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Mark Bittman - The New Alice Waters?


weinoo
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Over 2 years ago, I started a topic entitled Tired of the Alice Waters Backlash - Are You? My position was (and is) that I am tired of the backlash. I've always liked Alice and feel her contributions to our thinking about our relationships to food and how we eat have been invaluable.

I've also always liked Mark Bittman. Well, not necessarily always, but most of the time. I mean, how much can you like a guy who got to drive all around Spain with Gwyneth and Claudia all the while eating great food and drinking probably what amounted to a decent amount of wine?

But I do like him, because some of his books and much of his advice the about food - via columns, articles, TV, etc. has basically been right on. He works well with chefs, that's for sure. And when we here at eGullet challenged him about the recipe during the whole no-knead bread controversy, he took it in stride and reworked the recipe until it was better.

Anyway, Mr. Bittman also writes the occasional editorial in this day and age, and this past Sunday he had the lead piece in the Times' Sunday Review section, entitled "Is Junk Food REALLY Cheaper?"

The crux of the article is that obviously, junk food isn't cheaper; it's just easier. Of course, it's a little more complicated than that and where Alice would have you cooking the organic egg in your long handled copper spoon filled with EVOO over the fireplace in your kitchen, Bittman (or Bitty, as Gwyneth likes to call him) simply says:

...the alternative to junk food is not grass-fed beef and greens from a trendy farmers’ market, but anything other than junk food: rice, grains, pasta, beans, fresh vegetables, canned vegetables, frozen vegetables, meat, fish, poultry, dairy products, bread, peanut butter, a thousand other things cooked at home — in almost every case a far superior alternative

But, he then goes on to say:

It’s cooking that’s the real challenge. (The real challenge is not “I’m too busy to cook.” In 2010 the average American, regardless of weekly earnings, watched no less than an hour and a half of television per day. The time is there.

In a way, I find this quite similar to the oft-quoted story (and I'm paraphrasing badly here) of Alice telling people that instead of buying fancy sneakers they should instead buy organic grapes, but maybe I'm being too harsh on Bittman.

Alice didn't want you to have fancy sneakers and Bittman wants you to stop watching TV and to start cooking. Just taking Alice a step further, don't you think?

Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

Tasty Travails - My Blog

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We should stop watching TV -- particularly Food Porn TV, and start cooking. The American food landscape, in the words of Charles Dickens: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us."

It is the best literary device I can think of to describe a country where those with the inclination can source and cook the absolute best of the best food, often for a fraction of what it costs elsewhere. And yet most of the population eats junk food every day because it's too freakin' hard to heat up a Hot Pocket in the microwave.

Why should I be upset about Bittman's opinion?

Edited by ScoopKW (log)

Who cares how time advances? I am drinking ale today. -- Edgar Allan Poe

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I agree with many of the ideals, I just don't like the way they sometimes choose to get them across. I can be convinced through sound argument to change the way I do some things but I can't be guilt-tripped into anything. It usually has the opposite effect... I start digging my heels in.

It's kinda like wrestling a gorilla... you don't stop when you're tired, you stop when the gorilla is tired.

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I'm not sure that I buy Bittman's argument that fast food is as much about cost as convenience.

But I don't buy your comparison to Alice Waters. For example, he explicitly notes that in his cost calculations:

I used supermarket ingredients, not the pricier organic or local food that many people would consider ideal.

I can't imagine Alice Waters making that assumption.


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I'm blushingly admitting that I ate one of BK's 99 cent Spicy Chicken Sandwiches for lunch -- it's two minutes away and I didn't have any bread in the house. This happens once every two weeks.

But Bittman's entirely right. For the price of four SuperDooper meals at a fast food joint you can feed a fam of four for a week, if you're blessed, as we are, by a fine selection of food vendors. And I'm not talkin' lentils and brown rice, though there's nothing the matter with that.

I understand Tri2Cook's aversion to guilt-tripping. Grrrrr. And I understand that we're empty nesters who can work around an episode of "Hustle," and no longer have a starving teen at our table. But, apart from two bucks per month spent on emergency lunches, knowing how to cook, and be willing to do it, is where you're going to get the cheapest, healthiest, most delicious bang for your buck.

Margaret McArthur

"Take it easy, but take it."

Studs Terkel

1912-2008

A sensational tennis blog from freakyfrites

margaretmcarthur.com

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The same message packaged in different ways will appeal to various folks. One of the key things I have noticed is that people need to be aware of their options. I am not even talking about knowing how to cook, but something more simple - food procurement. I have related this before. - when the teen boys (mine and his buds) went off on their own they thought they were being super shoppers stretching a buck using the dollar menus and the constant fast food coupons that appear on-line. Then they noticed that they were tired, lethargic and gastrointestinally candidates for that annoying Activia yogurt commercial. They found the taco trucks, the best in terms of taste/value ratio of Korean ayce Q, and learned to cook their own pasta (Olive garden be damned). Ideally people would come to realize this on their own as the boys did, but if Bittman is one more voice in a positive direction I am cool with it. Not to say he is telling us anything new, but who is ;)

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I think Bittman is very unWaters in this article. I'm not in love with everything he does, but I think he gets it right in this piece. This is important:

Real cultural changes are needed to turn this around. Somehow, no-nonsense cooking and eating — roasting a chicken, making a grilled cheese sandwich, scrambling an egg, tossing a salad — must become popular again, and valued not just by hipsters in Brooklyn or locavores in Berkeley. The smart campaign is not to get McDonald’s to serve better food but to get people to see cooking as a joy rather than a burden, or at least as part of a normal life.

He says elsewhere that the alternative to soda is not Bourdeaux, just like the alternative to McDonald's is not to become an insufferable bore and nitpick about food with a sense of superiority. That's a welcome message and I don't hear a lot of people saying it. He's not nagging people to change their lives. In fact, I think he assumes that his audience is pretty much on board in this piece so he's talking about what to do with what we know. I actually think he's trying to move beyond the first stages of an incipient food movement. He equates it with the anti-tobacco campaign and I hope he's right in linking the two. It would be great to see those kinds of successes happen with food. It will be harder though, which is what he points out.

nunc est bibendum...

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Intellectually, I agree with what Bittman says. I don't eat much fast food at all any more, other than the once-every-two-months-or-so stop at Sonic or Burger King for French toast sticks, my guilty pleasure. But I do periodically buy it for the teenaged boy I'm raising, who won't eat anything green, eats very little seafood, very little fruit, but would happily dine every day on chicken strips or burgers or mac and cheese or pizza. And yes, he's overweight. Unfortunately, I didn't acquire him until he was 15, so his eating habits were pretty well formed.

I've just gotten through indexing the first year of recipes on my blog -- before this kid came to live with me. Looking back, I notice that I didn't cook every night -- but even my "snacky" nights were good, from-my-fridge or pantry, healthy (for the most part) snacks. I can't feed him like that. If I'm coming home exhausted from what is an increasingly stressful job, and I really have no appetite, I give in much more frequently than I should to the temptation to stop and pick him up something.

Not a whine -- though, reading back, it certainly sounds like one -- but just a reflection that sometimes convenience is the best we can do, given the circumstances we face.

Edited by kayb (log)

Don't ask. Eat it.

www.kayatthekeyboard.wordpress.com

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We should stop watching TV -- particularly Food Porn TV, and start cooking.

Does that include the internet and food sites like Egullet?

That online time's an additional two hrs, so it wouldn't count (ha). Though replying seriously, it would depend on the user's purpose in either media, I think. If the viewer/participant is looking for information or instruction versus entertainment.

I appreciated kayb's post and the Guthman quote about how cooking is one of the few things we don't have to do (in my mind "we" was parents/guardians/caregivers). Both seemed to describe (to me, more realistically) the challenges in making changes or consistently providing meals, which are more difficult than just cutting out a sitcom each night. Which I guess was your read of the quote, weinoo, so I guess I do see the similarity.

I agree with many of the ideals, I just don't like the way they sometimes choose to get them across. I can be convinced through sound argument to change the way I do some things but I can't be guilt-tripped into anything. It usually has the opposite effect... I start digging my heels in.
And this was how I was beginning to feel after the second page.
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I don't know much about Bittman but I liked the article and agreed with him.

Also I don't think his comment about time spent watching TV was being preachy and telling people to stop. I think he was just pointing out that the whole "I haven't got time" argument isn't actually true. I feel the same way when I tell people I like to read and then ask them if they do too, and they look at me scornfully and tell me they don't have time. Er, yes you do, you just choose to spend it doing other things. No need to apologise for it (you're free to do as you please) but don't act like my life must be completely empty for me to have time for such a "luxury".

I think there is hope for people who hate cooking and don't really care that much about how food tastes though. I have a friend who fits this profile and also has a very busy household to look after. But she does cook because she has discovered something that works for her - eggs. Fast, she likes them, can be cooked in various ways, etc. It's not perfect, she does still buy a fair amount of junk food for the family, but at least she's making an effort.

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I think Bittman's preaching the truth: eating out used to be a treat, adventure, or celebration for Americans. Today, restaurants have become home meal replacements. The nutritional and resulting health care costs of this seismic shift will be an enormous economic burden in the coming decades. If you have time to wait in line at a fast food place, you have time to boil an egg and make a piece of toast.

Can we PLEASE get home economics (the food kind: budgeting, shopping, meal-planning, basic cooking) back into the curriculum? Apparently schools need to take it on as parents are failing their kids woefully in this department.

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It seems to me it should be an educational process rather than a regulated effort, teaching kids about dietary options. Should we make Home Economics part of a required curriculum? Why is sustainability taught to 4-H students and not every student? Shouldn't children learn not only where food comes from but how it's processed, harvested and prepared. It breaks the chain of dependency if you shop and cook for yourself.

"I drink to make other people interesting".

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Bittman presents a different take from Waters, but he's still presenting it in the NYT. He's preaching to the choir.

Anyway, I think what an earlier post is the most true. It is the convenience. It isn't that it takes a little longer to roast a chicken but that it takes longer and for a lot of home cooks, there's a significant chance that they will destroy the chicken in the process. I know it is pretty easy to roast a chicken but I also remember cooking ten years ago and having many failed attempts. It was incredibly frustrating to spend a bunch of time and money and then end up with a terrible meal because I didn't know what I was doing or trying too hard to rush it but not taking the time to prepare. Until people know HOW to cook, the decision will be hard for them to pass up fast food.

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Probably preaching to the choir, but fast food isn't really all that fast anyway...

10 min to get ready to go out and drive to the neighborhood burger joint.

15 min to stand in line, order, and get my bag of food.

10 min to get home.

Who here couldn't put something together that's 10x tastier and 100x better for you in that time?

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While Bittman is plowing old ground (Pollan, Schlosser, etc.) he's brought it all together pretty well in two pages. I think it's a good enough piece of work that I'm sending a link to an old friend, Peter Whybrow, who has written more broadly about the subject in his book, American Mania: When More Is Not Enough. In a short paper here (pdf) he writes:

"Brain systems of immediate reward were a vital survival adaptation millennia ago when finding a fruit tree was a rare delight and dinner had a habit of running away or flying out of reach. But living now in relative abundance, when the whole world is a shopping mall and our appetites are no longer constrained by limited resources, our craving for reward—be that for money, the fat and sugar of fast food, or for the novel gadgetry of modern technology—has become a liability and a hunger that has no bounds. Our nature has no built-in braking system. More is never enough."

Fast food is only one part of something much larger.

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I've just gotten through indexing the first year of recipes on my blog -- before this kid came to live with me. Looking back, I notice that I didn't cook every night -- but even my "snacky" nights were good, from-my-fridge or pantry, healthy (for the most part) snacks. I can't feed him like that. If I'm coming home exhausted from what is an increasingly stressful job, and I really have no appetite, I give in much more frequently than I should to the temptation to stop and pick him up something.

Is it possible for him to do some of the cooking? To take some of the weight off you and give him some hands-on experience with the food he eats? A kid might not touch a carrot stick you cut, but if HE makes carrot and celery sticks with dip as part of the simple meal he prepares for you, he's much more likely to think it's yummy. Just a thought.

Good luck! That's a tough one and bless you in your endeavors.

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Probably preaching to the choir, but fast food isn't really all that fast anyway...

10 min to get ready to go out and drive to the neighborhood burger joint.

15 min to stand in line, order, and get my bag of food.

10 min to get home.

Who here couldn't put something together that's 10x tastier and 100x better for you in that time?

I don't think this is a very accurate description of the choices. It's more like:

Leave work at 5:30 so you can pick up the kids by 6:00.

Unless you've got a fully stocked pantry and have planned menus and done all the shopping for the week, stop at a market to pick up the items you need to make dinner.

20-40 minutes later, get home, give the kids a snack so they stop whining, and start dinner.

30-60 minutes later, serve dinner. So you're eating some time between 7:30 and 8:00.

Clean up the kitchen.

OR

Leave work at 5:30 so you can pick up the kids by 6:00.

Stop at the drive-thru window of the fast food place on the way home.

20-30 minutes later, get home, serve dinner.

I'm not saying that the second choice is better, but it's very much more convenient. For people who don't truly enjoy cooking, it's even more tempting.

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Perhaps the phrase "enjoy cooking" doesn't really go to the heart of the matter. Those who enjoy cooking and who already have some skills, no matter how minimal, probably don't eat fast food the majority of their evenings. The people who are not cooking are people whose obstacles include some or many of the following: being a single parent, poor access to grocery stores other than convenience markets, jobs which cut across dinner time, one or two jobs that are exhausting, kids to take care of, lack of good transportation, and lack of basic cooking knowledge (must be many reasons for that.)

Even if you have some skills in the kitchen, cooking can be work if you are exhausted, hungry, and need to spend time with your kids--who are in the same state most likely, and who have homework that needs some help in addition to everything else.

Just looking at the numbers Bittman quotes he's probably right that most people could cook and eat better for the same or less money, but finding the motivation and mental space needed to learn new skills and habits is beyond complicated. I don't think it can be done without a better support network for all parents and working people. That would be access to high quality subsidized daycare, health benefits, cheaper more reliable public transportation in smaller cities and instituting some type of home ec program in elementary and middle schools to give future families some building blocks. I'm sure that many parents would be pretty happy if once a week homework was nothing but making dinner. Then it might be easier to shop together for groceries and produce homemade spaghetti and meatballs. Would anyone with kids disagree that at least 25% of homework assigned in all schools is busy work and helps no one?

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Probably preaching to the choir, but fast food isn't really all that fast anyway...

10 min to get ready to go out and drive to the neighborhood burger joint.

15 min to stand in line, order, and get my bag of food.

10 min to get home.

Who here couldn't put something together that's 10x tastier and 100x better for you in that time?

I don't think this is a very accurate description of the choices. It's more like:

Leave work at 5:30 so you can pick up the kids by 6:00.

Unless you've got a fully stocked pantry and have planned menus and done all the shopping for the week, stop at a market to pick up the items you need to make dinner.

20-40 minutes later, get home, give the kids a snack so they stop whining, and start dinner.

30-60 minutes later, serve dinner. So you're eating some time between 7:30 and 8:00.

Clean up the kitchen.

OR

Leave work at 5:30 so you can pick up the kids by 6:00.

Stop at the drive-thru window of the fast food place on the way home.

20-30 minutes later, get home, serve dinner.

I'm not saying that the second choice is better, but it's very much more convenient. For people who don't truly enjoy cooking, it's even more tempting.

This is a perfect example to support my point about basic home economics training. If a person is running a household with children in addition to working full time, surely this person has figured out that he/she MUST shop on a weekly or every other week basis: why would you choose to continually stress yourself in the area of meal planning? You need to have a regular rotation of simple meals, with all of the ingredients on hand, and you MUST get those kids into the kitchen to help. I was raised by two working parents who did not feed us fast food. I learned to cook, mostly as a latchkey kid assisted by older siblings, following the lists left for us by our parents. We knew how to make basic dishes before we made it to middle school.

There is nothing wrong with scrambled eggs and rice for dinner, accompanied by steamed broccoli. Or red beans and rice and a tossed salad. I and most people's older elementary school-age kids can prep and serve such meals in less time than it takes to stop for takeout.

So many people have deeply rooted food insecurities: purchased food is somehow better, more American, more aspirational than beans & tortillas/eggs & rice/tuna casserole/other basic simple cuisine. They want to outsource cooking, just like they've outsourced nail care and car cleaning (two things almost no one paid for in my suburban 70s childhood).

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I'll speak for myself and what I propose is inversely proportional to what katie meadow is saying re: subsidized daycare, et al. I'm all for scraping our confiscatory tax system that forces two parent families to have two income earners to live a decent life that involves home cooking and time to spend enjoying one's life rather than racing after that rat.

I don't begrudge anyone a fast food or a meal eaten out at a restaurant. TG things are different today than they were for my mother who hated to cook and did it everyday for us while we were growing up. Breakfast, packed lunches, and a hot dinner. Three meals a day. Seven days a week.

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To me, Bittman comes off as more practical, looking at the big picture and trying to get to the heart of the issues. Waters comes off as more idealistic, shedding a tear over how precious the baby vegetables are. Bittman at least seems to understand the struggles and motivations of the working poor, while Waters, despite being just a few miles from really bad parts of Oakland, seems to think it should be easy for everyone to switch their diet 100% Admittedly, I haven't read anything from Alice Waters in several years, but that is because her piety turned me off. I'm sure she has done a lot for both her community and the national consciousness, and both she and Bittman are preaching to their own choirs, but the church of Alice seems a little more wacky cultish (maybe it's a Berkeley thing) and the church of Mark seems more non-denominational and inclusive.

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