By Susan Gloss | Photo By Jim Klousia 0
When local food activist Genya Erling looks around the kitchen in the Madison home she recently purchased, she sees potential. The house was built in 1929 and, like many homes of that era, has a square, closed-in kitchen. She’d like to knock out a wall and open up the space so that preparing and enjoying food becomes a focal point in the house, just as it is in her life. Genya’s vision for the future is not limited to her kitchen, however. She’s invested herself in the future of Wisconsin’s food system as well.
In 2007, while in graduate school for environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Genya founded the UW chapter of Slow Food International. Slow Food is a non-profit organization created in Italy in 1989 as an antidote to fast food’s increasing global influence. Slow Food International has grown to over 1,300 chapters worldwide and focuses on sustainable agriculture and educating consumers. Through its Ark of Taste project, Slow Food also catalogs and promotes traditional produce and livestock in hopes of saving dwindling varieties from extinction. Slow Food’s conservation efforts can be seen right here in Wisconsin; several local foods have been cataloged in the Ark of Taste, including the Beaver Dam Hungarian heirloom pepper, Lake Michigan whitefish, and the Sheboygan tomato, a variety first cultivated by Lithuanian immigrants.
Genya founded Slow Food UW because she saw a need for a new generation to bring energy and perspective to the movement. Since earning her master’s degree, she’s no longer a member of the UW chapter, but sits on the board of Slow Food Madison. Genya also performs with the Limanya Drum and Dance Ensemble. When I met Genya for a cup of tea on a bright winter day, she was getting ready for a trip to Guinea with the ensemble, but she was happy to take a break from her trip preparations to talk about food.
Susan: What motivated you to start the UW Slow Food chapter?
Genya: I was living in Germany in 2006 doing graduate research on urban gardens, and I had the opportunity to attend Slow Food’s Terra Madre conference in Italy. There were people there from all over the world and you had a choice of listening to the presentations in six different languages. I felt like a UN ambassador. One of the messages that struck me was something a speaker from Africa said on the Women in Agriculture panel. She said that the people fortunate enough to be there had a gift of knowledge, and it was our responsibility to share it.