Jen McCleary and I worked together some years ago at a publishing company, when I was a struggling vegetarian and she was (and still is) a dedicated vegan. I have since returned to a diet that includes meat and poultry. Below is a comment she left on my Mark Bittman post and I think it's too valuable to be buried beneath my rant. Thanks, Jen.
Interesting post...I agree with some of what you said. Of course I hate hate hate the idea of Big Brother looking over everyone's soup pot to make sure you haven't put too much salt. But what frightens me more (and seems a more realistic threat at the moment) is gigantic food companies that adhere to the philosophy of good ol' "profit no matter the costs." Without some sort of governmental regulation you end up with melamine in the baby formula and sugar water labeled as juice, and these companies laughing all the way to the bank. Sadly these entities have been hugely influential in directing the food policies of the nation (just look up the history of the food pyramid), and quite successful in persuading the American public that cooking is a horrible, difficult, time-consuming task and why bother when you can buy their products?
It's a matter of balance between a number of forces (corporate food interests, government, individuals), and I think it's missing an opportunity to just throw up our hands and leave it up to "personal responsibility." Yes, people need to take responsibility for their own lives and choices, but what happens when the social structure is not there to support responsible choices? Just how much choice does someone have who has no proper grocery store within accessible distance? This is not about "forcing" anyone to do anything. This is not about banning potato chips and soda. This is about making sure people have access to good information (not just advertising and corporate manipulation) and access to good food (not just nutritionally dubious crap priced much lower than it should be due to subsidies).
Bittman et al. are reactionaries against a food system that has clearly gone off the rails, and the loudest, most out-there voices always get the most press. There IS something horribly elitist about a lot of what they have to say, given the realities that so many Americans have to live with. It IS ridiculous to suggest that everyone should take up the home cultivation of heirloom microgreens, or eat only bread made from grains you have ground yourself, or eat only meat from animals that you personally befriended on the local farm (a particularly psychopathic attitude in my mind, but that's another story). (If Bittman makes you stabby then don't read Alice Waters!) But I think that despite all that, it's still a discussion worth having and I'm glad Bittman et al. are calling attention to these issues. Hopefully the pendulum will eventually swing toward somewhere in the middle.
No, what makes me stabby is knowing there are children living in the richest country on Earth waking up hungry with no prospect of a decent meal. Knowing that people HAVE to work two or three jobs to make ends meet while companies are making billions in profit on feeding them crap food that is detrimental to their health. Knowing that the government would rather spend billions on ridiculous military interventions in foreign countries than use that money to ensure that every American has access to healthy food and the information to make good choices for themselves and their families. No, stabby isn't even the word. Bittman-style elitism is just a minor irritant in a morass of injustice and poor policy.
Ugh, sorry for the rant. I should just get my own damn food blog. Very interested in your thoughts on this though!
I cannot argue with any of this. Why, then, do I feel stabby towards Bittman et al.? Because, as Jen pointed out, they are reactionaries. In my opinion, they have a personal agenda and believe that their way is the only way.
I have always believed that everyone should be taught by somebody, somewhere, basic cooking skills. Home ec in schools would be a great way to start. It's not just cooking, there's reading, math and science involved, too, a whole spectrum of skills that can be put to good use. Plus, it can be fun.
I fully believe in government regulations to keep food in the proper condition to be consumed. However, I am firmly against taxing foods that the government has deemed improper for consumption, simply because they don't want to put together a proper system of checks and balances. This whole "let's tax junk food so people won't eat it" is ridiculous and won't work anyway. Case in point: cigarettes. Five bucks a pack and people still buy them by the carton.
The two people I think can most bring about change right now are Michelle Obama and Jamie Oliver. They "get" people and understand that there is room for moderation and that it's more important to get fresh vegetables and fruit into the diet be it organic or conventional. They are both very hands-on in their approach without resorting to hammering people into guilt trips over what they eat. They know that working with people on a level they can understand, without finger-pointing and badgering, will be far more effective in the long run than constantly telling people that what they are doing is wrong.
Finally, I think Alice Waters has lost all touch with reality. Good intentions but I think she's barmy.