Trailing Alice Waters through a Marin County garden, watching her gather fragrant pea blossoms and lemon verbena, it is easy to believe the tide is turning against America's mac-and-cheese culture.
In the wealthy rural enclave of Bolinas, Calif., there are no Starbucks or Wal-Marts. It is home to uber-eco rancher Bill Niman; small farms are nestled into hillsides; the shelves of the co-op are stocked with local, organic greens.
Yet Waters knows that to the east lies a nation starved for time, bloated with fast food and mostly ignorant of her effort to make people think more about where, how and by whom their food is produced.
Still, the grand dame of the so-called "slow food" movement sees evidence of progress nationwide: Bustling farmers markets. Bans on trans fats. Greater awareness of food sources, albeit driven by waves of food contamination scares.
"All kinds of things are going on that are pushing people into this slow food place," she says.
Mainstreaming the message
Even, perhaps, slow food itself. After years of lurking, barely a shadow of its European counterpart, Slow Food USA is about to make its first major foray into the U.S. cultural and political scenes. Tens of thousands of people are expected to attend Slow Food Nation over Labor Day weekend in San Francisco, a Woodstock-like festival and symposium meant to underscore the connection between planet and plate.
It's the first serious test of whether Slow Food — a philosophy born in Europe and often hobbled by a snob factor — can evolve into a movement capable of altering the appetite of the average American.
"We don't want (the slow food movement) to be about celebrity chefs and fancy restaurants," Waters says.
To that end, organizers have worked hard to mainstream their message, offering forums highlighting everyday and heirloom foods from the South and Southwest, as well as discussions about eating well on a budget.
There even is a partnership with the Food Network, which is planting a mini-garden for children within a larger "victory garden" on display at San Francisco City Hall for the festival.
The network is using the garden — and the Slow Food event as a whole — to announce the launch of a series of sustainable schoolyard gardens it will build around the nation, an effort first hatched by Waters 14 years ago and carried on today by her Chez Panisse Foundation.
Something newSlow food is terra nova for the network, and much of the nation, says Carrie Welch, a spokeswoman for the network, which caters to those seeking the fun, fast and entertaining side of food. "This is something very new for a lot of people in the mainstream."
If Slow Food remains just the fascination of the well-to-do gourmet set, it will fail to get the social traction enjoyed by its European counterpart, which was born during the late 1980s out of despair over the fast fooding of Italy.
But if Waters and other organizers can persuade the home cooks who hang on Rachael Ray's every EVOO to care about where and how their food is produced before it becomes a 30-minute meal, the changes could be seismic.
Waters knows it's a mountainous if. Americans resent paying more for food, even for higher quality, she says.
"This food gets lumped into, 'It's only for the people who want to pay the price,'" Waters says. "But you know, people are willing to pay it on Nike shoes and cell phones and God knows what else they'll pay it on.
"They don't see that if you don't pay up front, you pay out back: You're going to pay in your health, and in the loss of your culture and in the pleasure of your life."
Fighting fast foodAt its core, Slow Food is a pushback against fast food, a response to the industrialization of eating and an effort to refocus on local, artisanal and heritage foods. It is meant to foster concern about where food comes from, how it is produced, who is producing it and how they are treated while doing so.
"For me it means really bringing people to those difficult ideas of biodiversity and sustainability through the pleasure of the table," Waters says.
In the garden, Waters had picked a bouquet of flowers and herbs and had pressed them, one by one, into a reporter's hands, then arranged them in a drinking glass borrowed from her celebrated restaurant, Chez Panisse in Berkeley.
"You smell these flowers and lemon verbena and basil — it's intoxicating," she says, with a wave to the bouquet now on the table of a cottage she is borrowing for a vacation. "You don't need the rhetoric. You just need the plate of food."
Waters makes it sound easy, but the space to contemplate these ideals is a rare commodity for most people. Who has time to hunt down heirloom tomatoes grown within a day's drive? And can this movement break out of the Bolinas-to-Berkeley belt? Slow Food International is booming in Europe, but just 16,000 people have signed on in the U.S.
"It can't really be defined by the number of people giving their money," Waters says. "But there are many, many people engaged in this kind of thinking, and that's what really counts."
A White House garden?And she continues to think big, still pressing for her longstanding dream of a vegetable garden at the White House.
At a fundraiser for Barack Obama last month, with wife Michelle Obama in attendance, Waters spoke about urging President Clinton early in his presidency to install such a plot on the South Lawn.
It didn't work, but the idea lives on. According to Waters, thousands of people have signed a petition recently urging the leading 2008 candidates to commit to a "first garden." She hasn't secured a commitment yet.
"Back then (in the Clinton years) I just felt like a lone voice, but now people are talking about this idea of a vegetable garden on the White House lawn," she says. "It's the symbolism of it, it's stewardship, caring about what people eat."