Sliding to the Slow Side, Hamburger in Hand

On a cold, dreary Saturday in early September, my companion and I bundled up and ventured out to Codornices Park in Berkeley for an event billed as the Whole Cow picnic. What set this revel apart from Costco hot dogs and burgers was the featured star and main course, a local, grass-fed Angus steer purchased in August by Slow Food Berkeley. Less than ten minutes after our arrival, we had fresh, juicy burgers in hand and were speechless with delight. It may have been slow food, but it was instant satisfaction.

The picnic, organized by the Slow Food Berkeley Convivium (or chapter) and the Community Alliance for Family Farmers (CAFF), was the first in what is slated to be a regular occurrence. In the vein of community-supported agriculture, Slow Food Berkeley bought the 1,400-pound steer from Capay Valley rancher Fred Manas. The steer was humanely slaughtered at a small abattoir in Sacramento, dry-aged for 21 days, and then divvied up into flash-frozen, vacuum-packed portions for picnic participants to take home. Burgers cost $5, or for $20, participants enjoyed a burger and left with five pounds of beef. Big spenders paid $50 for two burgers and 20 pounds of beef to go.

“This is the best way to support the work of local farmers, and we know what the cow has eaten, that he has been treated humanely, and that he was not pumped full of hormones or antibiotics,” noted Renato Sardo, director of Slow Food International. He ticked off the advantages of slow food and the whole cow picnic, from sustainability—eating local saves resources—to health. Grass-fed meat provides a higher amount of health-promoting omega fats than do grain-fed steers. “You get great meat for a low price,” Sardo said.

Tracking food from field or garden to table is an integral part of Slow Food’s mission. The Slow Food movement is a response to the fast-food giants’ march across the globe. Established in Italy in 1986, the movement promotes a biodiverse, sustainable food supply by supporting local producers and honoring culture, tradition, and community. Founder Carlo Petrini wanted to demonstrate that consumers have a choice over the junk food and supermarket homogenization and industrialization of our food supply. Local chapters, called convivia, number 150 in the US, with over 30 in California alone; the first American convivia was in San Francisco. The Slow Food Berkeley convivium has over 2,000 members.

Slow Food Berkeley’s steer yielded 700 pounds of meat, which sold for the equivalent of $2.50 a pound. With supermarket beef prices running about $1.70 a pound and Niman Ranch beef costing close to a whopping $8 per pound, this is an extraordinary deal for quality meat. The group did not mark up the meat or profit from the event. “For me, the goal is to bring in new people, and especially young people,” said Berkeley convivium coleader Sarah Weiner.

“Everyone should be eating this way, but there is often no knowledge or access, which is what we are trying to create,” Sardo said, adding that any group or neighborhood could purchase a grass-fed steer. The picnic’s success indicates that people embraced the idea—over 100 beef eaters attended, and there were 72 meat orders. “We oversold the meat for this event, so we hope to do this regularly,” said Weiner. “We want to establish a sense of community through these picnics.” Sardo and the Berkeley convivium hope to purchase a pig next time.

Chez Panisse—internationally famous restaurant of longtime Slow Food proponent Alice Waters—mounted a big presence at the picnic. Chez Panisse cooks served up the burgers, and bread was donated by former Chez Panisse employee Steve Sullivan, now owner of Berkeley’s Acme Bread Company. Lettuce, onions, and tomatoes came from the Oakland Farmers’ market. In addition to supplying the steer, Manas contributed organic suncrest peaches from his farm, and participants enjoyed Gravenstein apple juice. Nary a soda in sight.

Attendees agreed that the burgers at the Whole Cow picnic surpassed even high quality organic beef. “Grass-fed beef is a lot to live up to, and frankly, I’ve never had one taste as moist and succulent as this. The flavor and texture are superb,” said Berkeley resident Scott Crocker.

Putting on the beef attracted plenty of neophytes. “I’d never even heard the term slow food until recently,” said one participant, and this was echoed by quite a few.

Can beef qualify as comfort food? “You can’t beat spongiform-free!” proclaimed Crocker.

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