SAN FRANCISCO — Pick up your forks and knives, and let the revolution start now.
That's the rallying cry of the organizers of Slow Food Nation, an event designed to change the way people eat.
Fifty-thousand people, including some of the world's leading food authorities, health care experts, farmers and policymakers, are expected to attend a four-day exhibition in San Francisco over Labor Day weekend — what's being called the largest celebration of American food in history.
Their message: Americans need to fix the food system or risk destroying their health and the planet.
Slow Food Nation is the first such event to be held in the United States. If successful, subsequent gatherings will be held in other locales such such as New Orleans and Washington, D.C.
Slow Food, a philosophy that food should be not only savored, but also produced with a social and environmental conscience, started as an Italian protest movement in 1986.
Furious that McDonald's had come to Rome, political activist Carlo Petrini organized a demonstration against the chain.
"Rather than take the French route — driving a tractor through the building — Petrini took a more Italian hedonistic tack," said Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food. "Petrini set up trestle tables in front of the McDonald's, called upon Italy's grandmothers to make their favorite dishes and served them to passers-by."
Since then, Slow Food organizations have formed in 131 countries, working to preserve local cuisine and lobby for more sustainable and fair-wage farming practices.
Critics have denounced the movement, calling it elitist and accusing it of trying to stand in the way of farming and production methods that would make food cheaper.
"Unless we squeeze the fossil fuel out of our dinner," Pollan said, we won't be able to maintain a viable food supply. "We no longer can catch salmon in Alaska, fillet it in China and serve it in New York."
Slow Food Nation founder Alice Waters, the Berkeley, Calif., restaurateur who popularized the idea of serving food straight from local, organic farms to the table at her restaurant, says the timing of the event, which kicks off on the eve of the presidential election, is no coincidence.
"We want people to vote with their forks," she said. "Food is our common language. The choices we make about what we eat not only affect our health, but affect our planet."
Pollan hopes the event will help galvanize the new administration to push for a better food agenda in this country.
There's something terribly wrong, he says, when "it's cheaper to buy a double cheeseburger than a head of broccoli."
Countries like Haiti and the Philippines have become so reliant on imported rice that they've stopped growing their own, said Pollan, who blames globalization. Now their citizens are going hungry.
Waters complains that people don't even know how to cook anymore.
She hopes that Slow Food Nation will motivate people to get back to the basics — "learn how to fry an egg or stir polenta." She's also optimistic that participants will be spurred to reject industrialized farming, persuaded to eat locally and inspired to fight for changes in food policy.
None of this is far-fetched, said Waters, who has seen a significant shift in the public's attitude in the last five years — especially in the 18-to-22 age group.
"All of a sudden, it's happening," she said. "There are all these people who want to live off the grid. They want to farm. I see young people with their kids buying food at the farmers market."
For information and tickets for the event, which is scheduled from Aug. 29 through Sept. 1, go to www.slowfoodnation.org. For details about the Slow Food movement, go to www.slowfood.com. There is a chapter of the group in Sarasota.