Eat Real Fest Founder Anya Fernald Can’t Stand the ‘Bullsh*t and Pretense’ Around Fancy Food

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Anya Fernald aboard the Soul Cocina blender-cycle at last year's fest. Photo: Courtesy of Eat Real Fest

When Alice Waters stepped down from her tower in Berkeley to summon forth Slow Food Nation a couple years back, she turned to sustainable food writer, consultant, and all around acolyte of all things "slow," Anya Fernald to put the event together. Anya has since gone on to become a judge on Iron Chef America, and to found the Eat Real Festival in Oakland, which kicks off Friday and is both a street food fest and a sort of slow-food county fair, complete with pickling demos, an Urban Homesteading Zone, and a butchery contest which this year pits reigning champs Marin Sun Farms against New York's Dickson's Farmstand Meats and San Francisco's own Avedano's.

We grabbed a few minutes with Anya to talk about the fest, and about her take on the sustainable food movement in general.

How will this year's Eat Real be different from last year's?
Anya Fernald: Technically because a lot more people are going to come… We're expecting at least 100,000 at this point, over the three days. The biggest change is that we've integrated a massive amount of programs. We've injected a lot more learning and DIY stuff into the festival, like a workshop in how to make your own ricotta. Last year we had one stage and some demos, but this year we've got three stages, and one of them just devoted to Urban Homesteading, and a mainstage devoted just to food-crafting and raising the profile of artisanal food producers across the states.

We're also doing a 'good egg' stand this year, and we'll have local producers talking to consumers about egg safety and they'll be selling local eggs there.

The idea behind the festival is not just to have a party and show everyone a good time, but to create a platform where we can really discuss practical solutions to the world of food that we're all facing. Sort of a fun, casual environment where we can figure out the skills we're going to need to feed ourselves as a community going forward.

What did you take away, in terms of lessons or pitfalls, from organizing Slow Food Nation?
Basically that events can be powerful. Sometimes people think of events and they're like, "ugh it's another fancy food thing." But with Slow Food we saw an opportunity to speak to people through their hearts, and bellies, and minds about sustainable practices and food crafting. I didn't realize how many people were going to respond to that event, and respond so positively to it.

It was just too expensive, from both a participant perspective and from an organizer's perspective. So I then turned to thinking -- and this is a lot about what my company does now -- just how can we make that kind of experience more affordable and more rooted and real?

So why street food?
Well, there's a lot of events with a lot of street food that's not very good for you. A lot of deep fried chicken wings and funnel cakes and there's more interesting food out there, and local food artisans and vendors who we can highlight. We wanted to do something educational in a event that people love - like a county fair - something that's fun and enjoyable and cheap. That's not always easy.

What's your original background in the food world?
I've always wanted to work in food. My parents had a big garden and I grew up on a farm in Germany, outside of Munich, drinking fresh milk. I grew up, in my first ten years, there and then my parents moved to Oregon and later to the Peninsula. I think my childhood was like twenty years behind other peoples' childhoods. Both my parents grew up on canned food, and they were really inspired by living on a farm and tried to keep that in our lives when we moved back to the States.

Then I worked as a baker and cheese-maker and a chef, and I realized my passion was really on the organizing and advocacy side, the kitchen wasn't exactly where I wanted to be. The real revelation came when I was in my early twenties, making cheese in Africa and Central Europe, hanging out with really rural people, and here they were making and consuming all this amazing food without any bullshit or pretense surrounding what they're doing in making food. It made me look at progress in a very different way. We're used to thinking in a wealthy country we eat better, but that's really stopped being the case.

We get knocked for being impractical - my company does consulting and what we do is all about being really practical. I think that Eat Real could be a platform for the next generation of food producers. If you look at the kind of marketing Big Food has they're just out-gunning us on every front. But it's obvious to everyone that something has to change. First there's an egg scare, and just now I heard that Wal-Mart's recalling meat. Consumers are like 'What do I do? How can I opt out?' And the answer is to buy different food. Eat Real is a place for people to learn some of the first steps about how to do that.

What are your thoughts on Alice and how she gets knocked for telling, say, an impoverished urban mother of four that she can't feed her kids McDonald's?

Look, you can't tell anyone what not to do when there is no viable alternative. I live and work in downtown Oakland and I often have trouble. I know what it's like to live in a food desert. The closest thing to my office is a McDonald's. I'm not imagining we're ever going to come up with 99 cent Eat Real meals. But when the system really cracks, which we're going to see at some point, then people need to be prepared. Everything's going to get more expensive. But idealism isn’t useful after a while. The food movement needs to be a bit more aggressive, and to say there are these massive systemic changes that have to happen before we can offer a real alternative. The whole framework is so massively stacked against us. With the right message, the right pricing, the right format, I think this type of food will really appeal to a lot of people, across socio-economic strata. When you're talking about an egg making your child sick, you're going to be willing to pay 20 to 30% more for one that won't. Another flaw in the sustainable food movement is saying that it's all or nothing. Maybe it just starts with eggs and dairy for your family. And you take it from there.

Enter to Win Free Beer Tickets for This Weekend’s Eat Real Fest [Grub Street]
Earlier: What You Missed at Oakland's Eat Real Fest (2009) [Grub Street]