Danville Express

Living - August 3, 2007

The 411: Slow down, enjoy your food - and your life

by Katharine O'Hara

After a laborious day of shopping at Broadway Plaza a few weeks ago, I entered a popular Chinese fast food restaurant in a desperate search for a bite to eat to satisfy my hunger pangs. However, what I found was quite the opposite: The facility was of less than satisfactory condition, the chow mein was burnt, the pork ribs were more fat than actual meat, and the orange chicken contained a meager amount of chicken (if any at all - surely not enough to give the dish its name) inside the sugar coated dough balls that accounted for a majority of the dish.

On the ride home, out $15 and still hungry, I began ruminating about the deplorable fast food situation in our country. I don't think anyone expects a gourmet meal when they walk into a fast food restaurant, but it seems these fast food moguls have pushed poor quality too far. Still, there is a reason fast food restaurants feel they can get away with selling overpriced "food" of the lowest possible quality: the consumer.

The fast food consumer settles for poor quality food and doesn't bother to question the origin of its ingredients, buying and shoving more grease-saturated, chemically infused product into his mouth.

Luckily, organizations like Slow Food International have come out of the woodwork seeking to "help people rediscover the joys of eating and understand the importance of caring where their food comes from, who makes it and how it's made." The 80,000-member organization established by Carlo Petrini in Bra, Italy, in 1989 holds events to encourage families to grow their own foods, introduce local products and provide hands-on learning about food for multiple communities worldwide.

"A nod to the contrast with fast food values, Slow Food is a reference to living an unhurried life, beginning at the table," the Slow Food Web site boasts.

"Slow Food believes the enjoyment of excellent food and drink should be combined with efforts to save the countless traditional grains, vegetables, fruits, animal breeds and food products that are disappearing due to the prevalence of convenience food We believe that everyone has a fundamental right to pleasure and consequently the responsibility to protect the heritage of food, tradition and culture that make this pleasure possible."

During my own trip to Italy at the start of summer, I was pleasantly surprised by the relaxed, low-key, and cheery atmosphere of the towns I visited. Food is the core of the Italian lifestyle, and meals are generally healthy and provide a time for family, togetherness, laughing and relaxation. The concept of "fast food" is virtually non-existent aside from the occasional (largely American populated) McDonald's.

My experience staying with an aunt in the Italian countryside was especially satisfying. All our meals were home-cooked and every ingredient was purchased from a local market, or picked from a neighbor's garden. I came away with the general feeling that the Italian people have a genuine care and interest in the food they put in their bodies; they don't just eat for the sake of eating, but rather to engage in a savory experience with their loved ones.

As the Slow Food Manifesto justly states, "We are enslaved by speed and have all succumbed to the same insidious virus: Fast Life, which disrupts our habits, pervades the privacy of our homes and forces us to eat Fast Foods." The manifesto encourages, "Let us rediscover the flavors and savors of regional cooking and banish the degrading effects of Fast Food."

In America, everything about our lives is rushed. Our schedules are stuffed full and we leave no time to actually enjoy the activities we partake in - especially meals. The fast food phenomenon, which has taken hold in this country in preceding decades, strips many of the opportunity to enjoy quality food made from real, natural ingredients, and only further encourages our out-of-control lifestyles. Many families seldom eat dinner together, kids cramming unhealthy fast food or leftovers from a Tupperware container down their throats as they shuffle from piano lessons to soccer practice. However, I think we're missing something - something the Italians figured out a long time ago - that food is an experience to savor and enjoy.

I can't help but attribute the cheery, generally better mood of the Italian people to their eating better quality food made from natural and more nutrient rich ingredients.

As Jack Challem, author of The Food-Mood Solution states, "The quality and quantity of the nutrients available in our food go a long way toward determining our emotional resiliency and stability As we've become more dependent on convenience and fast foods, which are loaded with sugars, refined carbohydrates and empty calories, we've neglected the well-being of not just our bodies, but also of some very complex mood machinery that resides within it."

Challem continues to describe how the food we eat affects different mechanisms in the human body, "all of which determine how well we respond to the stresses and demands of daily living," something essential to surviving in a stressful and fast-paced society.

It is important we make an effort now to reverse the rushed and unhealthy habits of the current generation by educating the public about the benefits of a slower, more relaxed (and healthy) lifestyle, starting with something as simple (or complex) as the food we eat. Events like the Danville Farmers Market are crucial in encouraging people to seek out nutritious, organic, local options for their food items in order to achieve this.

For more information about Slow Food and local events, you can visit www.slowfoodusa.org.

The 411 offers information and insight on the teen scene by Katharine O'Hara, a senior at San Ramon Valley High School who spends her free time going to concerts, enjoying her friends, and playing the piano. E-mail her at ohara5@comcast.net.

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