Saving the world, one slow bite at a time

A child biting a classmate for trying to steal her cookie doesn’t sound that unusual — until you learn that the child in question is Sarah Weiner.

Weiner, founder of the Good Food Awards and an early adopter of the Slow Food movement, says defending her cookie was simply a harbinger of her passion for food.

The awards, founded five years ago in San Francisco, recognize American producers of artisanal products that are not only delicious but also produced responsibly. That means no artificial ingredients; fairly compensated workers; ingredients grown without synthetic pesticides, herbicides or GMOs; and good animal husbandry practices.

In short, the awards “celebrate the kind of food we all want to eat,” said Weiner. These are the same principles found in the Slow Food movement, which is where she started her career.

Now a San Francisco resident, Weiner, 35, grew up in St. Louis, attending a Solomon Schechter day school until middle school. “Judaism was definitely a strong part of my childhood,” she said.

Her family wasn’t particularly food-centric, but she described a yeasted dough turnover with blueberry filling made by her Holocaust-survivor grandmother; she lived in Chmielnik, a village near Krakow, before settling in Skokie, Illnois. Weiner and her sister still make the pastry today.

By high school, she was reading Bon Appetit magazine religiously, and “instead of doing normal high school things, I baked and cooked and liked sharing different treats with people, and would save up my money to try different restaurants.”

She worked in restaurant kitchens during summer breaks while attending Dartm­outh, but quickly found that “I wasn’t surrounded by people who loved food,” and that the culture “involved a lot of alcohol.” Additionally, “it was a very macho culture, and I knew it was not the career I wanted.”

Weiner’s “aha moment” came when her mom, an editor who received review copies of books, brought home an essay collection from the Slow Food movement. She tore through it. She had grown up caring deeply about the environment, and “reading those essays made me realize that you can save the world without depriving yourself of pleasure. I realized there was a path that involved really good food and saving the planet, and that was very appealing to me.”

Sarah Weiner (from left) with foodies Nell Newman of Newman’s Own Organic, Alice Waters of Chez Panisse and food writer Ruth Reichl photo/marla aufmuth

After she graduated, she took advantage of a grant that helps Dartmouth alumni travel and study abroad, and she went to Italy.

A former economics major, Weiner wanted to understand how Italians had access to much better produce than Americans, despite having less money. She also took the opportunity to attend the first class of the Slow Food movement’s cooking school. She was one of just four students, and by the end she was offered an internship in the Slow Food office.

That eventually led to a position at Slow Food International in Italy, which is where she met Alice Waters, founder of Berkeley’s groundbreaking Chez Panisse. Weiner was assigned to be her translator at the movement’s international congress. The two women hit it off and kept in touch, and when Waters offered a job as her assistant, or in Waters’ words, “Girl Friday,” the answer was an immediate “yes.”

That put Weiner at the helm of the Slow Food Nation gathering in 2009, which brought 50,000 participants to San Francisco for lectures, workshops, tastings and more. And that led to Weiner launching Seedlings Projects, an organization that supports sustainable-food movement efforts, including the Good Food Awards.

The awards have given a big boost to winners, including Emeryville-based INNA Jam, owned by Israeli American Dafna Kory. “The Good Food Awards have had a hugely positive impact on INNA Jam and many other food producers I know,” Kory said.

Some 200 judges, all specialists in their field, taste each product, and the winners are announced in an Oscar-like ceremony in San Francisco — but with less fancy dresses, Weiner notes. Waters places medals around the winners’ necks.

If the Oscars or the James Beard Awards can transform lives, “why not bring that same transformative power to these industries where people work really hard based on their own passion?” Weiner asked. “It’s not because it’s a superlucrative field, and it’s not to be millionaires.”

BY THE BOOKS: Two particularly interesting cookbooks have come out in the last month. The first is “The Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook: Garden-Fresh Recipes Re­discovered and Adapted for Today’s Kitchen,” which I recently wrote about for the Forward (www.tinyurl.com/forward-vilna). Translated into English from its original Yiddish by Eve Jochnowitz, the cookbook was written by Fania Lewando, who owned and operated a kosher vegetarian restaurant in pre-war Vilna, Poland. Given that my own yichus goes back to Vilna, I was especially interested to learn more about this staunch advocate for vegetarianism at a time when it was not in fashion. One could say that Lewando, who was killed fleeing the Nazis, was the Mollie Katzen of her time. The book is as much a historical document as a cookbook, with recipes and advice that can — and should — be followed today.

­The second new cookbook is one that disciples of Israeli chef Yotam Ottolenghi will want to know about: “Honey & Co.” by Itamar Srulovich and Sarit Packer. The Israeli husband and wife met in a restaurant kitchen in Tel Aviv and moved to London, where they worked for the Ottolenghi empire for several years before striking out on their own to open a tiny restaurant called Honey & Co. Their book has won numerous awards in the United Kingdom and has just been published in the United States. Of course, it has the expected recipes for hummus and falafel, but there is so much more, as I point out in my review in the Forward.

 

Headshot of Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."