Slow Food USA President Josh Viertel talks culinary culture

Photo by Aube Rey Lescure.

By Maria Yagoda

Q. How does it feel to come back to New Haven and see the ways in which the Yale Sustainable Food Project — which you spearheaded — has grown and become a part of the culture?

A. I was just talking to a girl, Zoe. She came up to me to say thank you, and that it was so great to have a place to go where she could get her hands dirty and cook food with people. It struck me that when I was in school, I didn’t have any place to do that. When I came to Yale, I really wanted to create a place where students didn’t have to fight to do that. At Harvard I had to talk the Biology Department out of a greenhouse so I could grow some food for myself. I was constantly at risk of being evicted. And instead, there’s this student coming up to me and saying that she has an outlet where she can study really hard, do her work, but can also go up and do physical work with friends, cook food, share meals, and just be engaged with the world in a different way. Seeing that for me is incredibly moving.

Q. You mentioned empathy during your Master’s Tea. In what ways do you think food movements are empathetic?

A. I think food is a window into empathy. Slow Food is like a gateway drug for civic engagement, environmentalism, for changing the world, because when you share food with people you see what you have in common. Food becomes a vehicle for understanding each other and for dealing with issues of race, class, oppression, and gender. Food can be healing in that way. We need to be a movement that embodies empathy, in that we can’t be a movement just for people who can afford to buy the solutions to the problems. We need to be a movement that has solutions for everybody. That kind of movement is an empathetic movement.

Q: Do you ever find yourself eating food that doesn’t reflect your principles?

A. We have members in every state, and I’m on the road a lot. So I spend a lot of time in airports, and I get stuck. It’s really hard for me. It’s hard not because I’m trying to take a moral high ground necessarily, but just because I know the story. Once you know the story behind the food you don’t really have a moral high ground anymore, it’s just distasteful to eat tomatoes picked by people working in abusive situations, or beef that is mashed together with 100 different animals in one hamburger. It’s just not appetizing. It’s really hard to find appetizing food once you know the stories. Sometimes I break down. I tend to steer clear of meat. I try to steer clear of super-processed foods. I’m lucky that when I land, I’m generally on the way to a great meal with great people.

Q. Have you ever considered being a vegetarian?

A. I have never considered being a vegetarian. But I’ve really changed the way I think about eating meat. I love eating meat because I think it tastes great. But also because I love the way animal agriculture, when done right, can subsist off the land. The combination of loving to eat it, and believing in it done well, makes me not a vegetarian. That said, I think we eat way too much meat, nationally and globally.

Q. Are you ever discouraged by the vastness of injustice in America’s food system?

A. It’s sometimes discouraging to try to change the world. What tends to lift me up is other people and seeing the work they do. Seeing people overcome incredible odds to feed their kids real food, or get a garden in their kid’s public school. There are literally millions of people in the country who want to see the way we grow and share food to be drastically different than the way it is, in a way that’s good for farmers, good for the environment, and good for us. They don’t all have an easy pathway to do that. And I feel like my work, and our work at Slow Food U.S.A, is to create that pathway. There’s a sort of urgency that motivates me.

Q. What do you think of the Occupy Wall Street Movement? Do you see it as any way linked to the Slow Food movement?

A. I think that Occupy Wall Street is linked in an obvious way. Specific corporations that have near monopolistic control over how food works in this country, whether it’s milk or beef or poultry or processed food, need to be held accountable. If you look at what Occupy Wall Street is asking for, there’s actually quite a bit about food and the food system. In that way I feel like the movements are tied. This is something that’s growing up out of people’s desires to see things change in a very grassroots, very authentic way.

Q. What’s your favorite dish to make this time of year?

A. I love roasting chicken. It’s maybe my favorite dish anytime of year: sliding some sage leaves under the skin of a really good chicken, roasting it at a really high temperature with whatever root vegetables are around at the moment, potatoes, parsnips you can start digging now, carrots. I love salad in the fall, particularly with greens like escarole, radicchio and frisée. Or if you take kale and slice it up real thin with lemon juice on it. Fall salads with roasted chicken. That might be my favorite thing right now. It really depends on what’s in the garden.

Via Yale Daily News

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