‘Eating is an Agricultural Act’ - Wendell Berry, farmer and writer
The Slow Food movement took root in 1986 when Carlo Petrini stood on the steps of the Piazza di Spagna in Rome to protest (armed with a bowl of penne) a MacDonald’s being jackhammered into the 17th century marble. In his then sixty years, three breeds of milk cattle, four breeds of sheep and two breeds of donkey had become extinct. Of pasteurizing milk he says, “When you pasteurize milk you deprive it of it's soul, can’t taste the breed, the grass the animal ate, if it came from mountain, hill, or valley. It doesn't defend people's health, just industry.” Food production and distribution is responsible for 70% of the planet’s destruction, and the demise of the world’s farmers.
Just a few years ago farms on Martha’s Vineyard were in trouble, farmers lived in fear of losing their land, farms and livelihood. Now markets are filled with organic produce, fresh Island eggs, both chicken and ducks; farms are selling their own pasture-raised meat, and raw milk can be purchased at one of the farms. MV is an ideal place for the Slow Food lifestyle, being an agrarian landscape with twenty-eight farms.
Monthly potlucks are a big part of the SFMV conventionality, members and nonmembers getting together to break bread, each person bringing a dish to serve six, including their own place settings and utensils, plus their drink, taking everything with them when they leave, a zero waste policy.
Last month’s SF Potuck combined their philosophy with the ancient traditions of the Aquinnah Wampanoag Indian Tribe with a celebratory Harvest dinner at the Chilmark Community Center. Locally grown food from gardens, farms and the wild of the Vineyard were shared. Traditional Native dishes of journey cakes with cranberries, venison chili, sea bass with sage stuffing and Before Cow chowder were served. Real corn meal from the Sandwich Grist Mill was used for the authentic Journey Cakes. Made from corn then pounded into meal, it has a texture like sawdust which needs to be refrigerated or frozen. Small rich venison meatballs with a spoonful of cranberry sauce were absolutely mouthwatering.
Wampanoag’s are hunters and gatherers and cultivated crops such as corn, squash, and beans, historically known as ‘The Three Sisters’. Wampanoag people are close to the earth and were able to get food and clothing from animals that they hunted. Herbs and roots are used for medicines and preservatives for food. Living close to the ocean they rely heavily on fish like sea bass; bluefish; herring; clams; oysters; mussels; periwinkles; lobster and game for sustenance. Above all, they share what they have with others. A big clambake will feed the whole tribe. Much like the Potlucks which both the Wampanoag’s and Slow Food hold for their ‘tribes’.
Under the guidance of Kristina Hook-Leslie, Slow Food members foraged on tribal lands for sassafras bark, Queen Ann's Lace, rose hips and wild grapes – the leaves of which can be steamed and used for delicious recipes like wrapping sea bass. There used to be an abundance of natural ingredients to gather but like everything else these days aren’t as prolific. One can’t forage on tribal lands, unless with a Wampanoag. These natural things still grow Island wide, expertise is necessary however; choosing the wrong leaf or berry could be poisonous. Weather and what kind of season it will be can be foretold by foraging as well. Which way the leaves are turned, how hard berries are, this is a science that takes a lifetime and guidance to develop.
Tribal Elders grew up until about the age of eight with no electricity. Their formative years were spent gathering for meals; watching crops so birds didn’t eat them and learning the expertise of foraging. Tribe members rarely shopped for food, instead grew it in their gardens or traded what they had with someone else; raised their own animals and gathered for themselves food abundant in Aquinnah.
After dinner the short film ‘Sustainable Vineyard - 'Kristina Hook-Leslie foraging in Aquinnah’ was screened. Chilmark’s Liz Witham and Ken Wentworth of Film-Truth Productions shot this 8 minute short, which will be part of a feature-length film on sustainability. They also filmed this dinner along with the panel discussion afterwards. Cousins Kristina Hooks and June Manning graciously took questions for over an hour. There was great deal of interest in what it was like growing up a Wampanoag and what Gay Head was like before it was Aquinnah. This was a special opportunity for Vineyarder's to learn about their tribal neighbors and the little town at the tip of the Island.
Tribal Elder Kristina Hook-Leslie said of her life as a forger and the wisdom of it: “Going down-Island to buy food, that was not necessary. As children we had venison, ducks, rabbits, lobsters, seaweed, chickens and a family cow. Children were often tasked with picking blueberries, blackberries, chokeberries and cranberries, that was part of our job as children. You’d be sent out with a bucket to fill with mussels and that was dinner. You never took more than you needed and you used what you took.”
Be responsible for your part in the planet and what’s on your plate. Plant a garden. Have a compost heap if possible. Learn about Slow Food.