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Q&A: Anya Fernald on eating real

Anya Fernald is founder of the Eat Real Festival. (Aya Brackett)

This weekend, almost 100,000 people are expected to attend the Eat Real festival in Oakland, Calif. As at other food events, eaters will graze from dozens of stands hawking tacos, noodle bowls, ice cream and, you guessed it, cupcakes. But Eat Real is not just another bingefest. It’s a festival with a political agenda.

Eat Real is the brainchild of Anya Fernald, a cheesemaker-turned-food activist and consultant. Her business, Live Culture, helps small, artisanal food producers expand their businesses without giving up the quality or principles of sustainability that made them get into business in the first place. The festival is an extension of that mission. Its goal: to create a big enough market so that small-scale producers can make a living and bring the prices down enough so that hand-crafted foods are affordable to everyone – not just the truffles-and-foie-gras set.

Not that there’s anything wrong with truffles. Fernald, who served as executive director of Slow Food Nation, the 2008 sustainable food extravaganza in San Francisco, believes in the pleasure of good food. Indeed, in her opinion, the good food movement has gotten a little too preachy lately. Too often, people feel bad about what they are eating or not eating. “What I learned from Slow Food was to embrace pleasure and enjoyment. Our goal is to bring that to everyone and every price range,” she said.

About 80 street carts – one selling Mozambique chicken, another selling bao buns – will strut their stuff at the second annual Eat Real event. I spoke to Fernald about this year’s event and her mission to eliminate the elitism from hand-crafted foods. Edited excerpts follow.

– Jane Black

Q: Why organize yet another food festival? What makes this different?

A: I have spent a lot of time in fancier food events, and there are so many where you walk around and there’s a glass of wine and a chef and you taste something. They have good-quality ingredients but it’s pretty formulaic and pretty fancy. At other end, there are big street festivals that are not as fancy and not that interesting culinarily. So we want to take the best food and put it in the most engaging format, something very accessible, that’s free and brings sustainable food to a larger audience.

I think the way to do it is through events and celebrations. I connect to my family and friends around food. Events are piece of the puzzle in terms of getting a broader interest and awareness around good-quality food in America. The messaging about good food skews toward preachy and righteous. I wanted to create a celebration where we celebrate those values and the need to build a radically different food system. We can get there through enjoyment and good flavor and not making ourselves feel guilty.

Q: This year, you’ve also written a manifesto. Among the calls is this one: "We believe that to make real food America’s everyday food, we need to build the skills that will be necessary to feed the demand for better food."

A: This is stuff I’ve been thinking about for a long time. I’ve been thinking about what Eat Real could do in the long term to contribute to the larger food movement. One place is to create a space where there is this new dignity for food makers. How do we up the sex appeal of being a food maker? It’s happening on the fringe. How do we make it cross over? We need a lot more people making food and growing food to be able to re-regionalize our food system.

One of the big obstacles is this huge knowledge gap. The people who do have that background in food craft – people who have done a fellowship in cheesemaking, for example -- are pretty hard to find. And so are the fellowships to learn those skills. If someone here in Oakland says, "I want to be a cheesemaker," where do they go? The point of Eat Real is to lay out values that build up food makers and create pathways to become one. We need more producers with more scale to make good food more affordable.

Tacos at the 2009 Eat Real Festival. (Phillip Yip)

Q: But there are plenty of places for food makers to get their starts. The number of farmers markets are exploding. In New York, there is the Brooklyn Flea and the New Amsterdam market. In San Francisco, there is an underground market where amateurs can test the demand for their homemade food.

A: There definitely are places. But we’re trying to make this a crossover concept. I’ve been at those events. It’s a demographic of pretty hip people of a certain type. What we’re trying to do is push it to a broader demographic. We make sure our prices are very appealing – everything for sale at Eat Real costs under $5. We want to make sure they don’t feel judged by the festival, even if they don’t cook three meals a week at home. I see our voice as one that can attract someone who eats fast food regularly to see a different way of eating. That’s why our motto is “putting the food back into fast.”

Q: Most food reformers vilify processed foods. But you are focused on them. Why?

A: Americans love processed foods. And it’s not like eating something is packaged is bad. We just need to make processed food better. And that means encouraging this growth of regional food producers. Processed foods make it easy for families. They also help farmers become more viable [because they know they have a reliable market for their products.] We believe Oakland and other large urban centers can be a home to thousands of food vendors.

Q: Who will be at this year’s Eat Real festival?

A: We will have 80 vendors. About half are people with a chef’s background or entrepreneurs that are into using local ingredients. Half of the vendors are local taco trucks and barbecue trucks that we have worked with to help sustainably source their meats and produce. There will be a broad range of street foods – from Mexico, Vietnam, China, Europe. We will have a couple that are sugary, like cupcakes and ice cream. We try to stay away from too much deep-fried stuff where we can.

Q: Are you going to take the show on the road?

A: We are planning to take it on the road. We hope to expand to Los Angeles next summer. I want to play big. If we are going to provide a platform for food crafters, we need to be big enough to help them succeed.

By Jane Black  |  August 27, 2010; 10:00 AM ET
Categories:  Sustainable Food  | Tags: Jane Black  
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