I’m taking a bit of a break from the food porn and recipe theme to share some words of wisdom from two writers — Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman — who have been profoundly influential to me over the past few years. Both spoke in two unrelated but conveniently spaced venues today, and I had the opportunity to attend both of their talks, so I thought I’d share a bit of what I learned with all of you.
Michael Pollan has become a household name over the past few years following the release of his fourth book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Pollan’s a comfortable and entertaining storyteller, even when stuck behind a podium in front of a packed auditorium. His intention tonight was to talk about what has influenced his writing over the years — in essence, what shaped him into the journalist he is today.
I won’t give you a line by line recap of the talk, as I would probably bore you to tears. Yale will post a podcast of the event (via iTunes) soon, and you can hear him tell his tales himself. I will tell you that a “war with a woodchuck,” which escalated into a sort of “horticultural Vietnam” in his garden in Cornwall, CT, played a key role in Pollan’s realization that the transcendental framework that helped shape our country’s relationship with nature didn’t quite apply when practical matters like food production came into play. “As long as we live here, we are going to need to change landscapes,” Pollan stated. “We don’t have a very good ethic for dealing with the landscapes we must change.”
Pollan said this realization got him thinking about the “messy places” in our relationship with nature, food production, and the environment. This realization, above all else, really helped shape his place as a writer, he said, and it’s a theme he touches upon in all of his books (many of which he read selections from tonight). For the rest of his story, you’ll have to go listen to the podcast. It’s definitely worth checking out.
Mark Bittman, aka The Minimalist, was the second speaker I wanted to tell you about. If you haven’t read his column in the NY Times, go have a look. His recipes are generally very good, and even better, they’re designed to be simple, straightforward, and somewhat foolproof. He’s not a brilliant speaker — he relies on a pre-prepared script — but if you get him talking about food, culture, and the environment outside of his formal, prepared speech, he’s got some really interesting things to say about the future of the American diet. His talk today was mainly about the origins and consequences of so-called “meataholism” in America. I’m basically going to provide you with a summary of his key points.
Bittman, who made clear he is not a vegetarian, started out by explaining that livestock are the second largest contributor to greenhouse gases. Our food, in essence, has become a huge environmental problem.
His proposed solution? Eat less meat. His argument is based on both history and numbers. Historically, Americans didn’t use to rely so much on meat for their day-to-day nutrition. With the advent of industrial agriculture, a twofold increase in the US population corresponded to a fivefold increase in the amount of meat consumed in America. We are currently consuming ~1/2 a pound of meat per day. Realistically, we should be consuming that much in an entire week, and our collective health is suffering as a result.
“There’s no good reason for eating as much meat as we do,” Bittman said. “And I say this as a man who has had his fair share of corned beef.”
He tied all of this into the current food crisis, brought about by rising grain prices. As hunger-induced riots break out in less fortunate parts of the world, and grain shortages are partially tied to rising meat consumption in the developing world, the impact of America’s current food culture is becoming quite clear.
“There is enough land on Earth to feed the people on Earth,” Bittman said, but cautioned that this is only the case if we convert land currently used to grow livestock feed into farmland for growing fruits, vegetables, and grains for direct human consumption. This is backed up by research (Bittman cited David Pimentel from Cornell).
He should have a book coming out on this topic in January, but if you want more detail in the meantime, check out his recent article on the subject at the NY Times.
As for me, I found some inspiration in one of the questions asked after the talk. People seemed to think vegetarian food was difficult to make, especially when you’re looking for something quick and portable for lunch. I figured this might be a topic worth exploring a bit, so I’ll put together some easy recipes for future posts. In the meantime, does anyone have any favorite vegetarian lunch options they’d like to share?