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GOOD Q&A: Erika Lesser

Erika Lesser, executive director of Slow Food USA, is finding ways to shorten the food chain.

What does a $20 donation do for Slow Food?
A $20 donation helps us identify one more person who gives a damn about good food. In a lot of ways Slow Food is based on the idea that membership organizations (whether by becoming a member or in any way putting your money where your mouth is) are a way to say that I want to see change in the food system and I'm willing to participate in that change. We're aiming for a food system that is good, clean, and fair. We're just looking for people who believe in that idea who will be a part of the solution.

What does Slow Food actually do?
More specifically, as I mentioned, we are a membership organization. And the goal is to create a network of people all over the world who are interested in the philosophy of Slow Food. We're basically a 99% volunteer-run organization. We equip our leaders and our volunteers with publications, tools, and guidelines for how they can create and carry out projects on the local level that help to bring producers and consumers closer together (to shorten the food chain). That could be anything from a local buying club to promoting farmers markets or CSAs or other things that really help consumers learn where their food comes from and to get closer to the source. There are also projects that put together educational initiatives like garden projects in schools. So, essentially, what we try to do is make the volunteer network come alive by giving them tools and ideas that they can connect to on a local level. A lot of what we promote is about food traditions, food biodiversity, and cultural diversity. A lot of that information and the tools and those things are also lists of endangered foods that we'd like more farmers to start growing again or specific types of artisan traditions that are in danger of dying out unless we as consumers increase the demand for them.

What tradition is particularly dear to you?
I think raw milk cheese. Cheese is one of those foods which is absolutely dependent on healthy soil, healthy happy animals that are providing the milk, and a healthy ecosystem for that food to come from. If the soil isn't healthy, if the animal isn't happy, if the farmer isn't happy, you're not going to get good cheese. But if you have all of those things combined, then you get these incredible products that in some ways are an expression of the land they come from. Slow Food was founded in Italy so we have some cultural roots in the old world there. But we've put down a lot of roots in the new world in North America and other parts of the world. And the idea is to find out what's local and what comes from that land. Cheese is one of those great things that comes from the land wherever your are and it helps you connect to the land wherever you are. When you go to Vermont: aged cheddar. Wisconsin: you've got cheese curds. Even though we're a young country, these help us to get a sense of what our cultural identity is on a local level. And it tastes really good. I'm a big fan of cheese.

How did you get involved in Slow Food?
Actually, the way that I got involved in Slow Food probably happened in utero. I don't mean to be flip, but I come from a family of classical musicians who traveled for their professions so I learned really early on to enjoy a lot of different kinds of foods and different cultures. But I think that, for me, the reason that I got involved is that it helps me to understand how the world works. Food is the basis of our economy, our culture, our society in a lot of ways. Food is what makes all of those pieces happen and move and it was a much more interesting way for me to study history and learn how the world works. The reason that I found out about Slow Food specifically is that I did a masters program at NYU in Food Studies, which is an interdisciplinary program that Dr. Marion Nestle-she's a pretty well-known nutritionist and author-founded. It basically uses food as a lens for studying the world. It just made sense to me personally that that was a way to learn about history, art, culture, economics, science, and the environment. It just sort of connects all the dots.

Everybody has to eat?
Yeah, everybody has to eat. But we should also enjoy what we eat. Food is the experience that we all get to have every single day that helps us connect to our friends, to our family. It is survival but it's also pleasure.

What's the best food experience you've ever had?
There is no one experience. Whenever I've had a hand in bringing the food to the table, it makes it better. For me, that could mean anything. It could mean cooking the food myself, coming up with a new recipe or finding a new one-but being part of the kitchen experience. It could have been buying the food at a farm stand or in a store, but being part of selecting it and picking it. Or it could have been milking the cow. Not that everyone gets to do that, but we all at some point should milk a cow just to understand where our milk comes from and how hard it is. To get that product which people just take for granted and that's so cheap…Can you imagine how good the butter would taste if you, just for one day, got up at five o'clock, went and milked the cow, churned the butter, and spread that butter on your piece of toast. That's the best butter you'll ever have in your life. I think anything that you can do to feel connected to making the food and bringing it to the table makes it a more slow and more enjoyable experience.

What's the worst food experience you've ever had?
I have a worst experience with food all the time nowadays and it happens when I get on an airplane. I travel a lot for my job. I love to travel, but even if I have the time and am smart enough to bring my own meal or snacks on the plane, I'm still surrounded by other people eating the plane food. It just smells bad. People don't talk to each other. You're eating alone. You're eating basically this fake food. It's a food like substance. That's probably the worst experience with food. Unfortunately, I experience it on a regular basis. That's just what being in an airplane is all about these days?

What would you choose for your last meal?
No one's ever asked me that question before. Off the top of my head, right now, it would probably be to go out into a field-and it doesn't matter what the food is-but I would want to be out in a field and I would want to eat food that tasted really alive. So I would want to pick the blueberry off the bush and put it in my mouth. Or I'd want to sit down in a lettuce patch and just eat it straight from the ground. It's sort of like one last gasp of eating something that has life in it. It would be a pretty sad experience of course, but I think that would be in a way the most appropriate last meal to have: something that is as close to being alive as possible.

What was your last meal?
You mean like breakfast? For breakfast I had a slice of Stollen-this German Christmas cake that I got from this fabulous, fabulous bakery called Almondine. They use a lot of organic ingredients. The next time you're in New York, they have what's been voted the best baguette in New York City. There's a guy who's like a professor of microbiology at Cornell who's a world baguette expert. Like, the French government knighted him. He did a baguette evaluation for New York magazine and he voted Amandine the best baguette. They make a great Stollen. It's available only seasonally. They make it the first 25 days of December. On Christmas Eve, if you haven't gotten your Stollen by then, it's gone and you have to wait until next Christmas. I just had a slice of that with a cup of coffee.

Do you have a hero in the world of food?
I think that's probably two people. I think that on a professional level, my food hero is Carlo Petrini. He's the founder of Slow Food and he is the wisest person that I know when it comes to having a healthy relationship with and enjoying food. But, on a personal level, it's my parents because they're the ones who taught me how to cook. They're the ones who fed me before I knew how to feed myself. And they probably more than anyone else have influenced the way that I eat today.

What makes you feel alive?
It's probably the moment that I step outdoors. I get unplugged from my computer and my cell phone and go for a walk. I'm a city slicker so it's not like I need to dig in the dirt. But just being outside and it's sort of metaphysical.

What's your personal definition of GOOD?
I think that my personal definition of good is: I know that something is good when I can sense that it exists in the real world. It's not a substance imitating something else.

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