Slow Food, a movement started in Italy in 1986, has as its guiding principals both the preservation of local and artisan foods and the slowing down and enjoyment of life, as if these two goals were really one and the same. Everyone likes to enjoy their food, but can eating local food build a better community? A series of dinners in Carrboro this summer is giving diners a chance to find out.
Slow Food-USA and Panzanella (Weaver Street Market's restaurant in the Carr Mill Mall, Carrboro) are hosting three "Totally Local Dinners," by which they mean that all of the ingredients for the dishes prepared were grown and produced within a 250-mile radius of Carrboro.
These dinners do many things--for one, 10 percent of sales proceeds goes to the Carolina Farm Stewardship, an organization that supports the local farm population and helps growers learn to grow food organically. But the dinners also bring community members together, create educated diners, and show us what our local growers are capable of producing.
This is an intensely pleasurable lesson. At the first dinner, held on June 30, Panzanella was packed, but it had a different feeling than most restaurants on a very busy night. Many tables were large and communal; patrons were walking around the restaurant talking to one another. It was as if everyone were sharing a meal, not eating separate meals at separate tables.
One might think that as a political issue, the Slow Food movement is mainly about ensuring the survival of local farmers, a simple economic choice of keeping money in the community or shipping it out to multinational corporations. Yet when I spoke to chefs about why the issue is important to them, the main thing I heard is that local food is good for restaurants.
"It's simply the best, freshest product you're going to get," says Panzanella's chef, Peter McCloskey. "I have farmers coming to my back door selling their produce, and it becomes a personal relationship. They know what I want and can tailor my order the way a big company just can't."
He also speaks about the community-building that organizations and events like these create, simply by putting farmers directly in touch with restaurants and bringing them into a greater culinary community.
"In the spring, we had a benefit for RAFI [now the ETC Group], which supports people who are transitioning from growing tobacco to growing other crops," McCloskey says. "There was one grant that went to a man just starting out growing shitake mushrooms. Because of that I was put in touch with him, and when I spoke to him, he was so scared, he had no idea if it was going to work. And I said, 'No, man, restaurants will buy them. I'll buy them. You will be able to sell these mushrooms.' And he was so relieved that he actually cried on the phone."
When the menu arrives at the Totally Local Dinner, at the bottom is a short list of ingredients that were not grown and produced within the 250-mile radius: salt, pepper, sugar, pine nuts, vanilla, lemons, olive oil, canola oil and balsamic vinegar. Looking at the menu is quite astonishing after reading this list: You realize that everything else--including pasta, pizza dough, bread, olives, truffles, cheeses, beer, shitake mushrooms and even bourbon--were produced in our community.
For me, this realization brought on a moment of intense pride. While you may like the idea of eating locally, you may be surprised at how good it feels to know where a meal comes from, to understand its relationship with the soil you walk on every day and the sun you feel on your face.
The next two Totally Local Dinners at Panzanella will be held on July 28 and Sept. 15. For reservations of six or more, call 929-6626. For more information about the Carolina Farm Stewardship and to get their brochure recommending markets and restaurants in the Triangle that support local produce, go to carolinafarmstewards.org or call 542-2402.
Patrick's Seasonal Cuisine has opened in North Durham at 4201 Roxboro Road. Chef Patrick Cowden, formerly of Michael Dean's and the recently closed Grill at Glen Lennox, is offering casual fine dining of Southern-influenced dishes, steaks and seafood, and gourmet sandwiches. Call 477-5354 for reservations.
Antojitos! has opened in Triangle Square Shopping Center at the intersection of N.C. 54 and N.C. 55. The restaurant serves both Salvadorian and Mexican fare.
Acme Food & Beverage Co. in Carrboro has added a late night menu Friday through Monday from 10 p.m.-2 a.m. The menu is made up of $5 plates, with dishes that play on traditional bar food.
Carolina Crossroads at the Carolina Inn will be continuing their "Fridays on the Front Porch" evenings through Oct. 15. Live bluegrass music with beer and wine specials and bar menu, 5-7 p.m., no cover charge.
Il Palio at the Sienna Hotel will be hosting a live jazz night featuring the Richard Tazewell Band on Friday, July 30 from 7-10:30 p.m. No cover charge.
Andy Wilson, chef at Squids, Chapel Hill's landmark seafood restaurant, will be teaching a class at A Southern Season's cooking school on Wednesday, Aug. 4 at 6 p.m. The class will include dishes involving shrimp, scallops and she-crab. $45 per person. For tickets, call 929-7133.
The North Carolina Museum of History Associates will be having their "Fly By Night" evening at Blue Martini at 116 N. West St. in downtown Raleigh on Wednesday, July 28 from 6:30-8:30 p.m. Free appetizers and $2 off all martinis. Free to current members of the Museum of History Associates or anyone who signs up, $5 for non-members.
The Cockeyed Chef will be closing in August. The catering company will continue to operate. Go in for some fantastic dinner specials through the end of July.
Frazier's on Hillsborough Street is closed for renovations through Aug. 15.