The world is in danger of losing the Sun Crest peach. Extravagantly juicy with a nectar that perfectly balances acids and sugars, it boasts a yellow skin with an amber glow. But because it is soft and easily bruised, it is unattractive to supermarkets, which prefer hearty produce bred to travel well and languish indefinitely. Grown in California's San Joaquin Valley, the Sun Crest is picked only in midsummer and sold primarily at roadside stands.
A similar fate awaits the Limbertwig apple, the red abalone and the Southern field pea, but their plight, happily, has not gone unnoticed. They are among 15 American products selected to enter the Ark of Taste, an endangered-species list of edibles established by Slow Food, an organization dedicated to returning joy to the table by shunning mass-manufactured products and promoting food awareness. The Ark spotlights these endangered products, not so people will avoid them but rather so more will consume them. Already this gourmet prod to the marketplace has helped revive such delicacies as Bagoss cheese, made from the milk of brown Alpine cows, and Slovenian buckwheat. Starting this week, the Slow Food movement, which was launched in Italy and has 70,000 members in 35 countries, will swing through the States in an effort to bolster its U.S. membership.
The movement was founded in 1986 by Italian journalist Carlo Petrini, spurred into action when a McDonald's invaded Rome's historic Piazza di Spagna. "I was alarmed by the culturally homogenizing nature of fast food," he says. In 1989 Petrini drafted a manifesto, ratified in Paris by 15 countries, deriding "fast life, which disrupts our habits, pervades the privacy of our homes and forces us to eat fast food." According to the manifesto, fast life denies mankind its inalienable right to "sensual pleasure and slow, long-lasting enjoyment." To reclaim both, Slow Food, whose symbol is a snail, promotes taste education for children, reviving the ritual of family dining, eating seasonal foods and safeguarding regional cuisines and producers who cultivate them.
These goals may seem naively out of step in America, the country that invented the drive-through and the TV dinner, but already in the U.S. there are 1,500 members dispersed into 21 chapters, or what Slow Food poetically calls convivia, derived from the Latin word meaning festive. Lately many convivia have been forced to turn away people lest the groups risk losing their intimacy. Petrini sees promise in such American phenomena as the rise of microbreweries in a market long dominated by a handful of beer conglomerates. He points out that with its immigrant influences and agricultural diversity, the U.S. should be hospitable to spreading the Slow Food philosophy. "Europeans are skilled at defending their heritage," he says, "but Americans also have a culinary history, such as Cajun and Tex-Mex."
For Slow Food member Jonathan White of Peekskill, N.Y., one of the country's last artisanal cheesemakers, the loss of this heritage has broad implications: "A generation of children thinks dinner comes out of the freezer and goes in the microwave. They don't smell it until they sit at the table. Physiologically, that's a major change in our culture."