Journey to Chengdu, China - Slow Food International Congress 2017

The following is a guest blog post by Slow Food Midwest Ark of Taste Committee Chair Jennifer Breckner. You may have caught some of her photos from her travels on our instagram on Thursday 11/2/17 over at @slowfoodchicago. For a more in-depth behind the scenes look at her trip to Chengdu, China for this year's Slow Food International Congress, read on! Thank you, Jennifer for sharing your journey with us!


 Wall text from the Slow Food International Congress in Chengdu, China

Wall text from the Slow Food International Congress in Chengdu, China

Every five years, Slow Food holds an International Congress which allows delegates to gather around issues that will guide the organization forward. It’s a point to pause and take stock of our past work but also to delve into areas that we could be better at—think inclusion, openness and diversity—and then set a vision for the work we have ahead of us. In addition, Slow Food, as a nonprofit, is required to share information such as financial statements, and to produce reports on their work such as the 2012-2017 Ark of Taste Document, as well as allow delegates voting rights on statutes that the executive committee has deemed important. These are procedural things that happen at these gatherings.

The 7th Slow Food International Congress took place in Chengdu, China, from September 29 – October 1, 2017. Over four-hundred delegates traveled from ninety countries to attend, including forty-three from the United States. Chengdu is located in the Sichuan Province. It was designated a UNESCO gastronomic heritage site in 2010 and has more than sixty thousand restaurants providing complex, flavorful and absolutely phenomenal food and is known for Sichuan peppercorns, which add a dose of tingle to your tongue.

 Spices displayed at the farmers market.

Spices displayed at the farmers market.

The conference was held at the Shangri-La Hotel and we were welcomed at a traditional Sichuan dinner on Thursday night at a tea house. The full conference began very early the next morning as, ahem, some of us were dealing with jet lag and were very grateful that the Italians brought coffee from Lavazza. Kicking off the first day of formal speeches was a parade featuring representatives from each of the countries in attendance proudly waving their flags. It’s a gesture that highlights the global connections of our Slow Food network and adds a bit of fun to the event.

International Councilors

Kathryn Lynch Underwood from Detroit, Tiffany Nurrenbern from San Francisco and I attended as newly elected International Councilors representing the United States. We join a group of forty councilors from around the world who serve as an advisory board for Slow Food. It is a three year volunteer position that has us traveling once a year to gather with our colleagues and discuss Slow Food’s work.

The Conference

Friday was formal in nature with a lineup of speakers such as Alma Rosa Garcés Medina, a biologist from Mexico and Tiejun Wen, the executive dean of China’s Institute for Advanced Studies of Sustainable Development at Renmin University and the Institute for Rural Reconstruction at Southwest University, talking of challenges that their countries faced from the effects of climate change. John Kariuki Mwangi, vice-president of the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity offered: ““In Kenya, my country, the pastoralist communities are the hardest hit and many are being forced to migrate…Slow Food is working on this…through the promotion of agroecology and the protection of biodiversity, standing alongside producers.” Fighting climate change is a new focus for Slow Food. The U.S. was represented when Kathryn Underwood spoke to the delegation about the history of urban farming in Detroit, the evolution of “slow neighborhoods” there and the contributions of African Americans and immigrants to both, highlighting the work of great Detroit organizations like D-Town Farm, American Indian Health and Security, Oakland Avenue Urban and Burnside Farms. We ended the night with a traditional hot pot dinner and many bottles of wine.

Saturday delegates broke off into small groups to share success stories from our local efforts and grappled with questions pertaining to issues that Slow Food faces in promoting its message. It was an opportunity to get to know Slow Food leaders and their work better. Dinner was at the hotel and we were treated to performances such as the Chinese Dragon Dance (pictured), two young opera singers singing in Italian for Slow Food’s President, Carlo Petrini, and a calligraphy demonstration. 

Sunday concluded the conference with a half day of voting on statutes—for a full list click here—followed by a rooftop reception. It was overwhelming, exhausting, and exhilarating all at the same time.

What was accomplished?

There are those delegates who found fault with Slow Food for “throwing a great party” but not getting much done. The vote on Congressional motions on the last day was more symbolic than an actual indication of delegate’s involvement as the focus had been decided by the executive committee prior to the conference. I think the format needs some work to incite more deep engagement with attendees, yet I also think it’s challenging to bring together five hundred people from around the world who have different languages, experiences, expectations and challenges in promoting Slow Food values to work on structural changes that need to be made or to complete projects that should be implemented over time. I think the actual work happens at home. Engagement with our international community does have its purposes. As Richard McCarthy, Director of Slow Food USA offers: “Slow Food gatherings are ends unto themselves. Spending time with inspiring leaders from around the world is a specific goal. It changes all of our perception of how our actions at home are aligned [globally]…and [we] learn from those who tackle challenging work on the other side of the planet.” Personally hearing of the challenges that fellow Slow Food leaders face encourages me to think beyond my own experience and to develop a broader view making my work here better.

 Ark Hanyuan Potted Pork

Ark Hanyuan Potted Pork

 Mongolian Tribes

Mongolian Tribes

 Chinese dragon dance

Chinese dragon dance

The Slow Food Great China chapter is the first of its kind in the country. It was founded recently in 2015 but has worked hard to nominate nearly two hundred items to the Ark of Taste; sixty have been officially boarded. We saw some of those items on display along with Ark products from around the world and tasted products that were on the Mongolian Autonomous Region’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List, some made by traditional processes that date back to the 13th century Yuan Dynasty. As we gathered in Chengdu, we brought a show of strength, support, and tourism dollars for traditional food ways and Slow Food efforts in China and gained inspiration from each other to continue the work back home.