Mark Bittman – new foodieism – food movement – food movement – food system Food for Thought

Mark Bittman, What In The Heck Are You Talking About?

This past week, a recent article from Mark Bittman popped up in my Twitter feed. I read it, immediately fell asleep (usually the way I cope with stress), and then woke up with a bad case of agita that lasted the rest of this week. I re-read the article three times and each time I came away thinking the same thing: What the f*** is Mark Bittman talking about? The premise of his article is that “foodieism” has to mean more than just enjoying food (OK, I agree), and that foodies are now “fighting to protect human life on Earth.” If that wasn’t a tall enough order for someone who just wants to support their local farmer and feed their family as healthily as possible, he points to the following front lines that foodies need to be battling on (this is not the full list):

  • Defending Democratic Principles
  • Preventing Catastrophe (define, please?)
  • Food stamps
  • Land
  • Air
  • Water
  • Affordable universal health care
  • Animal-welfare
  • Better wages
  • Protecting farm workers
  • Protecting retail workers
  • Protecting restaurant workers
  • Immigrants
  • “Anyone who is harassed at work/at home (mostly women)”
  • “free (and good) school lunches” (isn’t “good” a relative term/idea?)
  • Fighting CAFOs
  • Monocultures

Now, I want to say this: I really like and respect Mark Bittman. But this kind of ridiculous preaching has the exact opposite effect of what it is intended to do. There are many people out there who are interested in food issues, and you basically just beat the sh*t out of them with an incredibly long (and vague) list of political/cultural/economic “intersectionalities.” In other words, throwing out a huge list of incredibly complex issues threatens to paralyze people in their tracks who feel like, “well, I can’t do that, and that means probably nothing I can do will make a difference.” Let’s take it even more granular: What was I, Elettra Wiedemann, meant to come away with after reading this article? That I am supposed to be simultaneously fighting for “land, air, and water” (quality and purity, presumably), while also preventing harassment, and also “preventing catastrophe”?  How are young parents – working hard to provide a safe home, good opportunities, and food for their families – supposed to do all this? How are young 20-somethings, (many millions of whom are in debt because of student loans) supposed to meaningfully participate in this? Also, am I supposed to apply these principles to my food shopping choices? Is there a certain cereal, for example, that comes from a company that fights for environmental rights, food stamps, and literally everyone working in the food industry (farm, retail, and restaurants)? (If there is, please let me know).

If this were a speech that Bittman had delivered at a food industry or food politics-type conference, I probably would not have batted an eye. But this article was published on Grub Street, the food section of New York Magazine, which is a consumer facing magazine. So, to my mind, his article was about 1,090 words worth of a lost opportunity. Because people really give a shit about what Mark Bittman thinks and says (like me). And rather than doubling down on core principles of the food movement, or actions that he knows are especially important to take right now, he presents a list of things that just make you want to cry, click out of the story, or sleep. He leaves us stuck in a kind of analysis paralysis – thinking about lots of things, but taking actions on none.

If you are progressive in today’s world (and I consider myself one), it is indeed a very scary time. Every day does feel like a battle to save the Planet. But the reality is also this: we’re all human. We all have immediate day-to-day responsibilities and needs that sometimes can contradict longer term realities and goals, and vice-versa.  For me, the very big picture is that corporate interests are concentrating their grip on power, and the way to fight back is to fund and support businesses, people, and values at the opposite end of the spectrum. For me, that means:

Of course, when I can do more, I do. But on the day-to-day, leaders of the foodie movement, like Bittman, have to GET REAL and quickly. This is a time when we really need leaders with a clear and concise vision to help light the way and help us to focus our efforts and our dollars. These kinds of preachy articles will make most people – even the most dedicated and concerned –feel more helpless than we did before.

Join the conversation

  • Claudia Sidoti

    Thank you Elettra- additionally, i just start to tune out- reject and rebel against that kind of chatter that helps no one that really needs the help. And even though I’m of his generation- its old, tired and feels regurgitated or otherwise- hard to digest…

    • Elettra Wiedemann

      Thank you, Claudia! I think his intentions are good, but he’s spent too much time being paid to think and cook, and not enough time “in the trenches”/relating to of what many people’s realities are. I was hoping once he left the vegan meal service, he would come out with a series of interesting articles about what happened to all his ideals “when the rubber hit the road.” It would have been so interesting and a great conversation to have, but there has been silence… There must be a strict NDA. Too bad. We all could have learned from that experience and perspective.

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  • Beanpole

    Wow, I couldn’t agree more! Not to mention people of lower economic means or who struggle with illness who are STILL doing all they can to make good choices and contribute to positive change. I think that list is too much for ANY one person. Including Bittman himself.

    Incidentally, I fell down quite a rabbit hole on instagram before I got to your page. It started at Cameron Diaz then through several actresses (including the entire cast of Big Little Lies) which eventually led me to you. I couldn’t be happier to have found your blog/book! It’s exactly what I need right now. Thank you for the wonderful, positive work you’re putting into the world.

    • Elettra Wiedemann

      Hi there!
      I am so sorry I did not write back sooner! I was traveling for work and didn’t have access to a great WiFi signal for about a week. Thank you SO much for your positive feedback and I am so, SO glad you are enjoying the site 🙂 It really means a lot to me and you made my day! Thanks also for taking the time to read my Bittman article — I completely agree with you! He wrote another article in a similar vein to this one where he (and Michael Pollan) list EVEN MORE things to do, including protecting women’s health care centers. I think that is a worthy goal, but I don’t recall seeing any photos of either of them at those kinds of gatherings, do you? 😉 I know they’re trying to get us to think big, but I agree with you that it is too big and beyond the human scale/reality.
      Thanks again and wishing you a wonderful summer! 🙂
      XEW

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  • Will

    Hi Elettra,
    I’m glad you took the time to write a thoughtful and grounded response to the article, and for having the confidence to provide some critical commentary on the infallible Mark Bittman. As a “foodie” (whatever that’s worth), I also respect his voice and advocacy of food/food issues, and I’m also not overly satisfied with the political climate of the country, but I find it very frustrating when someone of his stature produces something as bloated, arrogant, and exclusionary as his piece. Not only is it subject to a fair degree of hyperbole, but you’re right in that he is espousing commandments which are highly unreasonable and frankly out of touch with the average person and eater. I think a big picture perspective is vital and I don’t mind talking about a variety of issues in a broad sweep, but I also think that providing perspective and context on smaller scale is as equally important. Food is beautiful because it is an integral part of every day life, so perhaps we could discuss how to be a responsible and realistic consumers and how that fits into current national experience. I’m sympathetic to the causes Bittman is stressing, but with that style of writing I think he’s going to turn off a lot of readers and fellow citizens which does nothing to create progress with those same issues.
    I’m getting a little dramatic myself here, but I think he’s doing exactly the opposite of getting people on the same page, which to me is a massive shame.
    In any event!, I just moved to the city from the Bay Area and I’m bumbed I wasn’t able to make it your dsicussion at STORY a few weeks ago. This is really interesting stuff! Hopefully there will be more talks like it in the future.

    • Elettra Wiedemann

      Hi Will!

      Thanks so much for your feedback! I think that a lot of it comes down the fact that people like Bittman are paid to think/talk/work about and around food all day, whereas for most people food/food sourcing is an after thought to their immediate responsibilities and priorities (their families, jobs, etc). I definitely also agree that not enough people, who admire and respect MB, push back on him when his advice is impractical or plainly out of touch. I also think he has a lot more to share and doesn’t: for example, I would have been so interested to learn more about his experience in trying to set up Purple Carrot, which obviously encountered some unforeseen complications. I am sure he has been slapped with a severe NDA, but what a missed opportunity for us all to learn from him and lessons he faced!

      On another note, my talk with Amanda Hesser is up on Impatient Foodie’s FB! I hope you are enjoying living in the Bay Area and thanks again for your feedback 🙂 Have a wonderful rest of the summer!

      – Elettra