By Jeanette Pryor
Old Downtown Overland Park, two quaint, store-lined streets, is becoming Kansas City’s Slow Food District, its Culinary Center and specialty shops are delectable evidence that the local branch of Slow Food International is convincing people to center their lives around the joy of home cooked meals; meals made from the resources of local farms and artisans, and shared with people who believe the table should be the heart of family and community.
Slow Food International – How the Threat of a Hamburger is Changing the World
Long before the executive chef of Kansas City’s most famous Italian restaurant brought the Slow Food Movement to the American Mid-West, the organization was an act of rebellion against the invasion of Rome by… hamburgers! In 1986, a horrified Italian awoke to the iconoclastic news that the Golden Arches were going to become part of the Eternal City’s skyline.
Fearing the eventual effects of this viral infection of the heart of the gastronomic universe, knowing what would happen if Italian cuisine was replaced by the embodiment of modern food, an amalgamation of chemicals designed for profit, convenience, and expediency, Carlo Petrini founded Agriocola with several friends. His original intention was to unite and organize the efforts of those who held that human beings should preserve and promote the production of real food, food cultivated with care and in natural ways. This respect for food is motivated by the place it should hold in civilizations, the central unifying locus of the deepest human bonds, family and community.
By the time the group renamed their reformation “Slow Food International,” it had honed its purpose, “Slow Food works to defend biodiversity in our food supply, spread taste education and connect producers of excellent foods with co-producers through events and initiatives.“
The 100,000 members of Slow Food International are organized into “convivia” from the Latin for “to live with.” The “convivial” are local branches that strive to unite members of communities who share the core values espoused by Petrini and endeavor to communicate this way of life to others. Celebrating and availing themselves of the local produce and artisanal food is the main focus of the local groups.
“I Wanted to Teach People to Make the Table the Center of Their Own Families”
In 1948, Jasper Mirabile Sr. and his wife, Josephine, opened a little restaurant on the outskirts of Kansas City. While they were working at the family business, their youngest son, Jasper Jr., was at home with his Nona, his grandmother, begging to learn the secrets of her cooking. Today, in 2010, the family restaurant, Jaspers, is high on Zagat’s list of America’s Top Ten Italian restaurants in the US, and Jasper Jr. is the executive chef.
“My father’s legacy, his dream and ours, is to have our customer’s feel like they are eating at our family table. In our family, the meals bring us together and our lives literally center around the love of good food. We talk recipes and where the best olive oil comes from and how the asparagus is this season. I wanted to communicate this love of food and the importance of family meals to the people who eat in Jaspers,” Jasper Jr. explained when he learned of the Slow Food Movement, he recognized his own dreams echoed in Petrini’s mission.
“I started the Kansas City Slow Food chapter because it was a way to extend the philosophy of the restaurant to the whole community. We have so many local farms and artisans, I thought that starting a local group would bring people together who could promote local products in our own communities, helping those who have a true passion for healthy, real food,” he said.
Judging from the extensive and varied membership list, Jasper’s outreach has been an enormous success. The Slow Food table gathers these and dozens of other members, food enthusiasts who get together to enjoy cooking and sharing their creations.
- Quality Meat Goats from Double O Ranch
- Fervere Bread Company
- Edible Schoolyard
- Kansas Wines
- Good Shepherd Farms
- Louisburg Cider Mill
- Shatto Milk Company
- Travels With Taste
- Johnny’s Selected Seeds
The members are deeply committed to employing natural or ecological techniques in the raising of animals or growing crops, whenever possible.
Law Books Or Cook Books?
While Jasper was using Slow Food to bring the Mirabile family’s love of “the shared table,” to the community, a young attorney was dreaming of trading her law books for her cook books, the courtroom for her kitchen. Laura Laiben O’Rourke had grown up with a passion for cooking. A brilliant student, she ended up in the less creative law library, the top of her classes, but feeling like something was missing. Ten years ago, Laura took a giant leap and founded the Culinary Center of Kansas City.
“The center is a unique venue in the Midwest where “‘culinarians”’ of all skill levels can gather together to celebrate the culinary arts in a variety of ways. Warm service, attention to detail and the commitment to go the extra step in everything we do are the hallmarks of our business philosophy,” she explained.
The center, located in downtown Overland Park, offers thematic cooking classes by local chefs. Julia & Me, for example, offers the public the opportunity to learn and practice the basics of French cooking, in much the same way that the now-famous Julie Powell of movie fame, cooked her way from ignorance of the culinary arts to accomplished resident of the kitchen! Under the Tuscan Sun is a two and a half hour class that introduces students to the joy of signature Italian cooking.
Expanding beyond its original “test kitchen,” the center now houses the Kitchenology shop that offers kitchen tools, aprons, fabulous cook-books and pots and pans designed to withstand a nuclear blast. The center also boasts two spacious dining rooms in which the famous “Staff Lunches” are held. Every Tuesday, the resident chefs of the center serve lunch for a modest fee. The only rule is European seating; you have to sit by someone you don’t know!
Laiben O’Rourke’s dream was not to start a professional cooking school, but a place where anyone who wanted to learn to cook could come and “brush” up on basic skills. The center now offers advanced classes and, in addition to the stand-alone evening thematic classes, offers class series.
It should be no surprise that Jasper Mirabile, the “human hub” of the food scene in Kansas City, should find his way to the center. He brings his “Family Table” message, along with his mother, to the Center to teach classes every month. Laura and her staff at the Center, are an important conduit for the Slow Food message, the enthusiasm for cooking healthy meals, for discovering new and varied ethnic foods.
“There Goes the Neighborhood!”
High on Jasper’s list of Slow Food resources are the fresh array of local Farmer’s Markets. Addicts of the Culinary Center classes and open lunches can cross the street and fill their baskets with the fresh produce offered at Overland Park’s by local farmers, bakers, bee hive keepers and other local artisans. While not all the vendors represent member businesses attached officially to Slow Food, they are the very reason the organization exists. It is to these stalls and families who hauled their crops and the best their gardens had to offer that Jasper, Laura, and Slow Food are trying to direct Kansans.
In last month’s newsletter, Laiben-O’Rourke commented on the food mecca sprouting in the once empty shops downtown Overland Park? Penzeys Spices and the Tasteful Olive offer fresh spices and fresh, natural olive oils and vinegars. Three new restaurants, all family owned have opened. None are chain franchises, and the menus offer fresh, local choices for customers.
Kansas City’s Slow Food No Longer Moving At Snail’s Pace
“The most important thing in this world is family,” Jasper summed up the work of the convivium. “We have folks come to eat here, at the restaurant, who moved here and are far from family because of work. Sometimes, a spouse has passed and there is no one left for them. We try to have them feel at home when they come here, and having this spirit of sharing good food with people who care about them, that picks them up. Some people in Slow Food focus on the ecological aspects of food, and we feel this is very important. But, I want people to create family bonds, bonds that extend to the farmers and bakers, and people here in Kansas City, without going elsewhere. This is the best way to bring people together, around the passion of food we have here, near our own city. We bring folks to the table and that is the magic of food.”
People who share this passion for food will find kindred spirits in the “food district” in Overland Park.
Bringing big appetites and the week’s grocery list to local Slow Food artisans and stores is a great way to sustain Kansas and live by Petrini’s motto, “Encourage food that is healthy, fair, and delicious.”
Jeanette Pryor took the distance Food Writing course in Spring 2010. The mother of four lives near Kansas City and is a senior social sciences major.