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Inspiring with Food: One Speaker's Adventure at Tera Madre 2017

slow food

What happens when you bring 7,000 farmers, ranchers, food producers, artisans, activists, educators and event planners from 143 countries to Turin, Italy, to learn, eat and inspire one another around food? You spark a global movement from which millions may one day embrace their impact on the future of our delicate food system.

For five days last September, I had the privilege of attending Slow Food International’s Terra Madre Salone del Gusto as one of 300 U.S delegates. I applied in order to better understand my role as a professional speaker on the importance of food and the impact it has on our attendees and our industry. This is my account of this incredible event and the economic, environmental, social and cultural impact it had on its attendees, the city of Turin and, hopefully, the world.

Slow Food International is a grassroots organization that envisions a world in which all people can access and enjoy food that is good for them, for those who grow and produce it and for the planet. Founded in 1986 by Italian activist Carlo Petrini to counter the rise of fast food (the same year McDonald’s opened in the center of Rome), Slow Food reminds us of the importance of local food traditions and encourages us to be aware of what we eat, how it tastes, where it comes from, who produces it and the ways our food choices affect the rest of the world.

Since 1996, Slow Food International, in collaboration with the city of Turin and the Italian Piedmont region, has hosted Terra Madre Salone del Gusto, a biennial international gastronomy expo and conference to study issues that surround the global food industry. From the environmental impact of industrial agriculture to the preservation of biodiversity, from soil degradation to the controversy over genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the goal of Terra Madre is to review and investigate food with a focus on its economic, social, environmental and political implications.

Last year marked the 20th anniversary of the Salone del Gusto and the 30th birthday of Slow Food Italy. To celebrate these milestones, the organizers turned the event upside down by opening its doors to the world. What had been a traditional convention for 3,000 attendees became a citywide gastronomic festival for more than a million people that incorporated about 20 locations, including castles, palaces, theaters, universities, museums, piazzas and parks.

Events in Terra Madre

In all, Terra Madre hosted more than 300 events and themed areas for delegates and the public, and I was overwhelmed by the array of sessions to choose from. I could take cooking classes with master chefs who specialized in using heirloom produce or serving the whole animal, nose to tail.

I could venture into the six interactive themed spaces that investigate problems and solutions regarding soil, meat, fish, bees, indigenous communities and migrants. I could sign up for one of the Slow Food “dinner dates,” once-in-a-lifetime, small-group dining experiences. I could explore up-and-coming foodie neighborhoods on a bike and tour city spaces repurposed for farming, beekeeping and art.

I could learn to forage for local, edible foods and spices. And I could hear people that care about food—people like myself—speak passionately about the loss of ancient food traditions.

I chose two mixology classes, because creative beverage service is often overlooked at events. They were held in an auction house in a beautiful building downtown. One focused on cocktails incorporating fruits and herbs in Slow Food’s Ark of Taste, a catalog of endangered heritage foods. In the other, foraging researchers mixed cocktails using flowers, roots, leaves and bark.

They showed how kombucha, a fermented tea, can take the place of lime, and how non-alcoholic drinks can taste just as good as the standard variety. I’m not encouraging meeting planners to hunt around in the woods before the plenary, but this session showed me some healthier, delicious alternatives to those pre-made, heavily sweetened mixes.

I also heard from luminaries of the Slow Food movement. Acclaimed chef Alice Waters spoke about the importance of gardening, especially in schools. Holistic ranchers and butchers from South Africa and Australia shared how they raise meat in symbiosis with the earth. And in a session titled “They Are Giants, But We Are Millions,” Marion Nestle, a food policy expert at New York University, and José Bové, a French farmer and politician, discussed the importance of mobilizing against the corporatization of food. If we cannot control our food supply locally, and if the food we purchase is not labeled, then we have no power to fight against genetically modified foods and hormone-laced meat.

Nestle and Bové encouraged us to vote with our forks—and we meeting planners have control over more forks than almost anyone else. If you care as much as I do about safe, healthy food, then please do not be complacent when filling out your BEOs. Ask where the food is coming from and fight for natural options.

The education was enlightening and enlivening, but one of the most powerful lessons I absorbed was purely visual. Wandering around the expo, I came upon a photography exhibition produced by the coffee company Lavazza in collaboration with Slow Food, to document the lives and families of the #earthdefenders—small communities of growers, innovators and other modern heroes who are working to defend biodiversity, the environment and the future of the human race. The images were incredibly moving; I could not help but feel for these people who stand up for what is right while maintaining their food traditions.

Then there was the food! Meals and drinks were served not only in the delegate canteen but also via hundreds of food trucks and street vendors, pop-up restaurants and tasting tents. Almost every country in the world was represented.

Visitors could sample varieties of cured meats and sausages, chocolates, lemon and lime liqueurs, diverse varieties of rice, Eastern European oysters and untold other delicacies. I tasted fresh wild buffalo mozzarella and brought home pumpkin flour from Kenya and a few copper threads of Spanish saffron. Next time, I’ll need to bring an extra suitcase just for shopping.

On the second evening, Slow Food convened its traditional Terra Madre parade, a symbolic march calling everyone to experience the rhythm and spirit of Slow Food together as one. The twilight parade, which began at the Arco di Trionfo in Turin’s Valentino Park, traced the Po River to the center of Turin and finished at Piazza Carlo Alberto.

In Conclusion

All around me were musicians from New Orleans, dancers and singers from China, drummers from Africa and thousands of others, some in brightly colored indigenous costume, others in wrinkle-free business casual.

We squeezed down dignified avenues and marched across sprawling piazzas, blowing noisemakers and holding signs that read, “They are giants, but we are millions” and “Food Matters.” Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with thousands of food activists from around the world, waving proudly at onlookers crowded along the sidewalk and on balconies, I finally felt that I was with my people: People who are fighting for the same food system that I want, one that is safe, sustainable and delicious. That unforgettable night gave me hope that this vision can be achieved not only in the events that I plan but also throughout the global meeting industry.


About the Author

Tracy Stuckrath
Tracy Stuckrath

Tracy Stuckrath, CSEP, CMM, CHC, CFPM (MPI Georgia Chapter), is founder and chief connecting officer of Thrive! Meetings & Events. She is also one of the 15 million Americans with food allergies.