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Slow Food Conference dwells on value of home gardens

Sergio Afonso

Roger Doiron, founder and director of Maine-based Kitchen Gardeners International who is perhaps best known for his role in instating the White House kitchen garden, delivered the keynote address Friday evening to kick off ESTIA’s ninth annual conference.

Guests feasted on a buffet full of seasonal, local and organic eats, all tastefully displayed on granite. And when the placards that denoted each food and its origin no longer had anything to identify, attendants feasted on conversation instead. After a couple of “hellos” to check the microphone, Vice President for Administration and Finance Janet Waldron formally welcomed the conference. “We understand the values,” Waldron said of the University of Maine’s active interest in sustainability.

As Waldron listed the volume of Maine-based foods and projected a new on-campus, state-of-the-art composting facility, it was evident that there have been great and conscious efforts to support local Maine farms and businesses in student dining. Following Waldron, Emily Markides, ESTIA president, and Dorothy Klimis-Zacas, professor of clinical nutrition and conference chair, each introduced the program and Doiron.

To begin his keynote address, titled “Sow it Forward: How Gardens are Slowing Us Down and Cultivating Change from the Ground Up,” Doiron “took the temperature of the room,” asking, “How many have grown something this past year?” Hands went up all around. After briefly describing Kitchen Gardeners International, a nonprofit slow food or “good” food movement, Doiron played a short movie called “History of Gastronomy.” Against Richard Strauss’s iconic piece “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” the approximately 30-second film showed Doiron’s take on the evolution of man, ending with a picture of a modern, morbidly obese man that generated a few laughs from the audience.

Doiron then presented the geopolitical context for today’s food by listing multiple crises — increasing rates of world hunger, obesity, damaged farmlands and food prices. Once he outlined the magnitude of the problems, he cited Wendell Berry, who wrote that “eating is an agricultural act,” but added that “gardening is a subversive one.”

As he balanced between seriousness and humor, it was evident that he was sincere. Following the line that gardening is subversive, Doiron displayed pictures of real and fictional rebels with vegetables replacing objects. “We need to be garden evangelists,” Doiron said as he paused on a portrayal of Jesus raising up a zucchini, but he stressed that the competition is fierce. To elaborate on this point, he said that today’s food culture makes the choice between a bacon-wrapped hot dog or a carrot an unsavory one.

Doiron projected another modified image to parody “American Gothic” by replacing the farmers with President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle. Without much more of an introduction, Doiron began another short film, “This Lawn is Your Lawn.” Set against Woody Guthrie’s rendition of “This Land is Your Land,” the film documented Doiron creating a garden in front of his white house as a proposal and petition to add a kitchen garden at the presidential White House. The film went viral across media outlets, and Doiron’s efforts have since earned him a reputation in sustainability. In 2010, he was listed in the company of Jamie Oliver and Michael Pollan as one of Fast Company’s “10 Most Inspiring People in Sustainable Food.” He is also the recipient of the “Heart of Green” award in 2009. One of his most reputable successes, though, remains to be the White House kitchen garden — his only criticism of it remains that it is, perhaps, “too perfect.”

Using the blueprint for the White House garden as a template for an effective kitchen garden, Doiron showed what the U.S. garden map looks like, proportionally. “We need to reorder the food priorities,” Doiron said.

“Why not think in terms of an organic stimulus package,” Doiron said, continuing the political thread, arguing that it would be a program both parties could agree on. Doiron used two images to contrast his point. “This is not a back yard,” he said of an iconic, white-picket-fenced lawn. Showing a picture of a flourishing garden, he said, “This is a back yard.”

As he continued to outline the utility of a kitchen garden, he described it as a backyard grocery store. “It doesn’t get localer,” Doiron jokingly said, lending apologies to his grade school English teacher.

In addition to the conventional sustainability benefits, Doiron also recounted the financial benefits from his own garden. “In addition to crunching veggies, my wife and I crunched the numbers,” Doiron said. “We saved well over $2,000.”

While Doiron may have convinced the White House to grow a garden, he continued to stress that the U.S. culture has yet to buy in to the kitchen garden movement. As he later repeated during the Q-and-A, he noted the importance of visionaries who could come at the problem from different angles. “We need a carrot-smoking revolutionary,” he said, humorously, referring back to the edited, veggie-wielding rebels he showed earlier that night. But, instead of only looking at this from a problem-solving angle, Doiron said we need to “celebrate our good food successes and champions at home,” and referenced national outreach program FoodCorps, which connects young people with food, as a good example.

To conclude his presentation, Doiron showed “History of Gastronomy: Part II,” which provided the healthy alternative conclusion to its counterpart. “Grow your subversive plot today!” the end credits read.

A Q-and-A session followed the lecture as guests waited for musicians to arrive for the night’s live entertainment. All were encouraged to attend the conference the next day. Featured speakers included John Jemison, extension professor of soil and water quality; Dorothy Klimis-Zacas, UMaine professor of clinical nutrition; Congresswoman Chellie Pingree; and Fabio Parasecoli, associate professor and coordinator of food studies at The New School in New York City.