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Educating taste 

Slow Food an antidote to the mania of sameness

The capacity of taste to initiate extraordinary feeling and memory experiences, to deepen appreciation of life's complexity and to enliven the personal sense of beingness is fast vanishing from our world. Here in Atlanta, Julie Shaffer, a high school art teacher and former caterer, is out to help change that.

Shaffer has founded a local chapter, a "convivium," of Slow Food, an international organization founded in Italy in 1986. In that year, McDonald's opened a restaurant at the base of the Spanish Steps in Rome's Piazza di Spagna. Carlos Petrini, a journalist and foodie, was outraged by the ugly neon, the repulsive smells wafting over the historic square and, of course, the sacrifice of taste to speed and convenience represented by the golden arches. He organized, got the restaurant to at least remove its neon and ended up founding Slow Food.

Today, Slow Food is a fast-growing organization. In convivia in 35 countries, members meet to taste and to support artisan producers of endangered or little known products and ingredients. One of its best-known projects is the Ark of Taste, which promotes "eco-gastronomy." The Ark is a list of endangered foods -- Firki apples from Greece, lentils from Abruzzi, Ligurian potatoes and a particular homebrew in New York. The group tries to promote these products through the media, but also becomes more proactive through arranging actual financial support for small producers, too.

Although very few restaurateurs in Atlanta have associated directly with the Slow Food movement, a few already practice the principles. Such restaurants attempt only to use seasonal ingredients from local producers. They always have something on the menu that is a bit challenging. And, of course, they let diners take their time at the table -- meaning they usually take reservations and frequently have only a couple of seatings a night. The most active example in Atlanta, certainly, would be Bacchanalia and its retail operation Star Provisions (along with its sister restaurant, Floataway Cafe). Seeger's would be the other notable example.

Shaffer has planned the Atlanta convivium's first event, "The Pleasure of Taste," during Eating Disorders Awareness Week. It will take place Feb. 26 from 7-9 p.m. at Andaluz Restaurant, 903 Peachtree St. Cost is $15 and you can register by calling Shaffer at 404-377-6022.

The very fact that Shaffer has planned Atlanta's introduction to Slow Food during a week devoted to learning about eating disorders says a lot about the organization.

"Honestly," she said to me in a recent meeting, "I think part of the problem we are dealing with as a society now is the idea that some foods are good and some are bad, sinful ... "

"And this," I interrupted, "in turn keeps people from tasting all sorts of foods, which in turn standardizes the awful cuisine with bland, direct flavors that predominates in America today. But it also sets people up to binge."

"Exactly," she said. "And I would go so far as to say that food has become the expression of sin that sex used to be. It's where we act out and feel guilty -- the whole cycle that used to be associated with immorality and sex. This cycle, the eating disorder, is an expression of that. The solution isn't to stop eating delicious food, but to learn how to savor food. Food as evil has become the subject of puritanical people. "

She is so right. In this country we are very much living in a puritanical mythology about taste, canonized by the medical field itself. Nutritionists now routinely promulgate the idea that the taste for sweetness and fat is learned, when in fact we know that even fetuses prefer sweet tastes. We also know that bitterness is instinctively avoided, meaning that the taste for it has to be learned.

"It's probably not a coincidence," I said, "that areas of the world that are comparatively comfortable with the body are also fascinated with good food and are much more adventurous in what they eat."

"Yes, and they aren't preoccupied with the fat content of every bite, either," Shaffer said. "They diet by eating less, not by starving themselves like they are on a religious fast."

For myself, the way taste relates to our psychological well-being is particularly fascinating.

"The fact that we don't dine together as families anymore is one expression of how fragmented our lives have become," Shaffer said. "The way we don't eat locally grown food shows how we've lost our sense of place. The fast food expresses our general mania, obsession with speed."

In my own view, the greatest sacrifice is the loss of curiosity and the adventurous spirit. Neurologists have demonstrated that the more one samples different flavors, the more "templates" one creates for appreciating diversity in taste -- so that sweetness played against bitterness, for example, becomes appealing. I wonder if this doesn't make taste a door to appreciating diversity in life generally. Certainly, one function of fast food is to standardize and homogenize.

Shaffer stresses that Slow Food is not for "food snobs."

"That would really oppose the principle here, which is to educate taste, to broaden experience, not to limit it to a small priesthood."

She is planning more events, from tastings to participation in the organic foods conference in Augusta later this month. Call her at the number above to get involved.

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