Mark Bittman’s new gig, struggling small farms, and more
When my info-larder gets too packed, it’s time to serve up some choice nuggets from around the Web.
The Minimalist no more
For 20 years or so, Mark Bittman has been one of the nation’s most important and prodigious food writers.
In his extensive list of cookbooks and in his much-loved weekly Minimalist column, Bittman’s message has been a consistently populist one: if you want to cook well at home, you don’t need fancy equipment, wizard-like knife skills (or any other rarefied knowledge), exotic ingredients, or even plenty of time. All you need need is a little patience, some good ingredients, and a few simple techniques.
In a classic 2007 Minimalist column, Bittman showed new cooks how to outfit a high-functioning home kitchen for $200 — less than the price of a single All-Clad saute pan. The introduction to that column could be called the quintessence of Bittmanism:
Like cookbooks, kitchen equipment is a talisman; people believe that buying the right kind will make them good cooks. Yet some of the best cooks I’ve known worked with a battered batterie de cuisine: dented pots and pans scarred beyond recognition, an old steak knife turned into an all-purpose tool, a pot lid held just so to strain pasta when the colander was missing, a food processor with a busted switch. They didn’t complain and they didn’t apologize; they just cooked.
But famous TV chefs use gorgeous name-brand equipment, you might say. And you’d be right. But a.) they get much of that stuff free, the manufacturers hoping that placing it in the hands of a well-known chef will make you think it’s essential; b.) they want their equipment to be pretty, so you’ll think they’re important; and c.) see above: a costly knife is not a talisman and you are not a TV chef.
Well, Bittman announced recently that he’s ending the Minimalist column and moving onto a weekly New York Times op-ed column on the ethical and political issues raised by food — terrain he has already staked out with his recent book Food Matters. He’s not leaving behind recipes altogether; he’s also going to become the cooking columnist for The New York Times Magazine. That’s welcome news, because in my opinion, the Magazine hasn’t had a great recipe columnist since Molly O’Neil gave up that spot more than a decade ago.
I lament the end of the Minimalist, which I’ve been reading since it started in 1997. But I’m extremely excited to know that a voice as clear and true as his will bring critical discussion of food issues to the Times op-ed page, which remains a culturally and politically potent space even in this age of declining newspaper relevance.
Bittman’s bold debut
Never one to waste time, Bittman has already come out with his first op-ed: “A Food Manifesto for the Future.” The piece throws down the gauntlet on his vision for food-system policy, covering plenty of ground with great (surprise) brevity. As a longtime critic of the meat industry, I find it exhilarating to see this exhortation in the “paper of record”: “Outlaw concentrated animal feeding operations and encourage the development of sustainable animal husbandry.”
But probably the most provocative part of his agenda relates to subsidies. Bittman wants to end government subsidies to “processed food” (i.e., corn and soy subsidies) and shift them to farms that “produce and sell actual food for direct consumption” (i.e., produce growers). His goal here is beyond reproach. He understands that the problem isn’t that the public sector supports farmers; it’s the way it supports farmers. Bittman wants to use public policy in a way that serves the public (eaters) and promotes ecological sustainability and robust farming economies.
But the details of of getting there are tricky. Supporting producers of storage crops like grain is different from supporting producers of perishable crops like broccoli. The Midwest’s farm belt, where the great bulk of corn and soy are grown, remains one of the greatest stores of topsoil on the planet, even after more than a century of abuse. As I’ve argued so many times before, ending subsidies there wouldn’t necessarily change farmers’ incentive to squeeze the land for as much production as possible, environment be damned.
Rather than a cold-turkey end to subsidies in the grain belt, I’d rather see a shift to incentives that push corn/soy farmers to diversify crops — including a shift, in former prairie lands, to grass-fed beef production in rotation with grain and legumes. Proper crop rotations (including things like oats, buckwheat, lentils, grasses, etc.) would both diversify the American diet, and require much less environmentally ruinous pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. Vegetable production, too, could be part of diversification schemes. There’s absolutely no reason that the Midwest doesn’t supply all of its own fruits and vegetables, especially during the temperate months.
As for the second part of Bittman’s subsidy agenda — subsidizing farms that “produce and sell actual food for direct consumption” — I agree, but again, the details are tricky. You don’t want to subsidize, say, huge amounts of broccoli production, and then watch it spoil because demand didn’t materialize. To me, the best way to support direct producers — beyond, that is, universal health coverage, access to credit, and access to affordable land — is to invest in the infrastructure required for efficient local and regional food production. (I spelled out my case for public investment in food infrastructure in some detail here; and here is an abbreviated version for the New York Times‘ Room for Debate feature.)
Quibbles aside, welcome to the food-policy debate, Bittman!
Down on the (small) farm
For a stark look at the brutal economics of human-scale farming, the way new farmers get squeezed by high land prices and the lack of a safety net, check out this piece (both sound file and transcript) from California’s KALW News on the plight of beginning farmers in California. Readers of Grist’s food coverage will recognize one of the subjects of the piece: Rebecca Thistlewaite, author of the legendary and incendiary Grist piece “Do you have the balls to change the food system?” If we can’t solve the problems laid out by KALW News here, we’re doomed to a two-tiered food system in which most people eat processed junk and a few people get high-quality food grown by artisans who subsidize their farming habit with off-farm fortunes. As Thistlewait puts it: “I really hope that our food system is not only going to be created by wealthy people, for wealthy people. I’m hoping that normal, middle-income or even lower-income people can actually get into farming.”
• Now this guy is a real character. Thanks to my friends over at EcoCentric Blog for taking the time to interview me (complete with audio podcast).
• How abysmal is our national school lunch system? Get this: In a survey of Michigan schools, kids who ate school-cafeteria food turned out to be 29 percent more likely to be obese than kids who brought lunch from home. The system is great at minting new industrial-food addicts; less so at nourishing children and presenting a decent public vision of what food is.
• L.A.’s public school district has banned Jamie Oliver for filming the new season of his TV show in LA public schools, the LA Times reports. “If you look at the last series he [Oliver] did in Huntington, W.Va., it was full of conflict and drama, and we’re not interested in that,” a district official told the Times. I’m having a bit of trouble getting outraged over this. Why can’t Oliver just shoot a documentary — why bend to the absurd conventions of reality TV, with its reliance on generated drama? Reality TV is great at generating instant celebrities; less so at portraying complex situations.