Food conference

TERRA MADRE: Slow Food International's Carlo Petrini opens the gathering. (Salone e Terra Madre)

Around the Oval Lingotto, the massive sports complex built to host some of the events at the 2006 Winter Olympics, the buses were moving at a glacial pace. But last week it was 6,000 farmers, fishermen and food artisans from more than 132 countries that had descended upon the halls of the Palasport Olimpico, and they were here to discuss the future of the world's food supply. This was the Terra Madre conference -- a gathering of those who swear by the Slow Food International manifesto -- held every two years in conjunction with the Salone del Gusto, the largest artisanal food fair in the world.

The conference, billed as an informal opportunity for "peasants" from around the world to converge and discuss common issues with the global food system, opened with addresses by Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini, notable food activists Vandana Shiva and Alice Waters, and a bevy of Italian officials, as well as a prerecorded video message from Prince Charles.

For me and the rest of my American cohorts, the conference came at the harrowing juncture of a critical American election and a burgeoning worldwide financial crisis. What emerged for us coming into this conference was the question of how relevant this event would be, given these crazy times. It was not a question lost on Terra Madre's organizers -- Slow Food leaders who aim to bring together an international network of communities to fight the abandonment of traditional food culture and the homogenization of the world's table.

An inspired premise, to be sure, but critics think the movement (in the U.S., especially) has devolved into a now-clichéd food faction for the well-heeled, wine-swishing crowd. We were curious to see how the conference would address the need for a Slow Food makeover, and how we ourselves could rethink its ideals.

In First World nations, Slow Food has relied on a trickle-down method to change the way we eat: The wealthy demand organic and fair-trade products, mainstream grocers begin to stock them, and this access slowly begins to benefit a larger demographic. The organization admits the need to revisit this model, hence the themes at this year's conference: "social justice," "food equality," even "food security."

Like at most large conferences, discussion topics stayed general. We gathered in "Earth workshops" to talk about crop monoculture, biofuels, commodities speculation and climate change. And though few doubted the importance of addressing these topics, the sheer diversity of the delegates made it difficult to discuss the issues with any meaningful substance.

Global gabfest

When not listening to speakers extol the virtues of slow food over the din of multilingual translations, we would take breaks in the Salone's food halls and binge on unique, artisanal products from around the world. Some memorable conversations took place in these colorful lunch lines; I spoke at length with Bolivian, Sudanese and French delegates (all decked out in traditional garb) about the challenges in applying the Slow Food manifesto across the very distinctive and specific issues that face one's own country, culture and food community.

But it seemed to me that Terra Madre's discussions were, in fact, far better synthesized outside of the conference, at break times and at night with our assigned housing groups. For an urbanite like me, this was an opportunity to sort out the days' ideas with a diverse group of American delegates: the collective sustaining an urban "farm" in Madison, Wis., the ex-Wall Street oil trader turned pig farmer post-9/11, the New Yorkers propagating urban garden programs to counter the failures of our juvenile delinquent system.

At the end of each day, we came away talking about how to translate the big ideas of Terra Madre to initiate a creative local response, and in these discussions, the grandiose and unwieldy ideas of the conference really came alive. How do you bring slow food to everyday working people? How can you do so now in a dire economy? In the U.S., it's a tall order to live by the Slow Food manifesto on a budget.

Taking it home

Most of us left Terra Madre believing that we can indeed be strong food activists at the local level, and conference leaders urged us to be more political. In India, the challenge was in protecting farmland from the well-meaning but ultimately misguided "green revolution," where modern, high-yield farming techniques can cause irreparable damage to the soil.

For the American food system, though, politics aren't really the priority; it's the cultural shift that's important. Until now, Slow Food USA has gone for the proverbial low-hanging fruit: It's not particularly difficult to use the trappings of luxury to demonstrate to high-income progressives that there's value in spending proportionally more time and income on food, and that the slow life is its own reward.

The challenge (and, not surprisingly, the relevance) comes in persuading the disadvantaged, those whose lives are more focused on weathering the current economic crisis, that modifying their lifestyle to make room for the organic heirloom tomato is just as important as the next mortgage payment.

Le was invited as a California delegate to the Terra Madre conference. She is the author of the "Little Saigon Cookbook" (Globe Pequot Press) and the co-owner of food website LA Lunchbox. Her next book, "Little America," is about the culinary and historical traditions of U.S. ethnic enclaves.

food@latimes.com