“Check please … ”
We say it all the time. Often sitting at a diner counter after finishing up a couple of eggs over easy with a side of bacon, or after a nice porterhouse and potato dinner at a local steak house. And at that point the server, if they have any experience, understands that the “tip-o-meter” starts counting down with each moment that passes. Tonight at The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, well-known New York Times writer, and most recently Opinion columnist, Mark Bittman asked for the check because, according to him “the bill is due.”
In front of a sold out crowd of mostly aging folks, it was the MFA after all, Bittman delivered an address as part of the The Ruth and Carl J. Shapiro celebrity series, titled “America’s Home Cook.” Those familiar with his Minimalist column in The Times, may have expected a dinner recipe or two, but this night Bittman came out from behind the stove, past the sink, and may have even broken through the threshold of the kitchen.
Mark Bittman taking questions from the crowd
“Few of us have ever known a day or even a meal without the availability of an incredible array of unrealistically inexpensive food,” he said, “but the bill has come due.” Bittman informed and amused those gathered with sometimes simple, oft-times insightful visuals during his presentation, all the while walloping away on the dead horse on the floor, pun intended, that the state of our food system, or as he said, “the so-called food system” is simply “profit driven.”
Detailing the perceived cost of what we eat, he said, “We, I’m talking about Americans, spend less of our income on food than anyone else, 7%” he said with slight indignation. He continued to explain that “in much of Europe it ranges from 10% to 15 % but in poorer countries like India and China, Ukraine and yes, Egypt, it’s over 30% and even up to 40%.”
Bittman’s conclusion? “Seven percent is ridiculous! Food cannot be that cheap, and it isn’t!” he exclaimed. “The real costs of food are staggering!” and “The price you pay for a hamburger is the tip of the iceberg.” None of this is new or surprising, but he proceeded to detail some facts that seem almost nightmarish. That only one-quarter of Americans eat vegetables three times a day… That only one in four meals we consume contains an unprocessed vegetable… That we drink more soda than water… We’ve heard them all before, even from Bittman himself.
What was interesting about the evening is the sense that Mark Bittman, combined with his recent transition from the Dining section of the Times to the editorial side, has a very clear agenda (he said he wasn’t running for anything) to help re-shape and re-form how we think about food and what it is we eat.
“The so-called food system that we have now” he explained, “which is not a system at all, is profit driven, and here’s where it’s gotten us,” he explained. “Hundreds of millions of dollars, maybe a trillion, have been spent on selling us the wrong choices” he said. “Another trillion, no exaggeration,” he went on, “has been spent subsidizing food that is fed to industrial produced animals or turned into junk food” and that is what is killing us, and as he put it, what is unsustainable.
Bittman explained that although we are surrounded by cheap food, and have choices beyond our imagination, the “real costs, like those of all junk food, are subsidized, hidden and forestalled.” Sort of like what my grandmother used to say, “You buy cheap, you buy twice.” Because we rely on this cheap, subsidized food that is over processed and not much like real food, we end up paying for it two and three-fold down the road with health and other related problems.
The evening concluded with a few questions and answers, and a push from Mark Bittman. “Veganism is one end of the spectrum, I see no reason to encourage people to become vegans, but I do see many reasons to try to persuade people to move in that direction. To eat fewer animal products.” A sort of “Less Meatarian” movement. According to him we are going to get there one way or another, and we might as well enjoy the trip and try a little breakfast sushi along the way.
Off to grab a carrot or two.
Remember, Food is Love!