This week, Richard McCarthy officially begins his new job as executive director of Slow Food USA (www.slowfoodusa.org). The Brooklyn-based organization leads the American branch of an international group that supports traditional foods and food producers. McCarthy co-founded the Crescent City Farmers Market in 1995 and later began Market Umbrella, an organization that supports and mentors other farmers markets around the world.
Slow Food USA has been dealing with identity issues, with some members focused on the pleasures of traditional food and others on food justice and health issues. Where do you come in on this?
McCarthy: I see it as an "and," not an "or." There is ... responsibility in food, but we can't overlook that there is pleasure. If you begin to develop a healthy relationship with food, with the people who grow it, the seasons when it's available, then you give yourself more confidence to navigate all the terrible food that's out there. I think people who enter the conversation from different places can still convene around the Slow Food table when we look at it like that.
You've seen a big shift in public attitudes and awareness about food issues during your career. How can people understand the magnitude of that change?
M: When I would speak to school groups in the mid-'90s and ask how many students knew what a farmers market even was, one or two hands would go up. Now they all raise their hands. That's incredible, but it's also the revolution of everyday life. We're building relationships on trust and mutual respect, we're not saying you have to do this or that, but our everyday behavior changes things. These kids are growing up seeing that as the normal way things are.
Do you think that's a permanent change?
M: Well, the downside is that young people might not understand that all of this is precarious, that it's based on entrepreneurs and visionaries and risk takers who decided to do something different — the chef who opened a restaurant, the farmers who drove into the city when the media told them that was dangerous. So we have to keep telling that story. All of this that seems natural now still relies on what we do and choices we make. — IAN MCNULTY