SAN FRANCISCO A lush, under-the-stars spread of handmade bread, gourmet olives and fine wine makes an unlikely launch for a weekend dedicated to ending hunger, empowering poor nations and transforming farming as we know it.
Welcome to Slow Food Nation, epicenter of the split personality that is America's burgeoning foodie reform movement.
Some 30,000 people were expected to gather for this Labor Day weekend festival that is one part gourmet nibbles, one part social justice soapbox. It's a gustatory effort to persuade Americans to reject fast, cheap food and embrace organic, local agriculture and a return to the kitchen.
"There are public consequences to every choice we make," organizer and sustainable food advocate Alice Waters said Friday. "For a long time we thought it was our own private business how we feed ourselves. But now we understand there are consequences."
It's a delicious message that food should taste great and be produced in a way that is kind to both the people and the land from which it comes. That we should spend more on quality food now to save on health care and the environment later.
But in our harried nation, it's also a hard sell that frequently has been hobbled by its own pretensions.
"A lot of people don't like to cook. They like to nuke," said John Fiscalini, a festival exhibitor from the Modesto-based Fiscalini Cheese Company. "We do live in a society where our time is so valuable that we don't sit and enjoy meals like our forefathers did."
Slow Food Nation marks the first major event for Slow Food USA, the American branch of an Italian-born organization. But popular appeal has been minimal, in part because unlike in Europe here it has been mostly co-opted by the wine-and-cheese set.
But this weekend's event saw the launch of a new strategy for the growing coalition of food reform and social justice groups that form the backbone of Slow Food, a strategy they hope can remake the movement's image and re-energize its members.
On Thursday, they released their "Declaration for Healthy Food and Agriculture," a 12-point plan they hope can be used as a blueprint for remaking the federal farm bill, the $300 billion measure that influences virtually every aspect of the American food system.
Critics have long complained that the farm bill favors industrial agriculture and undermines efforts to promote sustainable, organic and family-based farming all principles central to Thursday's declaration. The declaration also encourages greater clarity in food labeling and better treatment and pay for food and farm workers.
"The farm bill is making very, very few people successful. The vast majority are hurting," Michael Dimock, president of Roots of Change, said of small farmers. "The big commodity regions of the country are becoming poorer and poorer. We have to reverse that."
The group says it wants to collect 300,000 signatures before taking the plan to Washington to demonstrate to lawmakers that there is popular support for real reform. Food safety scares, energy woes and worries about obesity are generating tremendous awareness of the role of food in other problems, they say.
"Energy, health care, climate change. You cannot make progress on those three issues without addressing food," organizer and author Michael Pollan said Friday.
And if the food tastes great, all the better. Waters has long advocated persuasion via the palate, an approach clearly evident at a 500-person dinner of oysters; grilled, herbed chicken; and spit-roasted porchetta on a plaza outside City Hall.
Likewise, on Friday the theme of campaigning by cuisine drew several hundred people who strolled through the Slow Food Victory Garden and farmers market set up on the plaza, both events open to the public.
"I love it," said Gretchen Reisch, of Santa Rosa, who explored the offerings with a friend.
Reisch lived the slow food life for a while in France. "You sliced up some tomatoes with some of their olive oil, cheese and prosciutto and you just put this dinner together and it was beautiful," she said.
But at home, where she has to juggle schedules and soccer practices and the other details of life, "it's been hard to re-create that."
She thinks the movement has a chance to go mainstream, so long as its advocates keep things simple, as they did with the victory garden.
"That's the one thing I don't want slow food to go to, is that elitism cooking where it gets so complicated and it's almost like wine snobbery."
More events were planned through the weekend, ranging from lectures on world food prices to cooking workshops that would be taped and posted to YouTube.com.
Yet organizers acknowledge that they have an image problem that won't be bridged by dinners such as Thursday's invitation-only affair.
"This isn't real. I know this isn't real," Slow Food Nation executive director Anya Fernald said of Thursday's feast. But she remains convinced that these diners will bring the message home, and from there it will spread.