Bittman and Pollan, back to back

Michael PollanI’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?

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8 Comments

Filed under environment, stories

8 responses to “Bittman and Pollan, back to back

  1. The fact that I didn’t know Pollan was speaking last night almost (almost) makes me want to cry. I can’t believe I didn’t know about it. . . Well, I will look forward to the podcast…

    Very well written article, and I agree with everything you said.

    I have always struggled with how to explain my eating choices to other people. If I don’t call myself a vegetarian, it becomes awkward, complicated and occasionally offensive. People wonder: how could I eat meat but choose not to eat their meat? Eliminating meat entirely from my diet was easy; my choosing to only eat humane meat has been associated with plenty of guilt and awkwardness. Yet, I no longer believe in a vegetarian-only diet, so I don’t have any plans to return to it. I have a friend who, after reading Pollan’s book, decided to follow this sort of plan – and gave up because she felt too rude about the whole thing. I’m sure she’s not the only one.

    I keep thinking if I ever get a chance to meet Michael Pollan, I would challenge him to start spreading an identifying phrase that describes the general “eat less meat” philosophy. I’d like to be able to call myself an “omnivore”, but for those not familiar with the book, that term certainly doesn’t make sense.

    I’ve also thought, if I ever were to assemble my favorite recipes into something, I’d call it “The Omnivore’s Cookbook” and it would be a cookbook designed to teach people how to adjust recipes to what they have at hand (dairy free, wheat free, meat free, etc). This skill – of knowing how to use what’s in our own pantries – is something I never knew about and have only started to learn recently. It’s something we’re losing as a culture. When I think about how my eating habits have changed in the past five years, I am astonished. I grew up on Taco Bell, KFC and frozen Costco lasagnas. It is empowering to finally know how to feed myself! (And to enjoy the process!!) The only reason I stumbled onto this was necessity: when I became a vegetarian 7 years ago, I had to learn how to cook. Maybe things could go in the opposite direction – if people learned how to cook, they might enjoy the flavor of vegetables more.

    Vegetarian lunch options. I agree, lunch is actually the trickiest meal of the day because it needs to be portable. Sandwiches never work for me, salads are soggy, and most pasta’s get stale very quickly. I think really hearty soups, stews and vegetables with rice are the easiest option. When I assemble a lunch meal, it always follows: carbohydrate, vegetable, fat. My favorite veg lunch option (although certainly not the one I make the most) is to curry made with coconut milk over rice. Alternately, roasted vegetables with rice or pasta is delicious, keeps well, serves at room temperature, and easy to prepare the night before. I have found that a liberal amount of olive oil on everything does wonders.

    Today? Today Greg and I both have leftover Passover grain/roasted vegetable meal that was turned into taco filling. Weird, eh? I plan to post about it soon – it was tasty!! : )

  2. I make a lot of one pot dishes and bring the leftovers for lunch – pasta with vegetables, rice with kale and lentils, and so on. Sometimes I throw meat in there, sometimes I don’t depending on what I have on hand.

    I have been successful at nearly cutting out eating non-humane meat – I only eat meat if I buy it myself from the farmers market or at a restaurant where I know they choose their meat responsibly. But when I’m at a family member’s home I generally eat their meat regardless because I feel bad not eating it. I agree that it is awkward to be around other people and reject meat.

    But I also don’t understand why topic always focuses just on meat – what about all the other things people want me to join in eating with them that conflict with my morals? Like pitas and gross cheesy spinach dip at a bar last night that were obviously processed in a factory and not in their kitchen. I have a hard time not eating food put in front of me, even though i know i shouldn’t eat it, and it’s still something I’m struggling with.

  3. liz

    😦 I’m sorry! I should have emailed… Next time. It’s interesting — Bittman actually had a response to your question about how to explain why you’ll eat meat, but not just any meat. He basically stated that this isn’t a movement the government is going to help us spread; we have to do it ourselves, by making it “cool,” so to speak, to be conscious about the amount of meat we’re eating (and its source, though Pollan’s better about emphasizing that aspect of the problem). Basically, we should stick to our guns, despite the discomfort, and act like it’s the normal (even fashionable) thing to do. Call yourself a semi-vegetarian, if you want, and make people ask you what it means. Eventually, people will either start to see the sense in what you’re doing, or they won’t. That’s the best you can do.

    I think your idea about a cookbook that teaches people to adjust recipes to fit a more environmentally-friendly / humane diet is an awesome idea. I think half the trouble is that people are a little bit scared to become a vegetarian, or even cut down on their meat consumption, precisely because they don’t know where to start, what to cook, etc. They think it has to be time consuming and troublesome. I had a similar experience to the one you describe, actually. When I became a vegetarian, I had to figure out how to cook from scratch, so I bought my first cookbook (Sundays at Moosewood, for the record), and started playing … I think it was the first time I realized vegetables were not just a token side, required for every meal, but could actually hold their own, quite easily! Jamie Oliver makes this point in Cooks with Jamie, come to think of it. He basically explains that people hate vegetables because they don’t know what to do with them, and sort of challenges the reader to let him prove them wrong.

    So anyway, I think we’re in a good place to start trying to change the way people eat in America. I just think we have to push through the difficulty of explaining the choices we make about our diet, in the hopes that it’ll make people think about their own choices. The key to all of this is to show people it can be done easily and affordably, without a huge adjustment to their current way of life.

    Curry over rice sounds really good, speaking of which. And I’m intrigued about the Passover grain / roasted veg combination, so I’ll look out for your post! It’s going to take a little experimentation to find vegetarian options that can be stored and eaten at room temperature (I have a microwave, fridge, and toaster oven at work, so I’ve been spoiled), but I think I’ll get there. Today, I brought a jicama and fruit salad with a bit of cilantro, chipotle powder, and lime juice, which is great, but I think a bit of protein would have been nice. Black beans, perhaps …?

  4. liz

    Julia — I think the point both Bittman and Pollan have made is that industrial agriculture / industrial food aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. Bittman focuses on meat because it is causes the biggest environmental impact of any part of our diet. In the talk, he also emphasized eating whole foods, not processed crap, is a really important step to make, and urged the audience to only eat stuff that your grandmother would recognize (at which point, I thought, my grandmother served canned string beans for years, because that was the era she lived in, but I digress).

    Anyway, I know it’s difficult not to eat what’s put in front of you, when you’re in situations like that. I have the same trouble, and I’m not sure if there’s an easy solution to the problem. I kind of figure that the best thing anyone can do is have people over and get them involved in making fresh stuff, from scratch, and show them it’s not impossible, and it is worth the effort.

  5. pshazz

    rachael – omnivore’s cookbook sounds great! i have quite a few friends who have dietary restrictions, and sometimes i’m at a loss for what to make. vegetarian is fairly easy for me, but what do i do with gluten alergic people?!
    though i wonder why sandwiches don’t work for you (unless you just don’t like them)? perhaps you could try bringing the fillings and the bread in seperate containers so the bread doesn’t get soggy? same with the salad / dressing – i’ve never had soggy salad doing it that way.

    julia – i watched a documentary on milk yesterday, and the experts interviewed said that if it was a decision between cutting dairy and meat, they said without a question, cut the dairy. but there seems to be a lot less focus on that. i guess that is not quite what you meant by talking about focussing on things other than meat. but it does seem as if meat is the one thing everyone talks about over anything else that might be unhealthy for you.

    i too have been spoiled with fridge, toaster oven and mircowave at work. i could only wish for a coil burner, but i guess that is really asking too much.

  6. liz

    p, what’s the name of the documentary? and for your gluten-free friends, here’s this. She’s more into talking about food than sharing recipes these days, but check out her archive.

    a coil burner would be awesome. you know what — we have a whole oven in the machine shop, but i’m not sure if it’s for cooking food or random noxious other stuff?? i suppose i could ask… if i promise to bake ’em cookies on occasion, i’m sure they wouldn’t mind if i used it.

  7. pshazz

    got the facts on milk though it’s finished, and she’s shopping festivals… so it’s not out for the general public yet.

    an oven in the machine shop… sounds more like its for the latter. but hopefully not. that would be flippin awesome if you had oven use!

  8. Pingback: It’s personal this time « threeForks

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