Gazing over the muddy brown expanse that the abating snows finally revealed in mid-March, it has been hard for me to imagine the lush greenery and flavorful bounty that our gardens will yield in just a few short months. But even by the time you read these words, radishes and spinach will have sprouted again. The curly tendrils of spring’s first sweet peas will be stretching, aching for a grip on a trellis and an arc of precious sunlight. The warmth will return, as it always does, and with it the promise of a table full of delicious food surrounded by the people we love.
It is an old word: convivial. It comes from Latin and refers literally to “living together.” We are drawn to conviviality by our very human nature, our need for companionship and warmth. Yet in today’s fast-paced, technology-driven, I-get-mine-first world, we regularly sacrifice that which made us human in the first place, that which built our society—our fundamental need for food and the camaraderie that was born of that need.
Next month, May 3rd to be precise, I’ve been asked by Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield to speak at their annual EcoFair on this very topic. Now some may think this may be simply an acknowledgement that one can only hear so much bad news about climate change and pollution, and that attendees to an environmental conference need a change of pace from wind-energy lectures. Quite to the contrary, this year’s EcoFair is entirely centered on the subject of food and its impact on society, both locally and globally. Above my name on the marquee will be luminaries such as renowned cookbook author Deborah Madison and also Sherri Brooks Vinton, who wrote The Real Food Revival.
Essential in the weekend’s festivities is the message that food’s impact on our lives goes well beyond our waistlines. Not only does industrial food production have enormous impacts on our environment and detrimental impacts on our health, it removes us—Happy Meal by Happy Meal —from the vital connection we make between each other and our bond with the earth.
So many of us feel trapped now in a society which, as the original “Slow Food Manifesto” once matter-of-factly said, “first invented the machine and then took it as its life-model.” This, it continues, leads to a “contagion of the multitude that mistakes frenzy for efficiency.” People too often treat their bodies, and those of their families, in much the same way they treat their cars: drive up, fuel up, take off. If we truly are what we eat, and I believe that we are, then that means that too many of us are fast, cheap, and easy. Perhaps more importantly, it means that who owns your food owns you.
There is something so vital, so spiritual, so essential to gathering around a table with our friends and loved ones. It is why nearly all religions have rites centered on food; why so many holidays are celebrated with a feast of a home-cooked meal. There need to be stronger connections between each of us, something that gathering around a table can almost always accomplish, and we feel that in our very cores.
At the EcoFair in Fairfield next month, let us endeavor to create conviviality; to make more of those connections, not the least of which is the connection between the environmental activists and the food activists. So much of one depends upon the other. Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini once famously said, “A gastronome who is not also an environmentalist is an idiot. An environmentalist who is not also a gastronome is, well, sad.
Kurt Michael Friese is Chef Emeritus and co-owner (with his wife, Kim) of Devotay in Iowa City, serves on the Slow Food USA Board of Directors, and is Editor-in-Chief of the magazine Edible Iowa River Valley. He lives in rural Johnson County. Questions and comments may be directed to Devotay@mchsi.com.