Feeling Right at Home at Slow Food Nations Denver
The idiom about being in the right place at the right time rings true for most of us at some point. I’ve lived a fairly nomadic existence since graduating college, moving for a variety of reasons from mere whim to pursuing a second degree. When edible Communities asked me to write a post on the recent Slow Food Nations congress in Denver, I realized that two of my most significant relocations have had a direct correlation to both Slow Food Nations and edible Communities.
My focus has always been on sustainable agriculture, humane livestock management, and craft foods; growing up on a small California ranch is what inspired my career and eventually led me to purse a Culinary Arts degree from Johnson & Wales University’s Vail campus (now located in Denver) in the mid-90s.
By the early aughts, I was living in Berkeley and the Bay Area was experiencing a boom in environmentally sensitive farming, craft foods, and urban homsteading, but Colorado was still considered fly-over country, despite the opening of a handful of landmark restaurants in Boulder and Denver. Around that same time, edible Communities launched, and I was struck by how a no-frills, quarterly magazine so perfectly expressed what I was trying to do with my life.
In 2006, I took a career gamble and relocated from Berkeley to Boulder, but ultimately, Colorado’s food scene was still too nascent to sustain a career as a freelance food and travel writer and culinary educator.
I moved back to San Francisco in August 2008, choosing the date to coincide with the inaugural North American Slow Food Nations. That weekend was a gustatory and intellectual affirmation that I’d made the right decision. For two days, I savored food and drink made with such passion and exquisite local ingredients, I had to blink back tears. I networked with chefs, farmers, ranchers, fishermen, and food artisans, and renewed acquaintances with my former colleagues at the San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmers Market where I’d been a vendor for six years.
I eventually found my way back to Colorado and became the editor of edible Aspen. And then, Slow Food USA selected Denver, out of every city in America, for its second congress. Global leaders in sustainability—from Wes Jackson and Carlo Petrini to Alice Waters and Joel Salatin—were helping to put Colorado’s food and farms in the international spotlight.
It’s hard for me to believe that in just nine years, my state has gone from fly-over zone to hosting one of the world’s most prestigious gastronomic gatherings.
Despite the logistical challenges—altitude, mountainous terrain, a short growing season, mercurial climate, and weather-related distribution issues—Colorado now excels on a national level in craft brewing (we put it on the map, and turned it into a billion-dollar industry, statewide), distilling (we boast the second highest number of craft distilleries in the nation), superb orchard crops, and humanely-raised, grass-fed meats. We have burgeoning wine, hard cider, and biodynamic farming industries, and statewide agritourism. We’re home to a number of women-owned, craft food companies and distilleries that receive national press, and have finally begun to develop an identifiable Rocky Mountain Cuisine that showcases regional foods, both foraged and cultivated. We sustainably farm striped bass in Alamosa, raise native Navajo-Churro sheep in the Four Corners region. and ranch yak for their tender meat and silky fiber. We have some of America’s most gifted farmstead cheesemakers.
The aforementioned logistical challenges have also forced farmers, ranchers, and researchers to innovate when it comes to agriculture, from cultivating in-demand crops like hops and quinoa to using repurposed shipping containers to grow hydroponic crops and raise edible insects.
As the food world came to Denver for Slow Food Nations, Colorado took advantage of the moment to show off its innovative as well as traditional culinary chops. Wendy McGill, owner of Denver’s Rocky Mountain Micro Ranch, had one of the most popular exhibitor booths at the event’s Taste Marketplace, with patrons lining up for samples of “Kentucky Fried Crickets” and other buggy snacks; she also led a seminar, “Critter Cooking: The Art and Science of Insect Cuisine”.
Colorado is also becoming a leader in agricultural endeavors critical to ensuring biodiversity and preserving flavor, thanks to people like Mona Esposito and Chef Kelly Whitaker, the Boulder-based founders of the Noble Grain Alliance and co-hosts of Slow Food’s Grainacs! Block Party. Food waste is becoming a more frequent conversation, as well; my own region has a number of breweries, distilleries, farms. and ranches who convert nutrient-rich by-products like whey, spent grain, produce scraps, and burlap sacks into supplementary animal feed and mulch.
On Saturday, after our shift ended at the (gloriously) busy edible Communities booth, edible Aspen’s publisher, Lisa Houston, and I headed to a nearby vendor’s booth for celebratory cocktails made from two of our favorite Colorado products: Marble Distilling Co. Crystal River Vodka 80º and The Real Dill’s Bloody Mary mix. It’s been a long, slow road to the spotlight for Colorado, but this is just the beginning.
Laurel Miller is the editor of edible Aspen.