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The Slow Food Movement in Mexico

Karen Hursh Graber

Just about anyone who has read cooking columns, culinary magazines or cookbooks in recent years has come upon the term "slow food" or "the Slow Food movement." But what exactly is the Slow Food movement and how does it apply to Mexico, which has been chosen as the host country for this year's International Slow Food Congress? (The Congress will be held in Puebla from November 8-11.)

Slow Food is a worldwide, non-profit, member-supported eco-gastronomic organization dedicated to the preservation of regional foods, the culinary arts, and interest in the food we eat, where it comes from, and how our food choices affect the rest of the world. In light of the recent health scares over food imported from China and other countries, this is particularly relevant now. Here in Mexico, many of the same foods causing alarm in the U. S. are also being imported, largely through the American supermarket chains that have exploded onto the commercial scene.

The Slow Food movement was begun in Italy in the late 1980s by Carlo Petrini, who was inspired to unite with others interested in preserving the integrity and purity of regional foods in the face of an international onslaught of fast food chains. The particular incident that raised Petrini's awareness that something had to be done to counteract the fast-food epidemic was the opening of a McDonald's franchise in Rome's Piazza di Spagna. (Reading about this brought to mind a more recent news story, here in Mexico, in which artist Francisco Toledo successfully led a movement to protest the opening of a McDonald's in Oaxaca's historic zócalo, or central plaza. Toledo and volunteers gave out free tamales to all attending the rally.)

Today, Slow Food International has over 85,000 members, with branches, called convivia, in fifty countries. In Mexico, several prominent chefs, including Margarita Salinas, chef to the Mexican Ministry of Agriculture, and Alicia Gironella De'Angeli, author of the Larousse de la Cocina Mexicana, are members of Slow Food International.

One of the organization's objectives is saving traditional grains, vegetables and animal breeds from extinction by industrial agrobusiness. The Australian film Slow Food Revolution shows how Mexican farming communities have revived ancient ways of cultivating vanilla and amaranth, two important indigenous products. (In a previous edition of this column, it was pointed out that the return to traditional methods of coffee production has resulted in a far superior product in Mexico's highlands, ironically because the farmers no longer had money for chemical fertilizers and pesticides.)

Another Slow Food objective is taste education, helping people understand the importance of how their food is produced. This aspect of the Slow Food movement has given rise to the development of school gardens, where children grow the produce that is served at school lunches instead of the trans fat-laced food to which many have become accustomed. Last year the New York Times published an article that focused on a town along the Mexico-Texas border where the disturbing fact is that the predicted life span of children under eighteen is now shorter than that of their parents; this is largely due to the fast-food diet served both in school and after school. Slow Food aims to counteract this trend through education and awareness, especially important in Mexico, which has an increasingly high rate of diabetes among young people.

This year's congress in Puebla, the first to be held in a non-European country, will convene 700 delegates from all over the world. According to a statement released by the Slow Food International press office, "The choice of Mexico as a venue is strategic and will constitute the launch, both symbolic and actual, of the international network built since 2004 through Terra Madre." (Terra Madre is a world meeting of food communities, a "food community" being the term used by Slow Food members to identify a community connected to a specific geographical area from a historical, social, economic and cultural point of view.)

We recently spoke with Ana Bredée, a Mexico City native who represented Mexico last year at Terra Madre in Turin, Italy, and who will participate in this month's International Congress in Puebla. Chef Bredée is the proprietor, with Gerhard Schnejder, originally of Austria, of Pallawatsch, a restaurant in San Andres Cholula, Puebla. The word "pallawatsch" is Austrian slang for a little bit of everything, and that's exactly what is produced in Chef Bredée's kitchen. The two keep an international holiday calendar, which often inspires the dishes served on any given day. Mexican specialties, along with Indian curries and Hungarian goulash, are among the many different offerings one is apt to find at Pallawatsch. All of them are prepared with ingredients that are as fresh, seasonal, and as local as possible.

Chef Bredée came to the restaurant business via a route that took her from Mexico to England, France and the U.S. She studied in Aguascalientes and Philadelphia, ran a catering business in Aguascalientes, and went to Italy after a friend in Mexico told her about the Slow Food movement.

We asked Chef Bredée about the viability of the Slow Food movement in Mexico and what people can do to obtain the best and healthiest ingredients. The following are some of her observations and answers.

MXC: Mexico's obesity rate is growing nearly as fast as that of the U.S., and the diabetes rate even faster. What can people in Mexico do to contain this disastrous growth?
Bredée: Unfortunately, because of the corporate media, fast food is regarded in Mexico as a sign of status, not as much with the wealthy as with the middle class. Today shopping centers in Mexico nearly all have food courts, filled with franchises of fast food chains. The taste for good food is valued mostly by the upper classes. The Mexican public needs to be educated about the reality of the people who produce and cook the food.

MXC: One of the concepts stressed by the Slow Food movement is buying food that has been produced locally. Farmers markets and greenmarkets are popping up all over the world, but here in Mexico, all the produce goes through the Central de Abastos, so we really have no way of knowing where it came from originally. How can we try to find food that has been produced as locally as possible?
Bredée: Yes, it's true that the produce grown in any given area is trucked to a Central de Abastos, where it is sold to wholesalers from all over, who then take it to be sold in a local market. But this only applies to the food that is sold in the indoor municipal markets. The food at the tianguis (outdoor weekly or biweekly local markets) is likely to be locally grown, often by the people who are selling it. (Editor's note: The largest Central de Abastos is in Mexico City, and there are others in Guadalajara and Monterrey. The term abastos is from a Spanish word meaning "source" and the abastos system has been in effect since Colonial times.) Another thing people can do is to form local networks. Home cooks as well as chefs can get together and source products from local farmers. Bioasasoría in Puebla is an example of an organization that puts people in touch with local sources that are environmentally sound.

MXC: Mexico has the largest per capita consumption of Coca Cola in the world and, by the 1970s, junk food had spread to even the most remote villages. What can be done to educate Mexican children about nutrition and the dangers of the fast food and junk food that are being consumed?
Bredée: A lot of it needs to start in the schools. The public school near where I live has lots of junk food wrappers outside, because this is what is sold at the school snack bar. Selling healthier food would be great, but it has to start with educating the staff as well as the parents. Every school has an Asociación de Padres de Familia (Parents' Association) and a good place to start would be to have nutritionists and health professionals talk to them at some of their meetings.

MXC: You are a member of the Slow Food convivial here in Puebla. What are they doing at a local level to try to maintain Mexican culinary traditions, which are by no means "fast" but, on the contrary, have been called "artisanal"?
Bredée: We are trying to preserve the recipes and techniques that might be lost one day without passing them on. For example, at the last gathering, women from the village of San Migual Canoa came to show us how their local mole is made. If we don't collect and save these recipes, they will eventually be lost. The same goes for the ingredients themselves. This is why one of the aims of the Slow Food movement is to save the traditional ingredients that are disappearing due to things like irresponsible farming and genetic modification.

MXC: Many thanks for your time and for sharing a couple of recipes with Mexconnect's readers.

Ensalada Cholulterranea: Cholula Style Vegetable Salad

Chimichangas Nueva Galicia: Chicken Chimichangas


In Spanish

Published or Updated on: October 31, 2007 by Karen Hursh Graber © 2007
Contact Karen Hursh Graber

Follow Karen as she travels through the Central Mexican state of Puebla, meeting local cooks, tasting the food, and collecting recipes. With over 75 recipes, plus sections on ingredients and cooking techniques, the book takes the reader on a journey through one of Mexico's oldest and most renowned culinary regions. It can be ordered online.

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