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Harry Rakowski: Enjoying life’s roses means enduring the thorns

Commentary

Life just seems to be much more of a struggle these days. The pandemic has disrupted our lives for more than years and filled us with ongoing challenges and fear for the future.

Despite the current low burden of disease, there is fear of new variants arising that might lead to restrictions that limit our quality of life beyond their true risk. Many people continue to suffer from a type of post traumatic stress. 

The seemingly endless war in Ukraine has led to painful hardship and suffering, with constant reminders of human cruelty and inhumanity. Europe faces a challenging winter as Russia cuts off its supply of natural gas. Will this conflict lead to an even greater war?

We face the challenges of inflation, supply chain shortages, high food costs leading to starvation in poorer countries and the likelihood of another recession. The state of the economy has replaced COVID-19 as our number one concern. 

The mistakes of our governments and institutions have lessened our confidence in their leadership and ability to effectively deal with crises. The dysfunction of American politics and justice has worldwide repercussions. 

While struggling with the challenges of life can be painful, there are important lessons to learn from hardship and failure that can help guide us to a more successful future.

Failure challenges and teaches even the highly successful. Michael Jordan, in my opinion is the greatest basketball player of all time. His play seemed effortless. He almost always rose to the occasion to find a way to win. He won six NBA championships and was the most valuable player in the finals all six times. 

Did Michael Jordan have to struggle to succeed? He said: “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” Failure inspired him to get back up, learn from failure and try harder. 

Steve Jobs was fired from Apple at the age of 30 when it was felt that his vision for the company wasn’t in line with a successful business model. He didn’t give up. He spent 12 years working on novel computer technology and software that prepared him to retake the reins of the company and create the most innovative and successful technology and communications business in history. His focus was on innovation, functionality and elegance. Apple is now worth over 2.5 trillion dollars making it the world’s most valuable company. 

Nature also teaches us about the benefits of struggling. The best wine is made from grapes that have to struggle. Hillside wines with greater water runoff have less water to support them, yet usually make the best wines. The lack of water forces the vine’s roots to go deeper to find water and as a result produce wines that better reflect the terroir that they come from. The roots don’t simply accept that there is scarcity, they struggle to succeed and as a result thrive.

Businesses and individuals learn from failure in different but overlapping ways. 

Amy C. Edmondson in a 2011 Harvard Business Review article interviewed a number of diverse high level executives. They admitted to being torn by “how they could respond constructively to failures without giving rise to an anything goes attitude.” Mistakes fell into three broad categories: preventable, complexity-related, and intelligent. It was key to learn from failure, prevent the preventable, limit unnecessary complexity and foster a culture of innovation that accepted failing as an essential part of experimenting to find the best solutions to problems. 

There needs to be a culture of avoiding the blame game of “who did it,” and instead focusing on what can we do to fix it and learn from it. In medicine there has been a focus on acknowledging errors, reviewing their causes, educating physicians, and developing systems to prevent them. 

As individuals we have to accept that failure is an unavoidable part of life. This lesson needs to start at a young age. It is healthy for children in school to struggle and learn from being challenged. Failure shouldn’t be met with shaming and bullying. It should be met with kindness, encouragement and constructive criticism. Dealing with failure is an essential part of learning. It prepares you for the real world which will be much less kind. Teachers are often afraid to even mildly criticize their students since it hurts their own ratings by students. It is similar to the Uber driver asking for five stars so he will give you the same. 

It is too easy for us as individuals to focus on our negatives. Are we successful enough, smart enough, attractive enough, happy enough? Instead the focus should be on embracing our strengths and having gratitude for what is good in our lives. My grandchildren play “Roses and Thorns.” They show gratitude for something good that is a “rose” and accept the “thorn” and try and overcome it. Accepting our feelings and sharing them with family and true friends allows us to “accept what we can’t change and change what we can’t accept.” 

Learning from failure requires resilience which comes from physical, emotional and mental strength. 

Physical fitness is a key factor in living longer and living better. Being healthy makes it much easier to be resilient, not just physically but also mentally. We have designed a website that promotes health and can be used to improve flexibility, build strength and use meditation to reduce stress. I encourage you to try it as many of my patients have. It has given me the fitness that makes me feel healthy, stronger and more able to work through challenges. 

Struggling is an essential part of life. I have learned a great deal from how my patients find the courage and resilience to cope with ageing and disease. I still have much to learn. 

Winston Churchill said “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts.” 

Malcolm Jolley: Is ‘Slow Food’ the future? Taking in the Terra Madre Salon del Gusto 2022

Commentary

The Terra Madre Salon del Gusto 2022 was held at the end of last month in Turin. Terra Madre (“Mother Earth”) is a sub-organization of Slow Food International, the Italian-based world movement founded by Italian Communist politician Carlo Petrini in the mid-1980s to promote the production and consumption of food that is “good, clean and fair”. I attended it for two of the five days that it ran, as a guest of the Italian Trade Agency in Canada.

The first Slow Food event I ever went to was in Toronto, in the mid-to-late-2000s. It was at Roberto Martella’s now defunct Grano restaurant, which was also established in the mid-1980s and quickly became a centre for the celebration of both Italo-Canadian culture (including, of course, food and wine) and a salon where new ideas learned about and discussed. True to form, that evening, Martella was right on trend.

Roberto and the Slow Food Toronto chapter organized a dinner, for a mixed crowd of foodies and trade people, comprised of local products and wines introduced by the makers and it was a good time. By the early 2010s Slow Food Toronto events, like their annual picnic at the newly renovated and repurposed Evergreen Brick Works, were hot tickets that attracted top chefs and winemakers and commanded the attention of the growing number of people taking a greater interest in what they ate, whether for epicurean, political, or cultural reasons, or some combination of all.

Slow Food was then more than a dining club, even if the main attraction to their events for many (like me) was more to do with the promise of a good meal made by an all-star team of top chefs than belonging to a political movement.The galvanizing act that led to the formation of Slow Food was the protest against the opening of a McDonald’s at the bottom of the Spanish Steps.

Slow Food was always about more than opposition to fast food. It was about the convivial and cultural power of “good food” and established the “Ark of Taste” to protect traditional foods. It was about “clean food” that’s made in sustainable ways that respect the natural environment. And it was about “fair food” that was made for the economic benefit of its producers.Slow Food was, and is, a political movement, which skewed on the progressive end of the spectrum, and there would always be some kind of speech or polemic communication at their events.

More than a decade and a pandemic on, I wondered where Slow Food fit in a world where local provenance and environmental consciousness had been adopted into the mainstream. Would the Salon del Gusto be more like a political convention, where the Terra Madre producers and Slow Food convivial would meet and plot the vanguard action of the good food revolution? Or would it be more like a party? (You can imagine which version of Terra Madre I was hoping for.)

Terra Madre turned out to be a bit of both. There were all kinds of seminars and demonstrations that focused on the clean and fair aspects of Slow Food. There was also an official address by Petrini and a panel with the incoming board of directors of the organization, as well as networking going on between the delegates sent by various countries from around the world.The theme of the show was “regeneration”, specifically after the shock of the pandemic, which had caused Terra Madre 2020 to be cancelled. It was held in the ruins of an old smelter, on the banks of the Doria, a tributary that flows into the Po in Turin. The industrial site has been converted into a public park, Parco Doria, and the event was open to the public.

It worked as a kind of giant farmers market, with tents full of producers from all of Italy’s 20 administrative regions, and another open area of stalls with producers and delegations from all over the world. I was there on Friday and Saturday and saw lots of families doing their shopping, as Slow Food delegates engaged in serious-looking conversations beside them.

It had the air of a fall fair, and displays like a long table on which samples of every known dried bean known to humanity were arrayed. With each was a card with information from whence it came, and sometimes a picture of it on the stalk. This was surprisingly popular with children. Another booth was run by the Italian association of free-range honey producers and encouraged visitors to rate blindly a selection of honeys from around the country.

It also worked as a kind of trade show. I was one of a handful of foreign journalists brought to Terra Madre by the Italian Trade Agency operating in our respective home countries. But we were in the larger company of buyers, who had come from around the world looking for interesting Italian products to import. Deals were being made all over (presumably fair ones).

Wandering around the Terra Madre Salon del Gusto, talking to producers and eating and drinking it all in, as it were, I came up with three main takeaways about the event.

The breadth and depth of Italian food and wine are colossal

I spent an hour or so one morning in the tent that housed exhibitors from the Southern Italian region of Calabria, in which I tasted roughly a dozen different ‘nduja’s.‘Nduja is a tangy, soft, and moist spreadable sausage, liberally spiced with pepperoncini peppers that can be found in Canadian specialty stores but is still rare enough outside of its natural habitat to be considered exotic. I didn’t set out to taste all the nduja, but once I had two or three it seemed like a logical course of action. I don’t know how many nduja producers there are in Calabria, but I am comfortable speculating that the ones who travelled to Turin for Terra Madre represent a small fraction of the total.The same must be true for all the dozens upon dozens of olive oil, pasta, salumi, cheese, and other items set out to be sampled or bought by the Terra Madre producers.

Wine at Terra Madre had its own tent and sitting area, the Enoteca. There one could buy tickets for a glass of one of just under 500 wines or vermouths. All of them poured by uniformed sommeliers, ready to answer questions about each label.This would be a feat unto itself, except the wines all came from, and only came from, Turin’s home region of Piedmont. There are 19 other administrative regions of Italy, all of which produce wine, some of which produce a lot, but this insanely broad sample featured only one.

No doubt some of the pasta producers at Terra Madre dream of being the next Barilla, and some of the wine producers would happily take their place next to big producers like Zonin or Marchese Antinori. But the scale of small, family-run production throughout food and wine is impressive to ponder and sank in as I made it from the tent of each region, through the rows of tables laid out with their wares.

The (slow) food is the message

There were a number of stages and seminar areas throughout the Terra Madre grounds. Sometimes they would be holding tastings or panel discussions.The most popular one I saw was for the Slow Food-run University of Gastronomic Sciences, which drew in groups of high school kids to visit the show. Who wouldn’t want to go?

But by far the most popular areas, and the places with the most action, were the stalls of the producers who engaged their churning audiences with madly sliced cheese, dried balsamic vinegar on little wooden spoons, or anchovies stuck with toothpicks. They not only knew how to speak on their products (sometimes even in English), but they were also doing brisk business. People came for the goods and real programming was eaten and drunk.

Italian food production is back to the future

The first rule of going on press trips is don’t complain about going on press trips. So, I am not complaining when I report that I had a six-hour layover at the Munich airport on my way home. The gastronomic entertainment at MUC was not nearly as diverse or interesting as what I’d seen and tasted in the days before in Turin. Over a schnitzel and a stein of beer it occurred to me that my hosts at the Italian Trade Agency had done more than show me excellence in that country’s food and wine production.

It also occurred to me that they had done more than show me that excellence can, and more often than not is, be made in a way that is good, clean, and fair. I knew all of that already; I am in the choir singing about it every day. What Terra Madre showed me was that smaller-scale companies, often family-owned or co-operatively run, can create an economic ecosystem that brings employment and growth across the entirety of Italy. Is this the back to the future of manufacturing, or even agriculture, in the West? If it is, we’re all going to eat and drink very well.

In my next column, I will profile a few specific producers, especially winemakers, I met at Terra Madre 2022.