Salon has an informative review of Mark Bittman’s new manifesto/cook book Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating. Bittman is the author of several cookbooks and writes for the NYT, including the “Minimalist” column about cooking. The reviewer, Laura Miller, calls Bittman the “anti-foodies’ foodie” and describes his book as an application of Michael Pollan’s principles aimed at making us healthier, saving money, and benefitting the environment:
The formula is very simple (Bittman is the Minimalist, after all): “Eat less of certain foods, specifically animal products, refined carbs, and junk food; and more of others, specifically plants, in close to their natural state.” It is a recommendation that owes much (as Bittman repeatedly acknowledges) to the work of Michael Pollan, author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “In Defense of Food”; the spirit of Pollan presides over this book like the Virgin Mary over a Catholic Church. In fact, you could describe “Food Matters” as “applied Pollan,” because Pollan, for all his endlessly inventive, inquisitive and adventurous writings on American eating and food production, lacks Bittman’s pragmatic touch.
Miller raises two points worth thinking about. First is that what will sound like common sense to some will seem radical and totally impractical to others:
It can be easy for someone like me to forget that many people would see Bittman’s plan as untenable, since the kinds of foods he recommends aren’t sold in affordable chain or fast-food restaurants or available prepared or frozen in every suburban supermarket. Some of his advice — carry nuts and fruit around with you for snacks, so you can avoid vending machines — may be tenable for them, but some of the rest will seem even less practical than the Atkins Diet.
This is related to Miller’s second point, that “Americans simply don’t know how to cook”:
Real home cooking means having a good repertoire of reliable, quick, uncomplicated recipes and understanding enough of the underlying principles to improvise when needed. It means knowing how to stock a pantry and plan your menus so that you shop for groceries only once a week. It’s a set of skills manifested as an attitude, something you can acquire only through regular practice, and it’s the one thing that can make a person truly at ease in a kitchen.
Like writing, driving, touch typing and balancing a checkbook, basic cooking is a life skill (not an art or hobby) that everybody needs, and it ought to be taught in public schools as a matter of course. The fact that cooking can also be a craft, featuring a certain amount of self-expression, or that contemporary star chefs have been exalted to a degree far exceeding their actual cultural worth, shouldn’t be allowed to obscure that humbler truth.
And of course, though Miller doesn’t mention it explicitly, many people don’t cook because they don’t have time to: they’re working long hours, maybe at more than one job. Preaching at people to cook won’t change the way many of their lives are structured by the demands of work and other obligations.
Miller is optimistic, though, that just about anybody can learn to incorporate uncomplicated recipes of the sort Bittman favors here and in his cookbooks, even if much of what he proposes will seem radical to some people. Recipes like those offered in the magazine Everyday Food, “familiar American fare yet free of processed and fake foods,” should be feasible for most of us, she says, and can help us save some dough to boot.
I want a both/and approach here: I do think there are ways of changing our diets to be healthier and more eco-friendly that are within the reach of nearly everyone. And it’s important to point out that this doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing affair; every little step helps. If there’s one thing that probably discourages people from radically chanigng their diet for whatever reason, it’s probably that it seems like such a daunting task.
But let’s also not forget that forces beyond our immediate control influence the way we eat. For instance, our existing farm policy, as amply documented by Pollan and others, makes a lot of bad foods artificially cheap (e.g. virtually anything with high fructose corn syrup in it), so it’s no wonder that overworked, cash-strapped people hit the frozen food section or reach for a bag of snack chips instead of whipping up an all-natural meal of whole grains and leafy greens. Reducing everything to a matter of individual choice ignores the way market forces and food policy structure the choices available to us. A more sensible policy would make it easier to choose foods that are healthier, more humane, and better for the environment (which, needless to say, wouldn’t eliminate the need for individual choice).