Life In The Slow Lane

In August 2005 I made my first visit to the United States to attend a friend’s wedding in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but also used the opportunity to meet members of Slow Food USA along the way. I had just started researching my Slow Food book and had made some preliminary enquiries to make ‘slow’ stops at various points. I was travelling with my friend Hugh Tisdale, the founder and designer of the philosophy football shirt company, who had travelled across the US 25 years earlier on a motor bike. He was driving and my job was to navigate, something I anticipated with trepidation.

Nine days was all we had and in a whirlwind tour of the land of fast food we would eventually complete 2,468 miles, thanks to Hugh’s expert driving rather than my dubious navigating. For Britain, the US has become the archetypal fast lane of modern life. I had just finished Victoria de Grazia’s Irresistible Empire: America’s Advance Through Twentieth Century Europe, which had explained how the American ‘service ethic’ and consumer society had now become hegemonic throughout Europe.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, the origins of the American Slow Food movement can be traced to the counter culture of the 1960s and 1970s with Alice Waters, the former Berkeley student and owner of Chez Panisse, its leading figure. However, what was more surprising was that this ‘quiet slow revolution’ was taking off in the more unlikely backwaters of so-called Middle America, those places of average income and conservative values, not previously renowned for dissent.

As we journeyed from Massachusetts across New York State, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and finally into Wisconsin, we were confronted by another US, free from monotonous highways, multiplex fast food stores and cinemas and decaying shopping malls. Instead we encountered high hills and hidden valleys, seasonal fruit and vegetables sold at the roadside and a great passion for local food and farming. We also came across some unusual characters and were reacquainted with some deep-rooted radical traditions.

This was apparent at our first stop, in Concord, Massachusetts. From 1845 to 1847, Henry D. Thoreau lived at nearby Walden Pond, with the purpose, as he put it, ‘to front only the essential facts of life’. He built himself a log cabin and spent his time mainly in solitude, firstly building his house, then observing nature, reading, fishing, and many hours thinking and writing about the superficiality of the emerging industrial order. Thoreau was one of the earliest critics of consumerism and his call to ‘simplify, simplify’ has many contemporary resonances. Concord was also one of the first battlefields in the American Revolution in April 1775, when invading British soldiers were repelled by local militia, a fact that we were gleefully reminded of more than once by our hosts.

Still avoiding the highways, we travelled from Massachusetts through New York State, with just enough time to admire the craftsmanship of a Shaker Village, and on through the backroads until we fell upon a small town deep in the hills, one hour west of Albany. It was called Cherry Valley and offered peaceful bed and breakfast within walking distance of the Rose and Kettle restaurant for dinner. We were delighted to discover that the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg bought an 80-acre farm nearby in July 1968. A month later, after a tense stand-off with armed police at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Ginsberg pacified the crowd by leading a seven-hour, Hindu-inspired ‘Om’ chant. After all his exertions, he must have found the relaxed climate of Cherry Valley a welcome retreat.

Cleveland, Ohio, was the next stop, a ‘self-deprecating’ city, according to Michael Fleming, an international relations graduate-turned-chef. The race riots of 1966 had left deep scars but it was now on the up and had a ‘Director of Sustainability’ and a very committed organic and local food culture. Fleming was one of our fellow guests at the home of the local Slow Food convivium, run by local TV presenter Fred Griffin and his wife Linda, a food writer who served a superlative meal of local sweetcorn, a rare breed of pork and blueberry pie. The next day, we were shown around the city by Kari Moore, an organic food activist who introduced us to Maurice Small, an idealistic 40-something dreadlocked farmer who ran a city farm staffed by local kids. The previous October he had been to Terra Madre, a ‘life-changing’ experience in his words.

The penultimate stop before we reached Wisconsin was Chicago, though at this point my indifferent navigating reached its nadir as we entered the city at night on the right street but on the wrong (south) side and had to beat a hasty retreat to avoid some menacing locals. The following day was altogether more peaceful and Joel Smith, a broker by day and food enthusiast by night, began a memorable tour with ‘brunch’ at The Breakfast Club, before a visit to another city farm, this time with the Chicago skyline in the background.

After a few more missed turnings on my part, we were relieved to arrive at Milwaukee in one piece, too late to enjoy a pre-wedding feast of Kopp’s Frozen Custard, but in time for drinks on the river in anticipation of the next day’s big event. After surviving the initial shock of Hugh and myself turning out in almost identical linen suits, Alan and Katy’s wedding went off very well and we were soon back on the road.

Now on the return journey, our next stop was for Sunday lunch deep in the Wisconsin hills at Fountain Prairie Farm, outside of Fall River. Here John and Dorothy Priske, told me about the revolution they believed in, one ‘fought not with guns but butter’, as John put it. Five years before they had undergone what Dorothy called their ‘epiphany’ and rejected industrial agriculture and converted to the organic lifestyle. Their pride and joy was their shaggy, red-haired Scottish Highland cattle, a heritage breed at risk whose long term future depended on the kind of delicious Sunday lunches we enjoyed here.

The return journey was more frenetic and most of it was spent on the highways. However, we managed to fit in a long lunch at the Emerald Diner, a converted 1939 railway carriage in the town of Hubbard in Ohio. When we occasionally got onto the minor roads of Pennsylvania we had the pleasant distraction of being held up on several occasions by a different kind of carriage; the distinctive Amish horse-drawn buggies. The final stopover before we reached New York, was a remote bed and breakfast in the town of Bloomsburg. Our host was a Vietnam War veteran and his hideaway cottage was decorated with memorabilia of his time as a fighter pilot. For two old lefties it was a question of ‘Don’t mention the war’, as we enjoyed a last breakfast of local fruit, fresh muffins and strong coffee, before making our final journey into the Big Apple.

Taken from the magazine Slowfood (36)

Geoff Andrews is the author of The Slow Food Story: Politics and Pleasure, recently published by Pluto Press in the UK and McGill-Queens University Press in North America.

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