How to live what Michael Pollan preaches

Mark Bittman's revolutionary "Food Matters" is both a cookbook and a manifesto that shows us how to eat better -- and save the planet.

Published January 5, 2009 11:40AM (EST)

Mark Bittman is the anti-foodies' foodie, one of the few culinary writers around who don't indulge in either the precious chefolatry of the Gourmet magazine set or the remedial pandering of Rachael Ray. In his instant-classic cookbooks and "The Minimalist" columns for the New York Times, he treats the preparation of food as an enjoyable daily activity that needn't be fetishized but that also shouldn't be reduced to layering prepared foods in a casserole dish, popping it in the oven, and chirping "Yummers!" At a time when one-half of America seems to view cooking as an elite hobby while the other regards it as an esoteric mystery, Bittman is that blessed thing, a practical cook.

The essence of the Bittman approach is simplicity, ease and quality, but that means he has to walk a fine and constantly shifting line. Americans' attitudes toward what we eat are laden with class and cultural baggage. It's no coincidence that when the conservative Club for Growth PAC produced its famous 2004 television commercial featuring an elderly couple telling Howard Dean to go "back to Vermont," two out of the seven outré practices Dean and his "left-wing freak show" were accused of involved comestibles: latte drinking and sushi eating. Yet the rules keep changing. Some delicacies once considered exotic -- balsamic vinegar and chipotle chile, for example -- seem to have infiltrated every Applebee's and Boston Market, while others -- poor, blameless arugula -- remain synonyms for yuppie pretension and self-indulgence. We invest food with a tremendous amount of meaning; you routinely hear people touting the ethnic harmony of their town or neighborhood by describing the diversity of its restaurants, as if an understanding of Hinduism or Mogul architecture can be ingested along with a plate of chicken tikka.

Now Bittman has waded even further into the fray by publishing "Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating With More Than 75 Recipes," an unusual blend of manifesto, self-help manual and cookbook designed to convince people that they can drastically improve their diets with relatively little discomfort. Not only that, but in doing so, Bittman avows, they can also save the planet and relieve some of the pressure on their pocketbooks. As promises go, that's a whopper, a super-trifecta encompassing the major obsessions of the current moment: weight loss, environmentalism and penny-pinching.

The formula is very simple (Bittman is the Minimalist, after all): "Eat less of certain foods, specifically animal products, refined carbs, and junk food; and more of others, specifically plants, in close to their natural state." It is a recommendation that owes much (as Bittman repeatedly acknowledges) to the work of Michael Pollan, author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and "In Defense of Food"; the spirit of Pollan presides over this book like the Virgin Mary over a Catholic Church. In fact, you could describe "Food Matters" as "applied Pollan," because Pollan, for all his endlessly inventive, inquisitive and adventurous writings on American eating and food production, lacks Bittman's pragmatic touch.

Granted, it's a blast to read, in "The Omnivore's Dilemma," about Pollan's efforts to bond with a conventionally raised beef steer or to serve up a meal made entirely out of foraged materials, but a delightful reading experience doesn't always translate into a course of action for the average person. Conversely, Pollan's prescription for judicious eating -- "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants" -- is catchy enough to have achieved mantra status in some corners of the Internet, but as recommendations go, it proves a tad gnomic, like the utterance of a Zen master that becomes harder to get a hold on the longer you think about it. "Food Matters," by contrast, explains exactly how to follow Pollan's advice and why.

The first part of Bittman's book provides a concise, streamlined overview of data that Pollan and nutrition experts like Marion Nestle have offered before in greater detail. In brief, our current meat-heavy system of food production is unsustainable, a waste of resources and a source of pollution in the form of pesticides and hormones as well as methane gas from livestock manure. Our overreliance on a few big crops (especially corn and soy) depletes the soil, demanding the use of ever greater quantities of chemical fertilizers, whose manufacture requires massive amounts of fossil fuel. The foods produced by agribusiness, in the form of highly processed flours, fats and -- above all -- high-fructose corn syrup, have little nutritional value and foster a host of health problems, including diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure as well as obesity. The industries fabricating these foods have bought and paid for American politicians and government agencies, costing taxpayers billions of dollars per year in subsidies and other benefits paid to businesses who profit while eroding the public's health.

For Bittman personally, the moment of truth was twofold. At 57, he'd gained 50 pounds over his college weight and had developed high cholesterol, high blood sugar (especially scary for someone with a family history of diabetes) and sleep apnea, a condition caused by his excess weight. At the same time, as a food writer he could no longer ignore his "increasing disgust with the way most meat is grown in this country." The lives of factory-farmed livestock can only be characterized as "misery," and the resulting meat and dairy products are full of nutritionally dubious additives like hormones and antibiotics (which in turn wind up in the water supply, further damaging everyone's health).

With a colleague, Kerri Conan, Bittman devised a plan they called "vegan until six." They ate almost no animal products at all until dinnertime, no simple carbohydrates and no junk food. (Simple carbs are sugars, white flours and other processed grains like white rice.) At dinner, they ate as they had before, although in time Bittman found that even his evening meals came to include more "vegetables, fruits, legumes and whole grains and less meat, sugar, junk food, and overrefined carbohydrates." It was easy, and in a matter of months he'd lost 35 pounds, lowered his cholesterol and blood sugar, and had no trouble sleeping through the night. Most important, he continues to eat this way and is content to do so for the rest of his life.

After the statistics-rich opening chapters, the latter half of "Food Matters" resembles a traditional diet book in tone, complete with testimonials and assurances that the reader has plenty of options to do "whatever works best for you." It's not Bittman's fault that most of the books written in this manner are snow jobs, presenting bizarrely distorted dietary regimes as sensible designs for living. I'm not sure how else he could have asserted that his method is genuinely flexible and reasonable, as opposed to masquerading as such the way most diets do. Diet book authors coopted the rhetoric of prudence (not to mention quasi-scientific lingo about ketosis and glycemic indexes) long ago, leaving laypeople with nothing to guide them through the wilderness of fads and crazes but their own good judgment.

And, oh, how we hate to rely on our own judgment! The classic New Year's weight-loss plan adopted by millions of resolution-espousing Americans every January involves some ludicrously strict set of regulations banishing certain commonplace foods entirely (bread, say, or fats) while urging the overconsumption of others (anyone remember the fruit-heavy Beverly Hills Diet?). Diet books are always condemning the extremities of other diet books, while offering up some new extremity as the epitome of common sense and cutting-edge research.

If some part of us didn't crave this severity, we wouldn't fall for it over and over again. There's a crypto-religious element to our oscillation between unrestrained indulgence and penitential asceticism, the same thing that makes us talk about desserts as "sinful." Our eating lives are the sites of overwrought private dramas worthy of the Catholic saints, in which we seek release and then restraint; we gorge, then impractically resolve never to touch butter or pasta again, convincing ourselves that we can achieve the bodies of movie stars if we can only summon enough willpower. It's debatable whether that many of us really want to adopt a sensible eating plan, if it's going to deprive us of all this excitement.

So Bittman, once again proffering a middle way, has his work cut out for him. But since he can marshal environmental and economic arguments as well as the usual incentives of vanity and improved health in his favor, he has indeed become a force to be reckoned with. How big a change, really, is he advocating?

To me, Bittman's proposals sound eminently moderate, but then I'm the sort of person who eats fast food once a year, and only when I'm ravenous and trapped with no other alternative. In restaurants, I tend to pick the entree based on how appealing the vegetable sides sound, and I can easily imagine cutting my meat consumption back to 3 ounces per day -- about half of the amount consumed by the average American -- since I'm nearly there already. I cook the vast majority of my meals from scratch.

It can be easy for someone like me to forget that many people would see Bittman's plan as untenable, since the kinds of foods he recommends aren't sold in affordable chain or fast-food restaurants or available prepared or frozen in every suburban supermarket. Some of his advice -- carry nuts and fruit around with you for snacks, so you can avoid vending machines -- may be tenable for them, but some of the rest will seem even less practical than the Atkins Diet.

Of all the challenges confronting the "Food Matters" plan for "responsible eating" -- agribusiness lobbying and marketing, the low price of subsidized junk food, even evolutionary factors that attract us to high-calorie foods -- probably the single most obdurate is the fact that so many contemporary Americans simply don't know how to cook. By "cook," I don't mean being able to concoct an impressive dinner the one night a month you have guests over while otherwise subsisting on nuked Lean Cuisine. Real home cooking means having a good repertoire of reliable, quick, uncomplicated recipes and understanding enough of the underlying principles to improvise when needed. It means knowing how to stock a pantry and plan your menus so that you shop for groceries only once a week. It's a set of skills manifested as an attitude, something you can acquire only through regular practice, and it's the one thing that can make a person truly at ease in a kitchen. (An example of this everyday expertise is Bittman's suggestion that, when determining how long to steam a vegetable, you "try bending or breaking whatever it is you're planning to cook; the more pliable the pieces are, the more quickly they will become tender.")

In short, this is home economics -- although when I was taught that subject in high school, our time was largely wasted on learning how to bake perfect biscuits, a special-occasion food if I ever heard of one. Like writing, driving, touch typing and balancing a checkbook, basic cooking is a life skill (not an art or hobby) that everybody needs, and it ought to be taught in public schools as a matter of course. The fact that cooking can also be a craft, featuring a certain amount of self-expression, or that contemporary star chefs have been exalted to a degree far exceeding their actual cultural worth, shouldn't be allowed to obscure that humbler truth.

This is why Bittman and "Food Matters" are so sneakily revolutionary. The second half of this book is a collection of uncomplicated recipes, which -- as is the case with other Bittman cookbooks, especially the indispensable "How to Cook Everything" -- are more like proposals and approaches than they are strict lists of ingredients and instructions. Probably the most daunting of these for the average American will be Bittman's recommendations for ways to incorporate more beans and whole grains into your diet. (Even I'm not sure that keeping a container of precooked quinoa in my fridge will result in my eating more of the stuff, especially since I don't have a microwave to heat it up.) Some of his tips -- peel, wash and cut up all of your vegetables at once, so you can just grab a handful when needed for stir-fries and salads -- I've already adopted. (I also recommend making pots of soup or stew on the weekend and freezing individual servings in freezer-weight zipper-lock bags; you can defrost them in hot water when you don't have time to cook lunch or dinner.) Others, like making a frittata that's mostly vegetables with only a little egg, sound like big improvements on the original dishes to me.

But again, I'm already a home cook, so I read "Food Matters" looking for tips rather than a strategy for overhauling my eating habits. For some others, if they are willing to attempt it, the change involved will be more radical. For a few years now, I've been recommending a subscription to Everyday Food, a digest magazine of simple recipes and advice, for friends who say they want to learn how to cook; it offers sample shopping lists for a week's worth of dinners, and the dishes are familiar American fare yet free of processed and fake foods. That still might be the best intermediate step for people who barely know how to dice an onion or scratched their heads when I mentioned quinoa above.

Just cooking most of your meals out of Everyday Food in the coming year will save money and reduce your consumption of sodium, sugar and sinister chemicals with multisyllabic names. But the full triple-punch of cost-cutting, improved health and a reduced carbon footprint promised by "Food Matters" ought to tempt everyone who reads it to make the switch to the Bittman plan. With a few good lentil soup recipes, we can change ourselves -- and the world.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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