Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Return of the Minimalist

Earlier this evening I attended the kickoff event of Seattle Arts & Lectures at Benaroya Hall in downtown Seattle.  Last time I was there I was onstage as Bastyr University's grad student commencement speaker, but this time I was in the rear row of the balcony to hear Mark Bittman's talk on "The Future of Food" followed by a Q&A.  In recent years Mr. Bittman has evolved from "The Minimalist" New York Times food and cooking writer into a voice for the food movement. His opinion column has raised important questions about the role of dairy in our diet, supported GMO labeling, and chronicled food pioneers from Maine to California, so I was interested in what he had to say.

Mr. Bittman is an important player in the current conversation around food, if for no other reason than he has a powerful platform upon which he can publish his views. Still, in person he is the least charming of the "food politics trifecta," with Michael Pollan and Marion Nestle far exceeding him in eloquence, likability and in my point of view, expertise. Yet there is something about his brashness, his everyman-ness, his minimalism that makes him more of a voice for the masses than either Pollan or Nestle. He paints a picture of Big Food as the Big Bad Wolf and hails Big Government as the solution. He is optimistic about the potential for an alternative U.S. food landscape - one that relies on small and medium sized farms which employ primarily organic methods to support what will be an increasingly plant-based national diet  - but is comfortable asserting that it will either come about by way of democratic change or post-apocalyptic necessity. He freely admits that little will come of the next farm bill but encourages the audience to think carefully about who they elect to the House and Senate where many of our food battles take place.

It was a safe choice for the inaugural SAL event. Talking about the food movement to forward-thinking, composting, gardening, PCC-shopping, CSA members in Seattle is just about the least risky event imaginable. Though I was surprised at how openly political he was (publicly assuming that the entire audience would be voting for Obama - not unlikely, but still...) I was also surprised by how little he was willing to share. During the Q&A he was asked about his favorite vegetable and what he likes to cook and he seemed openly irritated by these lines of questioning. When the moderator Chip Giller of Grist asked about his transformation from writing recipes to writing about the food system, he insisted that was his interest all along but it was not until recently that he had enough of a following to actually get the Times to give him the space. Though his cooking columns were his bread and butter, and his cookbooks have sold thousands of copies, he was far less interested in talking about those, much to the chagrin of some of the fans present this evening.  At the end of the night I felt like he'd touched upon many issues - from junk food marketing to kids, the obesity "pandemic", farm subsidies for corn, wheat and soy to veganism, food workers right and immigration policies - mostly in a superficial manner, refusing or perhaps unable to bother going deeper into these penetrating questions and uncertainties regarding the future of food in this country and worldwide. To Mr. Bittman's credit he was staying true to his minimalist roots, keeping it simple and straightforward. His take away message was that in addition to doing our part and making food choices that we believe in, we need tighter federal regulations, more public health initiatives and more Democrats in Congress (and of course The White House) to achieve that.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Rebecca - good to see you after the event! I definitely agree with your assessment. I am quite a Bittman fan, mostly because he makes cooking accesible. I was a bit disappointed that I didn't learn much at the even, given that content didn't stretch beyond his recenpt op-eds... and that he was so uninterested in talking about actual food.