Slow Food Detroit founder Melinda Curtis arrives at Clawson's Black Lotus Brewing Company early for tonight's event. The pub is cool, comfortable and smoke-free, the wood and walls dark, the bar made of stone. Polished copper tabletops are surrounded by high windows. The bistro setting seems apt for the group, a Detroit chapter of the international Slow Food movement. Tonight's event, dubbed "Drink & Think," is a celebration of food, cultural fellowship and, of course, beer. Curtis welcomes members as they enter.
Heading up Slow Food Detroit isn't just hosting parties at hip brewpubs. Curtis wants to replace some of Michigan's lost manufacturing jobs with new ones in the agricultural sector. If she has her way, Michigan will become the agricultural equivalent of France. "It's about redefining ourselves," Curtis says "Michigan has the soil and the water and, after all, cultivation is the root of culture."
She easily shifts from solemnity to fits of infectious giggling. When Vicki Algarra arrives, Curtis rushes to embrace her assistant and co-founder. A cool Mingus tune fills the corners. Everyone orders a beer. Janet Armil of Royal Oak pulls up a chair, ruminates on bean farming, and tries to organize a slow food book club. She's making connections.
Slow Food International calls an area chapter a "convivium," from the Latin word meaning a feast or banquet, a linguistic cousin to the English word convivial. These assemblies provide an environment for the preservation and promotion of regional food heritage which, in Detroit, has its own special challenges.
"Detroit has one of the worst food distribution patterns," Curtis explains. In a recent study funded by LaSalle Bank, the city itself was labeled a "food desert", where most residents have to procure their food from local gas stations or liquor stores. She wants to change that at the grass roots, and Slow Food Detroit aims to raise money for community and school gardens. "We're trying to get kids to connect to their food."
Curtis is optimistic. "Detroit can be a model of sustainability and urban gardening," she says. "Why can't we have a strong local food system that supports everybody?" Despite these noble goals, Curtis believes that casual events like this one at Black Lotus are just as important as anything else for Slow Food Detroit. The organization was founded on sharing great food and gathering to have a good time.
The sun sets. More people arrive and draw the scattered tables together. Evan Hansen, a youngish man with a tangle of grape Kool-Aid colored hair, orders a wheat beer and tears into a bag of almonds. Hansen laments the inadequate access to local food in outer-ring suburbs like Canton, where he lives. He had read a little about slow food on the Internet and wanted to see what the organization was about up close.
He may not have expected to see the extended criticism against industrial and homogenized beer delivered by Michigan Beer Guide publisher Rex Halfpenny. A man with long hair tied into a ponytail under a faded ball cap, Halfpenny addressed an occasionally cheering crowd. His message: Drink local.
After the speech, a collection of folks stand among the sacks of malted barley and shiny copper kettles of the small brewing room. Brewmaster Mark Harper gives a tour, answering questions on the process of small-batch brewing, pointing out the flow of beer from raw material to frothy glass. The rest of the revelers sit, drink and chat. Topics are big and small.
Ann and Charles Bieneman of West Bloomfield left their three small children at home to enjoy the company of like-minded adults. Ann is an official member of Slow Food Detroit, and the couple has enjoyed dinners at Greenfield Village's Eagle Tavern, showcasing local, in-season food a hallmark of the slow food ideal. Ann says she likes the notion of real food. "Some food," she says, gently shaping the statement with her hands, "it's not even food anymore."
She's talking about the highly processed, shelf-stable grocery store brands that comprise the majority of food purchases in this country. Charles agrees and makes a case for aged, stinky cheese. "That's a good time," he says, grinning.
Even with Slow Food Detroit's limited outreach the Bienemans found themselves drawn to the slow food principles, as did everyone else attending. Slow Food Detroit is just getting off the ground, but as Vicki says, "Everyone has to eat, and we're all hungry for connections."
Or, just ask Curtis why she helped establish the chapter and she'll offer a quote from the renowned anthropologist Margaret Mead, who once said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has."
Slow Food Detroit has many events planned, including their first Slow Food Book Club meeting (in Royal Oak Sept. 20), a Downriver feast (in Brownstown Sept. 23) and an evening dinner (in Dearborn Oct. 5). For more information, see slowfood-detroit.org.
Todd Abrams writes about food for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]