The teaching kitchen in UW's Human Ecology building isn't as busy as it once was, back when the department was known as home economics and cooking classes were a regular part of the curriculum. But with gastronomy gaining new respect these days, the room's stoves and workstations have been seeing some action again. One professor I know, for example, uses the facility to add a culinary component to his course on food, society and culture, and last week at an event I attended there, participants learned about the history, technique and gustatory pleasures of Chinese New Year dumplings.
The evening was hosted by Slow Food UW, a new student organization that's been meeting in the campus kitchen regularly since the group formed last October. One of the first-ever college chapters of the famous international network (and the second Slow Food group based in Madison), its members are UW students looking to expand their alimentary education.
Their dinner meetings typically have an educational component; so far, they've prepared German food, experimented with pizza, and baked Christmas cookies. "But it's more than a cooking club," says Genya Erling, a Ph.D. student in environment and resources who is the group's founding president. "We're paying attention to what we eat, for its environmental and social impact, for physical health, for seasonality and taste, and for the cultural history of the food. It's the whys along with the hows of cooking and eating."
Erling values how the Slow Food movement approaches such important topics as environment, hunger, sustainability, community and culture, all through food. In 2006 she traveled to Italy and attended Terra Madre, the organization's worldwide gathering of growers, producers, cooks and food activists. "It was one of the most powerful experiences of my life," she says. "I could see how strong the movement is in so many places and I realized we're not alone in our efforts here in Madison."
When she discovered that Slow Food International was reaching out to engage young people, she joined with fellow students to establish the UW chapter. One of their goals is to "make Slow Food affordable, to bring it to the people," a big challenge since good, clean, fair food - a catchphrase of the movement - can be costly. "We're in a good position to appreciate issues of expense because we have no budget. We're all just poor students."
For their dining events, they tackle the problem in part by doing the labor themselves. At last week's event, for example, Tony Sturm, a steering committee member who has lived in China, gave a presentation about Chinese New Year food traditions while attendees practiced their dumpling-folding skills.
Slow Food UW also folds affordability into another of its goals, that of community development. They aim to "create connections and be a support" to endeavors like Drumlin Farm, a community garden on the south side that is threatened by development. "Drumlin's problems highlight food issues, immigrant rights, urban sprawl and food security," says Erling. "That's one of the most compelling things about Slow Food: its ability to synthesize these issues."
This summer, she says, members hope to help tend organic gardens managed by the UW's F.H. King Students for Sustainable Agriculture, and then use the vegetables in Slow Food UW programs. And on April 5 they'll host a local foods breakfast at the Dane County Winter Farmers' Market.
While only UW students may join Slow Food UW (an annual membership is $10), its events are open to the public. To receive email notices of meetings and events, or learn more, contact Erling at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit slowfooduw.wordpress.com.