Slow Food movement gains momentum in Aspen, the valley |

Slow Food movement gains momentum in Aspen, the valley

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Karen GlennTom Passavant, co-president of Slow Foods Roaring Fork/Aspen.

ASPEN – The Slow Food movement was born as a protest. Rome was about to see its first McDonald’s outlet, in the Piazza di Spagna, right near the famed Spanish Steps, and a group led by food journalist Carlo Petrini voiced its displeasure by chanting, “We don’t want fast food; we want slow food.”

In some versions of the story, the words were accompanied by handfuls of pasta, splattered on McDonald’s windows.

Twenty-three years later and a continent away, the movement has taken on a more inviting stance. Tom Passavant, a former Playboy writer and editor and the co-president of Slow Food Roaring Fork/Aspen, doesn’t aim to shut down fast food outlets or intimidate their customers. A friendly 61-year-old with curly, brown-gray hair, Passavant would rather spend his energy celebrating the successful growing of certain foods on the Western Slope – “Artichokes! We’re growing artichokes!” he gushes – than dumping McDonald’s French fries in the Roaring Fork River.

“We’re a positive group. We’re not so much against things; we’re for things,” said Passavant of the 61-member local Slow Food chapter, which he has been co-leading since 2004, a year after it was founded by a group that includes current co-president, Joyce Falcone. “We’re distinguished by our emphasis on the pleasures of the table, eating real food with your friends, and enjoying that.”

Passavant, a Carbondale resident who has lived full-time in the valley since 2001, is upbeat that the Slow Food message – about the importance (and deliciousness) of fresh foods, grown locally, in a manner that considers the health of the earth and the human body – is being effectively spread. Books such as Eric Schlosser’s “Fast Food Nation” and Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” are mainstream reading. Michelle Obama’s planting of an organic garden outside the White House was headline news. And thanks to “Julie and Julia,” the current film hit film about cooking, Julia Childs’ 1961 classic “Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume 1,” a book that celebrates such real foods as butter, cream and veal, sold 22,000 copies last week.

The food movement is taking hold away from the pop-culture level as well. Passavant points to the U.S. farm bill, the annual piece of legislation that has enormous influence over American agriculture and, hence, the American diet. “The farm bill used to be written by five senators in a dark closet somewhere with nobody paying attention,” he said. “Now they’re being forced to pay attention by advocates of local, sustainable food.”

Passavant adds his voice from three local platforms this week. He is among the speakers at the Moving Mountains Symposium on Food, taking place Friday. The event, part of the inaugural MountainSummit festival, is set for 10 a.m. at the Aspen Institute’s Doerr-Hosier Center. Also as part of MountainSummit, Passavant will lead a walking tour of the Aspen Saturday Market on Saturday morning, at 8:30 a.m.

On Monday, Slow Food Roaring Fork/Aspen throws its sixth annual Harvest Social at Restaurant Six89 in Carbondale. The dinner features guest chefs Frank Bonanno of Denver’s Mizuna, Shane Coffey of Lu Lu Wilson, Chris Keating of the Hotel Jerome and Six89’s owner, Mark Fischer, and executive chef, Bryce Orblom. The menu of local ingredients includes a lamb dish, veggies with a dipping sauce of oil and anchovies, a dessert of donut bread pudding with butterscotch sauce – and “lots of tomatoes,” said Passavant.

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Passavant’s working life began with a different breed of tomatoes. In 1972, at the age of 23 and having graduated from Northwestern University’s graduate school of journalism, he landed a job at Playboy, in its Chicago headquarters. The circulation of the magazine at the time was seven million centerfolds. “Just unbelievable, the things I got to see and do,” Passavant says of the experience, clarifying that he is referring [mostly] to the top-quality editing and writing experience.

He left Chicago for New York, where he spent 15 years as editor in chief of Diversions, a travel and lifestyle magazine aimed at physicians. It was another great job, as Passavant got to pick virtually any destination, any resort, any leisure trend he thought worthy of inclusion in the magazine. As often as not, his choices had to do with food, wine, restaurants and gardening. In 2001 he took an early retirement and headed to Aspen, where he had been spending time since the late ’70s.

Passavant’s post-retirement identity has been shaped in good part by discovering Slow Food. “It’s the same story you hear from Slow Food people around the country: When we first heard about it, we read its mission and said, That’s exactly me. That is me,” he said. “It’s not an organization where you tie into one issue, like Save the Whales of Vote for Obama. It touched our whole lives. We said, ‘Those are our values. That’s what I believe in. The things they’re trying to do are the things I want to be a part of.'”

The local chapter of Slow Food – which Passavant calls an “eco-gastronomic organization” – has put plenty on its plate in its six years. It has built and manages a garden at the Aspen public schools campus. The group has led the effort to bring back the local Red McClure potato variety; it found the species at an agricultural resource center in the San Luis Valley in south-central Colorado, and distributed a thousand pounds of the potato to growers around the region. Although it might take several years to see if the variety takes hold on a large scale, Slow Food will feature the Red McClure at the 100th annual Potato Days next month in Carbondale. “It’s our potato. It’s our valley’s potato,” said Passavant.

Future goals for Slow Food Roaring Fork/Aspen include building a wood-burning bread oven at the former Carbondale Elementary School. Further ahead, they would like to install year-round greenhouse gardens at every school in the valley.

“A greenhouse in every school – that would be so cool,” said Passavant. “Imagine, if you grow a generation of kids who know where their food comes from, they’ll be good food citizens. They’ll be connected to good food their whole lives.”

Like Michael Pollan in his 2006 study “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” Passavant believes that the starting point on the road to a healthier alternative to America’s industrial-scale food system is raising that question: Where does our food come from? From there, issues of freshness, sustainability and economics naturally follow.

Issues like the barrels of fossil fuels required to grow and transport mountains of Iowa corn, and the link between those corn mountains and America’s obesity epidemic can make the Slow Food movement seem heavy. Passavant approaches it without a lighter hand. Calling himself an “incrementalist, trying to change the world one meal at a time,” he says he’s fine with buying rice from Thailand over the Internet, if the rice is especially good, and his purchase supports a Thai farmer. (He had no problem with a $10 steak asada that was almost certainly not grass-fed and antibiotic-free at lunch in Aspen this week. “It tastes just the way Mexicans cook it,” was his thumbs-up review.) The enjoyment of food is paramount for Passavant.

“As it happens – thank you, Mother Nature – food that’s local tastes better,” he said. “It’s been grown for flavor, not transportability. It hasn’t lost so much of its nutritional value being shipped from who-knows-where.”

As for the charge that the Slow Food movement is elitist, that a food system that focuses on fresh and local ingredients is economically skewed toward the well-off, Passavant says that defies the history of food and the goals of the movement. Passavant points out his grandmother, an Italian peasant who immigrated to Ohio. She is basically the model for how Passavant wants to eat.

“She tried to create the food life she knew back in Abruzzo,” he said. “So I’m always amused by people accusing foodies of being elitist. Because all we’re trying to do is, in a modern sense, eat the food my grandmother ate back in the old country.”

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