I just finished Mark Bittman's new book, Food Matters. It's quite good; though if you have read any of Michael Pollan's work or Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, not much of this book will surprise you. We are eating ourselves into extinction, and our love for steak, short ribs, and baby lamb, is exacting intolerable effects on the environment. Our food policy sucks, and Americans are fat as a result. For the uninitiated, the first half of Food Matters includes horrifying statistics and thoughtful policy critiques. Old news to most people who care about such things. But, by providing recipes, tips, and quiet motivation along with a dollop of persuasion, Bittman does what Pollan failed to do in his book: operationalize the "more plants" mantra. He also achieves a level of practicality that Kingsolver misses: we can't all move our family to a farm, grow asparagus, raise chickens, sell rainbow colored eggs, and spend a year writing about it (though I wish I could, especially the part where I get a fat advance for the book). That's not to say that I didn't love AVM, I did. But it was more theoretical than applicable.
So does Food Matters have added value?
In a word: yes. Bittman provides a common voice to a movement that is totally out of touch with reality. There is no way I'm going to buy all my groceries at the Farmer's Market and, let's face it, if I'm not going to do it—and I'm literally a liberal stereotype (urban dwelling, This American Life loving, green tea drinking, Obama voter)—than most Americans are certainly not going to eat all local. It's just not realistic. But Bittman isn't selling locavorism, organic produce, or anything artisan. For once he comes across sounding like a "regular" (as my Aunt Franny would say).
Despite the fact that I can't commit to a 100-mile diet, I do want to make healthy decisions and avoid ruining the planet, and eating less meat can go a long way in helping achieve these goals.
If I have one critique of Food Matters it would be around Bittman's discussion of weight loss. He argues that eating less meat, junk food, and refined carbs will help you melt away the pounds. That's it. Bittman's strategy is to eat vegan until 6pm. Follow these guidelines and you'll be looking like Giselle in no time. This might work if you were eating Hungry Man Dinners or tenderloin every night, but what about the people who are already eating lots of plants, not a lot of meat, and just a little bit of pasta, but could still stand to lose a few pounds (I won't mention any names). What should those people do? More discussion of portion size and exercise is needed if the book adds anything to the weight loss discussion, which, to be fair, is not the book's only purpose (yet it is part of the sales pitch on the cover "save the planet, lose weight").
With that said, I'm loving the recipes and the motivation to make wiser food decisions, which brings me to another reason why this book has added value: Bittman personalizes the journey. Having lost 35 pounds Bittman is literally a walking before and after picture ala Weight Watchers or Jenny Craig, but without the annoying commercials and products. His success story is totally motivating: he's healthy, he feels good. Today, the voice of Mark Bittman followed me around while I searched for a place to eat lunch in downtown DC. Vegan until 6 pm? I can do that. So I stopped at Couscous Cafe and got the veggie couscous with a side of baba ghanoush. I felt completely satisfied. I'm not sure if it was because of the food or because I was eating vegan, and, at least in my mind, that was a small victory (both for my waistline and the environment) in a world that seems to be falling apart.
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