Holding a brown lunch bag in each hand, one of Lodi's premier chefs said the contents of one bag represent what food is and the other shows what is wrong with it. He opened the bags. One featured a fresh Russet potato. The second bag contained a carton of McDonald's french fries.
Before a crowd of 70 winemakers, farmers and foodies at cellardoor Monday night, Ruben Larrazolo, owner of Alebrijes Mexican Bistro, said the fast-food item is a luxury. Although the fries are inexpensive, Larrazolo said their lack of nutritional value and immediate availability hurts the appreciation for real food. The American culture widely sees food as only something that satisfies a craving, he said.
"It fills your stomach but has no value," Larrazolo said. "Kids grow up with this attitude towards food, and I don't want food to go extinct."
In a country where fast-food chains dominate the landscape and obesity runs rampant, good, clean and fair food can be hard to find. But a movement focused on a traditional and methodical approach to cuisine is expanding rapidly in Lodi. Through the efforts of food-conscious members of the community, a Lodi chapter will soon be added to Slow Food USA, a nonprofit organization that promotes farm-to-table ideals.
Randy Caparoso, a sommelier and writer who lives in Lodi, helped come up with the idea in October. As he was dining with winemakers, the group began talking about the town's food culture. They soon came to the conclusion that a Slow Food USA chapter could thrive in Lodi.
"We were talking about how there is no real focus on community organizations that support the growth of the agricultural community and fruit producers in Lodi," Caparoso said.
The movement began to grow.
Caparoso hosted an informal meeting at his home on Dec. 15, 2010 to gauge interest in the community. About a dozen people showed up, but they were passionate about the cause, he said.
The next meeting was held in early February at Lucas Winery. More than 60 people were present, many of them registering to attend in the days before the gathering.
Since then, the group has appointed a board of directors and started drafting a mission statement. On Monday, it held a gathering at cellardoor and announced its first official event: an olive oil, vinegar and bread tasting at The Dancing Fox in Downtown on April 14.
While future events are still being discussed, the group has big plans. They look to host a cherry tasting in May and a community harvest dinner could be scheduled for August.
Food education will be a crucial part of the movement's success, said Ken Albala, the chapter's project co-chair, and history professor and food historian at University of the Pacific.
"It's important that people know where food comes from," said Albala. "I've seen some slow food chapters become just a way to sell a product. I'm not against helping our local farmers and winemakers, but my primary goal is educating the public and not just being a gourmet club."
The chapter will be chaired by Susan Tipton, a Chicago native who now resides in Acampo. Tipton is also member of Sacramento's chapter, and said board members from that chapter will help her begin the process for Lodi, she said.
"We want to align ourselves with businesses to help promote that we will work hand-in-hand with restaurants," she said.
In some of the finest restaurants in San Francisco and the Bay Area, San Joaquin County produce is a common ingredient. Besides promoting a thoughtful approach to cuisine, the Lodi chapter will look to pair restaurateurs and farmers so locally grown produce can be in area restaurants, Tipton said.
To join the nonprofit movement, members must sign up with www.slowfoodusa.org. Memberships start at $25 and users can receive member-only offers with a donation of $60 or more. The Lodi chapter will hold its next official meeting April 4. Those interested in attending should notify Caparoso at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Despite its rapid growth, Caparoso said the group is only starting and needs more help and input.
"We need more growers," he said. "We're missing that."
Contact reporter Jordan Guinn at email@example.com.