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My Beef With Bittman … But, Actually …

Mark Bittman, author of Food Matters (Simon & Schuster 2009), How to Cook Everything (who cares who published it?  But age maters — it was ’08), and author of the former NYT column “The Minimalist,” was on NPR recently, hawking a follow-up to his break out success.  I was listening on my headphones, probably scarfing down yet another overpriced meal from Pret as I listed to Bittman explain that How to Cook Everything: the Basics (with 1,000 photos – for reals) is his response to feedback/criticism he got on How to Cook Everything.  The Basics describes – and apparently illustrates – everything from the most simple (boiling water) to the most overwhelming (how to select kitchen equipment and stock a pantry).  I sat down to write this post, ready to argue him up and down on several points, and to set forth with crystalline clarity why in fact one should never use soap on a cherished cast iron skillet, why having good kitchen equipment does indeed make one a better cook, and why not every star chef should jump in front of a camera.  (When did “triple threat” turn from sing/dance/act to write/cook/be-on-every-show-even-peripherally-relating to food?)

Then I made the mistake of looking him up online.  I should’ve just stuck to my workday tainted impression of Bittman as another media hungry foodievangelist.  But now I can’t.  How can I argue with a guy that uses his good name to make a case for limiting junk food ads in schools?

The Revel Mama in me is cheering him on even as I’m dreading my partner’s turn to watch down our DVR list and as I’m silently casting my curses against Spain: on the Road Again.  I love Spain but I will gouge out innocent olives out if I have to sit through one more awkward dinner with Gwyneth and Batali, whose recent croc in mouth disease further deflates my appetite.  (In November, Batali was quoted as equating bankers to Stalin and Hitler, and just last month shelled out $5.25M to settle claims that he cheated waitstaff out of tips).

Bittman brings to our attention the fact that only one state has banned junk food advertising (I could survive on Maine lobster) while nine states (and this number is growing) expressly permit advertising on school buses.  How can I say one bad word against this man when I, myself, envision retiring to Sao Paolo for the sole reason that in 2006 its mayor passed the “Clean City Law,” which banned outdoor advertising of all kinds.  Despite urgings from alarmist businesses against instituting the ban, now 70% of the city’s residents agree that it’s been beneficial.  Pictures of the city, wiped clean of visual pollution (not even fliers are permitted — can we get that in Brooklyn??), speak for themselves.

Not only does Bittman have a compelling fiscal argument (the ad revenue cannot begin to cover the cost of the obesity epidemic it feeds), but he has a sound legal one as well.  While the environmentalist in me was questioning the necessity of publishing 1,000 photos (1,000!), the Revel Lawyer in me is more impressed by Bittman’s command of the law.  He clearly understands BigFood’s efforts to twist the First Amendment in a way that would make the drafters’ stomachs churn.  Bittman explains that the First Amendment was applied to advertising in the 1970s to give the public access to information about products, but now it’s being used as a corporate sword to swipe away at kiddie consumers’ protections.  The legal test for whether the First Amendment applies to permit unfettered commercial speech, Bittman notes, is that the speech itself must be truthful and not actually or inherently misleading.  As he further explains, authors of a recent article in the journal Health Affairs make the (obvious to any parent) point that children under 12 cannot discern bias in marketing and so all advertising targeting them should be subject to regulation because it is inherently misleading.

Well, Mr. Bittman, I guess your deft legal ability makes you a quadruple threat.  Now, back to my beef with you.  Hmm.  I think I’ve forgotten.  Or maybe it wasn’t so important.  Perhaps it was more a green-eyed author than work-a-day tedium that initially inspired this post.  Either way, I’m glad it led me past your shiny celebrity chef veneer to hear what is clearly an important voice in pushing back the BigFood giants and protecting our most valuable assets.  And for that, I thank you.

One little barb I can get in on Bittman: he teases the Health Affairs article authors about the boring name of their article (“Government Can Regulate Food Advertising To Children Because Cognitive Research Shows That It Is Inherently Misleading.”) but in my opinion slightly missteps with his own headline.  When I first read the title, “The Right to Sell Kids Junk,” in The New York Times Opinionator, 3/27/12, I thought he was going to tell me it’s okay to sell my daughter’s Thomas the Tank Engine collection on Ebay while she sleeps – which I was fully ready to agree with.  Then I read it and realized it’s something far more important than clearing kids’ clutter, which is putting limits on the clutter they can’t control.

6 responses to “My Beef With Bittman … But, Actually …

  1. Ralph ⋅

    From a few programs I listen to, go over to the Guttenburg Project website and search on ‘cookbook’. One I downloaded was written around WW1 and gave recipes ‘to win the war’. Basically very basic healthy meal recipes to help conserve things like meat, wheat, corn and sugar back here in the states.

  2. Ralph ⋅


    For “Foods That Will Win The War And How To Cook Them (1918) by Goudiss and Goudiss ”

    What’s kind of interesting in the 1918 cookbook is the way it presents itself giving examples of how many resources can be saved at home and diverted to the war effort. Everyone had something they could do to help. Today, if it weren’t for the occasional news blip we wouldn’t even realize we are at (how many is it now?) war. Now, even the word ‘war’ is used very carefully since using it would bring to light all the maneuvering done to work around the Constitution and legalities that must precede a war- story for another day, but check out the book.

    • Revel

      I don’t know where you find this stuff, but they are TRULY gems! I cannot wait to download and print out the section on bread making. I suspect it will be a missing link for me. My bread making/learning has been very hodgepodgy, and I’ve been curious to get a grounding in super basic, just the essentials bread-making. Breadmaking is fascinating to me, both the easiest and most difficult thing I’ve attempted (and sometimes accomplished) culinarily. Thank you thank you thank you! for this.

  3. Ralphd ⋅

    That book says you should try to make bread right from the very first time, and has some very basic stuff about bread and meals.

    I just listen to what is probably too many podcasts about too many subjects of interest. I like the podcast/ MP3 player format since it is portable and can be used during what might otherwise be wasted time.

    BTW- search around the Guttenberg site. There are a number of cookbooks and a variety of other topics- plus they are in a number of different formats.

  4. Ralphd ⋅

    I haven’t tried it, but if you want a quick, simple ’30 second emergency bead’ check out:
    about 1/4 way down the page. It’s actually a ‘commercial’ for a rocket stove they sell. It’s not quite 10 minutes, check it out.

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