It's been almost 30 years since Mark Bittman earned $50 for his first food article, and in three decades of penning cooking columns for The New York Times and recipes for his How to Cook Everything cookbook series, he has shifted his focus from food preparation to food policy. Along the way, he has come to believe that home economics and the global economy are more closely tied than he first expected.
"In the beginning, I thought, 'Cooking is not that big a piece of this,' " Bittman says, referring to his writings and lectures on the history and future of food policy. "But now I've come to think that cooking is enormously important here. Most people can't have an impact on official policy, but they can have an impact on food in their own world—just by doing their own cooking."
As the keynote speaker at MTSU's upcoming social science symposium, Bittman will discuss his 2009 book, Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating. Part polemic, part cookbook, Food Matters peeks under the hood of the U.S. food machine to show how agricultural policy and big business steer consumers toward junk food and empty calories, with consequences ranging from diabetes to global warming. The catalyst for the book was the jarring fact that global livestock production generates more than 20 percent of all greenhouse gases.
At first blush, the topic might seem a bit wonky for a culinary personality who has challenged world-renowned restaurateurs at their own recipes (Bittman Takes on America's Chefs), experimented exhaustively with kitchen equipment and cooking techniques (How to Cook Everything), and ridden shotgun through Barcelona with Gwyneth Paltrow (Spain: A Culinary Road Trip). But while the early pages of Food Matters echo the familiar doomsaying of Michael Pollan's blockbuster The Omnivore's Dilemma and Robert Kenner's documentary Food, Inc., the second half of Food Matters is all Bittman. After making the case that our collective appetite for fast food is imperiling the planet, the Times' no-nonsense curmudgeonly cooking writer, a.k.a. The Minimalist, prescribes a manageable plan to eat less meat and more plants, lose weight and heal the planet.
Based on Bittman's own dietary reformation—he lost 35 pounds by eating "vegan until six," i.e., with no animal products until dinnertime—Food Matters lists 75 recipes for so-called sane eating. Bittman includes a sample four-week meal plan designed for flexitarians, who may or may not want to throw in some fish or chicken.
How does a self-proclaimed "lessmeatarian" feel about addressing an audience in Middle Tennessee, land of the meat-and-three? "New York is the land of pizza, hot dogs and three-star restaurants, so I don't take all that stuff too seriously," says Bittman, who tries to cook at home as frequently as possible. That said, he adds, "The U.S. is the land of processed food and meat—that is inarguable. Statistically, that is how we eat, and that has to change." Of course, attitudes toward food are changing, as evidenced by 24-hour must-see broadcasting of chefcapades and kitchen combat that has changed the meaning of TV dinner and brought ingredients such as arugula, quinoa and chèvre into the national dining vernacular. "I bad-mouth food TV, but even watching chefs do things that range from overly elaborate to downright stupid is expanding people's minds to see things beyond fast food, so they're poised to begin eating more intelligently," Bittman says. He likens the slow change in dietary improvement to the early days of the women's movement, which began with a lot of "consciousness-raising," if not a lot of immediate progress. For all the rising viewership of food programming, there's little progress toward abolishing concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), where factory farming results in both inhumane treatment of animals and pollution of surrounding natural resources. Nor is there a clear plan for improving the national school lunch program, which spends almost $1 billion annually on student meals that too frequently fall short of federal nutritional guidelines.
"The consciousness is higher than it ever was," Bittman says. "Having said that, there's no indication that fast food sales are going down. When we see signs that fast food sales are going down, we'll know things are going in the right direction. Whether it takes a national disaster, like mad cow disease, or swine flu being related to factory-produced pigs, I don't know. But I think we're poised for that change—though there's not a lot of hard evidence that it's actually arrived."
Mark Bittman will speak at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 10, in the Tennessee Room of the James Union Building at Middle Tennessee State University. Food, Inc. will be shown at 4 p.m. Nov. 10. Both events are free and open to the public.