Matthew Raiford: Rooted in the Soil, Slow Food and Turin’s Terra Madre

Turin — imposing city of art galleries and opera houses, palaces and museums, restaurants and café culture. A food-focused city where “his excellence the artisan” is promoted via a special logo displayed at more than 900 food purveyors so that visitors can know where to sample from among the city’s many gastronomic traditions and savor the “paradises of taste” — that is, flavors representative of the region.

Italy’s fourth-largest city, capital of the country’s northern Piedmont region, is widely considered the country’s agricultural and viticultural “bread basket” thanks to the fertile Po valley (The Po River flows through Turin).

No surprise that this is where the international Slow Food Movement was born and has its headquarters and that it is home to Slow Food’s biennual Salone del Gusto and Terra Madre, the world’s largest food festival. The five-day event has grown to attract more than 250,000 people passionate about food from around the world —farmers, fishermen, producers, cooks, Slow Food members, foodies — including, in 2012, more than 1,000 small-scale farmers, chefs and artisan producers from 100 countries.

To read more about the Slow Food Movement, see our Cuisine Noir story: Slow Food recipes for sensual, delicious living and no-diet weight loss.

Farmer-Chef Matthew Raiford

Slow Food advocate and chef Matthew Raiford, center in our picture above, a sixth-generation farmer (he runs Gillard (organic) Farms with his sister, Althea Raiford) in Brunswick, Georgia (his family has owned the land since 1874) was one of the U.S. delegates at the last (2012) Terre Madre/Salone del Gusto and with plans to return for the 2014 Salone del Gusto/Terra Madre this October.

To have a conversation with Raiford is to discover how close the whole family farming and fresh and local farm-to-table concept is to his heart.

Ask him about Southern cuisine and he might tell you that the history of Southern food is more complicated than just “food influenced and cooked by African-American slaves.”

“No one group of people can hold the entirety of Southern food – what everyone was eating depended on the slave labor in the kitchen. It was the native/indigenous people, French, Spanish and West African, among others, that heavily influence Southern food. Many of these foods were created out of seasonality and necessity with readily available spices, vegetables, fresh caught fish and wild game.”

See Matthew Raiford’s best fried chicken recipe here.

Ask Raiford about agriculture and he is quick to point out that the United States was built via the labor of black farmers — like his ancestors.

“The Africans who were brought to America brought with them a plethora of agricultural knowledge and that knowledge was at the foundation of how early America was able to survive,” he says.

“Without food, no nation will rise and this country’s food system, from rice to sugar, was not only harvested by black farmers, but cultivated using their knowledge of how and when to plant; how much to water and what irrigation system to set up; what the soil was missing; and how much to add of what we now call organic fertilizer (horse, cow, chicken manure). All that was done by black farmers.”

Milestones and events to be celebrated in terms of historic Africa- American contribution to agriculture in America, he says, include:

  • The fact that Benjamin Banneker created a Farmers Almanac as early as 1792-1797
  • Frederick McKinley Jones in 1949 received a patent for refrigerated trucks to be able to move produce across country
  • In 1987, agricultural professor Dr. Booker T. Whatley wrote the handbook, “How to make $100,000 farming 25 acres” that addressed crop diversification, U-Pick farms and creating what he called “Clientele Membership Club” — now known as CSA or Community Supported Agriculture — and all of which have become buzz-words today.

Family Farming

You may not have heard — until now — but 2014 has been designated the International Year of Family Farming in a collaboration between the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and Slow Food.

The Italian founder and president of Slow Food, Carlo Petrini, has long pointed out the importance of local communities and family food production. For city dwellers, think urban backyard and rooftop herb and veggie gardens (See Backyard Roots by Lori Eanes) and the “fresh eggs every day” urban chicken trend that’s come home to roost.

Now FAO has endorsed the need to shift from the huge-scale anonymous-production (Who grew your veggies and where? Who knows!) commercial model — back to how things used to be, represented at its best by the Slow Food ideal rooted in local distribution, tradition and the seasons.  Farmers markets and Community Supported Agriculture to mention two readily available options for those who don’t want to grow themselves. But why not a pot of kitchen herbs at least?!

It’s good to remember that food is a lot more than a commodity. It’s also about culture, taste and many things linked to our history.

“The core of Terra Madre is the opportunity to come together to share food, culture and knowledge with people from around the globe,” says Jovan Sage, Slow Food USA’s African-American associate director of network engagement.

“For me, this was crystalized in listening to farmers from Kenya in Africa and Georgia in the U.S., talk about the ins and out of growing okra! That gave me a direct experience of the connection of Africa to African-American foodways in the United States.”

We asked Raiford — erstwhile executive chef of haute catering at the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C.; Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park alum; University of Georgia culinary arts educator; and one of a small but rapidly expanding contingent of African-Americans taking us back to the lost art of growing food as a way of life — what he thought Cuisine Noir readers might get from heading to Turin and dropping in on Salone del Gusto/Terra Madre 2014.

“I believe the event allows for one to see and participate on the global playing field of food and that this would greatly expand ones appreciation for what is happening in the world, what with pollution, GMO’s and land access and how this is impacting us right now,” he says.

“It also presents an incredible opportunity to see the bio-diversity of food and what other countries are doing to preserve the heritage of food and food cultures — and how we are all in one big giant melting pot of food. It is, I would say, an experience of a lifetime.”

You also, of course, get to eat, to drink, to adventure — and to savor some of the many delights of Turin.

Photo credit: Matthew Raiford

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Long-time Cuisine Noir contributor Wanda Hennig is an award-winning food and travel writer, an author, a blogger and a life coach. A native South African, she believes we are what (and how) we eat (and drink). Thus, she says (only a little tongue-in-cheek), the best way to truly understand a country, a city, a culture—and a people—is via your taste buds and your stomach.