FoodPolitik: The New Foodie on the Block

Richard Berman President, Berman and Company
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Do you know someone who counts “food miles”? Who prefers “heirloom” vegetables and buys organic everything? If so, your friend might be stricken with a case of food snobbery—a holier-than-thou affliction that’s been spreading across America since Alice Waters first anointed herself high priestess of Berkeley cuisine.

Believe it or not, many food snobs mean well. And if they want to pay more for what is often indistinguishable from “regular” food, that’s their choice. But foodies who preach from their pasture-raised high horses can draw a pretty quick eye-roll.

Perhaps the best example of today’s self-righteous, science-blind food snobs is Mark Bittman. For 13 years, the New York Times columnist dished up recipes—and I’ll admit that many were tasty. But this winter he tossed his apron into the compost pile and launched a politics-focused Times food column. The result may as well be titled “Let Them Eat Arugula.”

Bittman’s basic narrative is that America’s food system is full of “hidden” costs, taxing both our health and our environment. Never mind that we have more food than ever before, and that it costs the average American just 7 percent of his or her income.

The Bittman-inspired foodie movement’s goal is to encourage us all to roll back the clock on farming and food production, to a practically pre-Industrial Revolution framework. When the equally snobby Berkeley journalism professor Michael Pollan says, “Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food,” he’s not just referring to pop-tarts. Equally modern are blemish-free beefsteak tomatoes, oversized honey crisp apples, and anything served to you through a car window.

And, of course, food made with genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

This technology can increase crop yields by making plants drought-resistant and impervious to common pesticides. It has enormous potential to help feed starving Third-World populations. But I doubt my great-grandmother knew what DNA was, much less how to splice it in a lab.

Here’s Bittman’s recent analysis of the G.E. (genetically engineered) food debate:

[T]wo of the biggest fears about G.E. crops and animals — their potential to provoke allergic reactions and the transfer to humans of antibiotic-resistant properties of G.M.O.’s — have not come to pass. (As far as I can tell, though, they remain real dangers.)

Get that? There’s no evidence that GMOs have caused so much as a single sneeze. But instead of being impressed, Bittman is frightened anyway. And, he warns ominously, “not even [GMOs’] strongest advocates can guarantee that there aren’t hidden dangers.”

Can you prove an asteroid won’t hit Washington tomorrow? Me neither. But I’m still driving to work.

In another recent column, Bittman spent nearly 1,000 words complaining about a fast-food chain that serves oatmeal. His gripe? The drive-through hot cereal has more ingredients than the homemade kind, Bittman sniffs. It’s a “hideous concoction.”

Ironically, if the same fast-food chain didn’t serve oatmeal, Bittman would grumble about a lack of healthy options. This oatmeal, by the way, comes with cream and fruit and has fewer than 300 calories. But the brand behind it—can you guess?—is easy and fashionable to attack.

In Bittman’s world, time-pressed commuters should eschew corporate quick oats in favor of (literally) “cardamom-flavored oatmeal pancakes,” “homemade granola,” or “coconut oat pilaf.”

This much is inescapable if you spend any time reading Mark Bittman’s meanderings: If you want to recover from your acute case of not being Mark Bittman, you need to spend hours upon hours cooking at home every day. And what you cook has to satisfy his finely tuned sense of high-minded food snobbery.

Bittman compatriot Michael Pollan recently wrote a Dickens-length essay in the New York Times Magazine about spending 36 hours preparing for a dinner party. If that’s the price of ensuring that my great-granny would know the name of everything on the table, I’ll pass.

Drive-through oatmeal is still oatmeal, it still tastes like oatmeal, and it still delivers vitamins and nutrients.

If you don’t fancy cooking like your ancestors, Bittman has other ideas for you. New taxes on peasant favorites (like burgers and fries) is one. Enforcing agricultural nostalgia by devolving farm technology is another.

Sad for Bittman, we can’t turn back the clock. The late Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution, thought an all-organic global agriculture wouldn’t sustain more than 4 billion people.

Most people, even Times readers, have already voted with their forks. Attaining food-snob enlightenment by buying $8-per-dozen eggs at a farmers market (as Pollan suggests) doesn’t seem too popular right now. Neither does coconut oat pilaf.

Rick Berman is President of the public affairs firm Berman and Company. He has worked extensively in the food and beverage industries for the past 30 years. To learn more, visit http://www.BermanCo.com.