Breakfast in a gulp, lunch on the go and dinner on the run. Life in the fast lane seems to have bypassed the slow, ancient pleasures of the table. However, an aimable group of gastromes hopes to put an end to our nuke-it-and-eat-it culture.
With a charming chiocciolina (small snail) as its mascot and a philosophy that advocates the defence of pleasure, Slow Food, an international organization with 30,000 members in 35 countries is helping members rediscover the flavours of regional cooking and fresh local produce. The group believes that small doses of sensual pleasure preserve us from the fast and frozen food, the enemies of contemplative cuisine.
In a society that fuels our frenzy with food, what is the appeal of slowing down? Think back to memorable meals you’ve had in the past. Most likely, they were leisurely affairs with friends and family gathered around the table discussing events of the day while savoring each of the dishes. It’s that sensual spirit that members of Slow Food are trying to reawaken. In addition to slowing down, they also believe in eating traditional food and wine.
A project called the Ark of Taste names foods that are in danger of disappearing from our table such as Macedonian yogurt, Scandinavian lamb, centuries-old orange trees in Nice, red-violet skinned peaches from Provenance and Californian zinfandel vines, among others. The group also hopes to preserve artisanal food preparation by sustaining demand for these products. Without this effort, the group foresees the homogenization of foods, citing the example that at the turn of the century, there were 30,000 varieties of rice in India. Now, there are only 12.
Several trends point to the promise of the movement in North America including the emergence of microbreweries in a market long dominated by a few beer monoliths. Small wineries are also experiencing unprecedented popularity. The “cult cabs” of California such as Grace Family, Screaming Eagle and David Bruce together produce what would likely fit on one of Gallo’s delivery trucks, yet they cannot meet demand for their wines, despite stratospheric prices.
But isn’t trying to get people to spend hours preparing homecooked meals naively out of step with our time-crunched culture? There’s a trendy answer to that too: the personal chef. A personal chef may cook for ten families, depending on the size of the business. After an initial meeting to determine dietary preferences, a personal chef usually visits each family’s house every two weeks and spends the day buying the groceries, preparing the meals, labeling them for the freezer, cleaning up and setting the table.
So instead of wondering up and down the grocery aisles at 6 pm with a glazed look of hunger as you try to figure out what to cook for dinner, imagine walking into your home to the heady aroma of herb chicken and butternut squash. Your personal chef has been here today so you sneak upstairs, slip into your fuzzy slippers and read a chapter of the latest John Grisham novel before dinner.
When you and your family gather around the table, it is for an elegant meal that’s as fine as those in restaurants. The only difference is that you eat in the comfort and privacy of your own home without having to make reservations or wait in line for your table.
Who hires personal chefs? Professionals with children who not only have demanding careers, but also the added pressures of soccer practice, music lessons, after-school meetings. Given a choice, they’d rather spend their evenings with their kids than the cheese grater. According to Judith Madill, a professor at Carleton University, the growing popularity of personal chefs boils down to taste, convenience, healthfulness and priorities. “People are looking for strategies to cope with “role overload” – too little time for too many roles such as professional, father, wife, cook and so on.”
Recent studies reveal that Canadians’ interest in eating healthful food that tastes good is at an all-time high, but the time they have to cook is at an all-time low. In 1970, dual income families represented only 38 percent of all families in Canada and they spent 15 percent of their food dollars on meals prepared outside the home. By 1995, more than 51 percent included two wage earners and they spent 28 percent on out-of-home meals.
Fueled by these changes, a spectrum of “home replacement meals” has developed from high-end take-out meals from restaurants, delis and caterers to freshly prepared meals in boutique areas of grocery stores. According to Tracey Black, chef at the catering company MacKay Street Epicuria, 70 percent of the meals purchased from her take-home food store are for regular meals as opposed to special occasions and parties.
Madill adds that meals are tightly wound with family traditions; increasingly, people feel they regain a stronger sense of family life by sharing a home cooked meal — even if they didn’t cook it. This ties into the heart of the slow food movement that says time spent in sharing a carefully prepared meal allows us to rediscover one of our lost rituals. While you can’t stop the clock, you can certainly unwind at the dinner table, savoring the timeless pleasures of the earth’s bounty and one another’s company.
Sidebar: A sampling of personal chefs across the country: Vancouver/Surrey: Dinner by Design 604-542-0808; Toronto: Dinner Belle 416-406-0648; Ottawa: MacKay Street Epicuria 613-745-7356