement. “My parents were immigrants from Italy so I grew up with the equivalent of Slow Food. My mom made her own pasta and bread and grew vegetables and my dad made his own wine,” she recalls.
Ciammetti learned about the official Slow Food Movement about eight years ago, joined the San Francisco chapter and immediately became active as a volunteer. She took a sabbatical this year from La Tavola Verde, her Island catering company, to direct operations for Slow Food Nation, held in San Francisco the last weekend of August. From there, she would spend two months working at Slow Food International’s headquarters in Italy.
To get the local chapter off the ground, she solicited the ready support of Boys Republic social worker and avid gardener Mark Hardwick. “I was the face for a while, roping them in. Vera had the historical involvement with Slow. She didn’t know the people. I’m a local Alameda guy. Steve [Rich] as well. My wife is half Italian, and Italian is big in both Alameda and the Slow Food Movement,” he points out.
Many well-known Alameda faces who, like Ciammetti, Hardwick and Rich have long had food philosophies aligned to Slow, showed up that night in February and joined. Octogenarian culinary whiz Weezie Mott, for instance, who learned to appreciate the tenets of Slow—fresh, delicious and savored while lingering at the table—when she and her husband, Howard, lived in Italy for seven years. During her summertime cooking classes for children, “We always talk about the origins of everything,” she says. “And I encourage them to grow things in their gardens. That way they get to appreciate the challenges involved.”
Naturally Kent and Kathy Rosenblum immediately gave their support. They’ve been mixing traditional and innovative winemaking techniques to produce small-batch handcrafted wines made from vines grown in handpicked vineyards since 1978. How Slow can you go?
Beni Ratto and his wife, Anne Appel-Ratto, came in from Walnut Creek for the launch. His family farmed on Bay Farm Island (now Harbor Bay) from the early 1900s until 1985 when, forced out by eminent domain, he moved his farm to French Camp and Manteca. Since 2003 his focus has been growing and marketing organic produce through Thumbs Up Distributing.
Dan “The Produce Man” Avakian promoted the enjoyment of fresh fruit and vegetables “without any finger-wagging” on radio for seven years and continues to do it in person at his market on Central Avenue at Oak Street. His focus is quality seasonal produce, fresh from farmers in Brentwood, Fremont, Santa Cruz, Morgan Hill, Sonoma and beyond. “With urban sprawl, they’re getting further away,” he laments. Along with the produce, the Slow concept of conviviality is also alive and well at his market where people shop, compare recipes and get ideas.
“Supermarkets can’t say ‘Yesterday at this time, that peach was still on the tree’ as you can with local growers,” he points out. “The small farmers put in blood, sweat and tears to bring us really good produce. The best thing we can do—to keep the land agricultural—is support them. That way we all get rewarded.” Rosemary Reilly, Alameda Meals on Wheels program director, “read about the launch event at Rosenblum and went, eager to join. I love the Slow concept. That it encourages eating in a healthy way.” Reilly went through cancer several years ago and at the time “changed my diet. I only eat organic.” To her delight, Slow Food Alameda chose her Meals on Wheels program as one of many early fundraiser recipients: a bocce evening catered by Mona’s Table. The goal was to provide the homebound served by the organization with fresh organic fruit.
The Slow Food movement, with its snail emblem symbolizing slow and calm, had its origins in Italy, the name spawned by a protest against the opening of a McDonald’s near the Spanish Steps in Rome. The Slow manifesto, drawn up at the 1989 “Founding Conference of the International Slow Food Movement for the Defense of the Right to Pleasure,” is strong in its opposition to “the universal folly of the Fast Life” and “the multitude who mistake frenzy for efficiency” and our “enslavement by speed” that “forces us to eat Fast Foods.”
Inseparable from its “Right to Pleasure” principle, Slow Food, at its core, is a reality-based response to the breakdown of community and family life, the exploitation and degradation of the environment, spiraling ill-health directly related to bad food choices, the worst aspects of indiscriminate globalization, and other pressing political issues.
A lifestyle, a philosophy, an ideal and a political movement, the Movement champions regional food traditions, the pleasures of the table and a slower and more harmonious rhythm of life. It can be as simple as buying from farmers markets and supporting the men and women who grow in a sustainable way. Or taking the time to make a sandwich with bread brought from an artisan baker rather than grabbing and gobbling an instant fix filled with unpronounceable additives that are unrecognizable as food.
It advocates eateries whose chefs know from where and from whom their produce comes and how it is grown. They are guided by the flavors of the seasons; and they prepare fresh, delicious fare that delights the senses—all guiding Slow Food principles. Eateries, in Alameda, like Pappo, Mona’s Table, Feel Good Bakery, C’Era Una Volta and Angela’s—as well as Baron’s Meat & Poultry—are all early supporters of Slow Food Alameda.
Back to that cool and sunny Saturday and Ciammetti’s feast of Slow delights. The occasion, an educational and volunteer event, is a Ploughshares Nursery and Slow Food Alameda collaboration. About 20 members and friends have answered the call to come dig, plant and learn about fall edible gardens.
“It’s fun playing in the dirt,” says Slow Food Alameda treasurer, medical researcher Mary Kay Hardwick, wife of Mark Hardwick. She uses her hands, inside their mauve gardening gloves, to push individual fava beans into a bed of rich, moist earth. The Hardwicks have lived in Alameda since 1999. In those early days, they had to drive to Berkeley to shop for produce, says Mary Kay Hardwick. But no longer—and since Mark Hardwick became an avid gardener, their own produce inspires evening meals. “We love that the things we eat were alive and growing just minutes before.”
Beside Mary Kay Hardwick, San Francisco–based attorney Andrine Smith, an Alameda resident for 23 years, is getting down and dirty, working with bare hands and a small spade, digging holes and transplanting seedlings. She heard about Slow Food Alameda from co-founder Steve Rich and signed up right away. “He knows I love to cook. I grow herbs. My husband loves to garden.”
Rita Nesel, meanwhile—retired from the U.S. Coast Guard and an avid volunteer—is packing soil around a large shrub she’s just relocated. Soon after joining Slow, the Alameda resident of 27 years planted her yard with water-tolerant plants and put in tomatoes for the first time. “I like the whole concept of slowing down,” she says. “And I love (Slow Food International’s Italian founder and president) Carlo Petrini’s book and philosophy.” That food must be good (delicious and healthful), clean (produced sustainably in ways that respect the environment) and fair (with respect for social justice).
“Eating fresh is not enough, says Nesel. “How things are grown makes a difference.” Plus she loves that Slow Food Alameda is creating community. “Anything that puts people together so they don’t drive into their garages, go inside and shut the door, is good.” A focus on the task at hand; a group of Islanders with a common bond; and once the work is done, there will be brunch.
See what’s going on at Slow Food Alameda at slowfoodalameda.blogspot.com.