Schenectady County

Local group organizes to advance Slow Food movement

L.J. Sconzo has traveled to Italy and sampled the local cuisine; he’s tried the local delicacies whi

L.J. Sconzo has traveled to Italy and sampled the local cuisine; he’s tried the local delicacies while touring Peru.

For Sconzo, eating is something of an avocation. “I just love trying new foods,” explained the 18-year-old Queensbury High School senior. But he’s also excited about the food in upstate New York. He and his father recently formed the first local chapter of Slow Food USA, a national group that champions food that is, according to its motto, “good, clean and fair.”

The chapter, which is based in Saratoga Springs, will serve the Capital Region and the North Country. Previously, the closest Slow Food chapters were in the Berkshires, Hudson Valley and Cooperstown.

“This area lends itself to a Slow Food chapter,” said John Sconzo, L.J.’s father. “A lot of people are already living a Slow Food lifestyle. This is a great agricultural area. There’s a good variety of products available. We’re blessed with good restaurants. You have producers and consumers. It’s a good environment for an organization like this.”

The Slow Food Saratoga chapter will host events designed to highlight locally grown and produced food, such as wine tastings and farm tours.

The Slow Food movement, which is dedicated to preserving and supporting traditional ways of growing and producing food, began in Italy in 1989, in response to the opening of a McDonald’s in the Piazza di Spagna in Rome. The Slow Food symbol is a snail; the Slow Food manifesto states, “A firm defense of quiet material pleasure is the only way to oppose the folly of a Fast Life. May suitable doses of guaranteed sensual pleasure and slow, long-lasting enjoyment preserve us from the contagion of the multitude who mistake frenzy for efficiency.”

“Food should be wholesome, healthy and good for the environment,” explained John Sconzo, an anesthesiologist. “It should be fair. Animals should not be exploited in the production of food.” One of the key elements of the Slow Food movement, he said, is the maintenance of biodiversity in food. “We’re against a lot of the genetic modification that’s going on,” he said. “We’re opposed to homogeneity.”

Rocco Verrigni, a professor of culinary arts at Schenectady County Community College and a founding member of the new Slow Food chapter, took a sabbatical in Italy two years ago, where he worked in a Slow Food-sanctioned restaurant for three months and took a Slow Food-sanctioned master Italian cooking class for three months. “In Italy, the whole country seems to live by the Slow Food principles,” he said. “People buy food from small farmers or grow it themselves.”

Slow Food is about more than food, Verrigni said. “It certainly is about food, but the Slow Food principles are more about a lifestyle, about raising consciousness of doing things differently in a system that’s very taxed by the high price of oil,” he said. “The average American food travels 15,000 miles to get to the plate. That’s kind of ridiculous.”

Slow Food USA is part of a larger organization, Slow Food International, that has members throughout the world.

Slow Food Saratoga is launching at a time when there’s increased interest in eating local and organic food. But Slow Food isn’t strictly a local-only movement. Rather, the emphasis is on consuming food that’s produced sustainably and fairly. “We don’t care where the food comes from as long as it’s good and clean and fair,” Sconzo said.

Issue identified

The Sconzos became interested in the Slow Food movement in 2001, when John Sconzo took his older son to Sicily, Italy, where some of the family’s forebears are from, for his 12th birthday. One of their tour leaders introduced them to the Slow Food movement; John Sconzo eventually became a member of the organization. A few years later, he took L.J. on a culinary tour in Naples, Italy, for his birthday. The Slow Food International Congress was being held there, and the two “really became taken with the organization.” When they returned to the U.S., L.J. Sconzo began researching how to start a Slow Food chapter.

John Sconzo said he’s always been interested in food. “Food was always important to my family,” he said. “My parents always cooked. I enjoy good food. I enjoy traveling.”

Already, the Slow Food Saratoga chapter has identified one local issue it wants to pursue: Members plan to support a right-to-farm law in Warren County. “One of our members tried to build a greenhouse, and ran into a lot of problems,” John Sconzo said. “It’s sort of ridiculous that people can’t grow food beyond a certain amount.”

‘a sensory thing’

L.J. Sconzo compared his love of food to “why a musician loves music, or why an athlete loves to play sports,” he said. “It’s a sensory thing. Tasting it, feeling it in your mouth, experiencing something new.” Traveling and sampling the local food teaches you about local culture, he said. “We saw a man shucking sea urchins outside a restaurant right by the sea in Italy,” he said. “The freshness of it was great.”

The Sconzos live in Queensbury; in the fall, L.J. Sconzo will attend Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H.

Slow Food Saratoga will host its first big event, an alfresco dinner, on July 26. Before the dinner, attendees can meet Slow Food USA Executive Director Erika Lesser at a party at Maple Ridge in Coila, Washington County. On July 27, there will be a Slow Food tasting breakfast of dishes made from locally produced foods including bacon, sausage, eggs, corn fritters with maple syrup, local fruits, yogurts and cheeses with local honey at Sheldon Farms in Salem, also in Washington County. After the breakfast, there will be self-guided tours and additional events at the Old Salem Courthouse lawn.

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