Grading Mark Bittman's 'Food Manifesto'

The Minimalist becomes a pundit, taking on food regulations

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For New York Times food fans, Mark Bittman's decision to end his 13-year-run as The Minimalist and jump to the opinion pages was a mixed bag: on the one hand, he's the guy who makes cooking easy but taste fancy--so his abandoning the food gig may mean his readers have to settle for Dominos. On the other hand, gaining him as a pundit  could be good. After all, he's the guy who wrote the book, Food Matters, which forced people to think about where their food comes from and ask "why am I eating this again?"

So what happened during his first week as Food Opinion Guy? A declaration of war on how America eats and what's keeping us back from being smart about what makes it into the fridge. Bittman's "Food Manifesto for the Future," attacks the very vices that allow the American diet to wallow in trans fats, and offers solutions for "food deserts" with stores that sell Twinkies and Doritos instead of broccoli and bananas. In brief, he wants to overhaul the USDA and FDA, end soy and corn subsidies, subsidize home cooking, and demand truth in food labels.

Our question is: does a guy who spent over a decade reducing meals to five steps or less have something worthwhile to say about policy? His fans are gushing, but there are a few quibbles, too.

  • Cue the Common-Sense Revolution, says Salon's food writer Francis Lam. A Bittman enthusiast, Lam says having Bittman on the food policy side means a guy who doesn't take kindly to overcomplicated, fussy practices in the kitchen isn't finally going to tackle " the absurdly complicated world of food production and policy." Lam says Bittman's Manifesto is flashpoint because he reduces "pretty much everything that food policy geeks have been talking about for years," to wonk-free bullet points that bypass spin and excuses.
  • Needs a Little More Sense  Bittman admits his debut wasn't perfect, summarizing some of the complaints he's gotten from "colleagues". Among them: that his arguments were "well, shallow or, to put it more kindly, not as fleshed out as they might be." Bittman responds, though, by adding that "there are powerful forces at work to make sure that we ... spend as much money as possible on stuff that is barely nutritious and barely recognizable as food. The work here is to counter those forces."
  • This Could Really Change Things  A representative glowing review from a New York Times commenter in Long Beach, Calif., includes the commenter's belief that Bittman could be the guy who can get people to eat well. "Mark is right on with his thinking," says Marifree, "and I can only hope that more people will wake up."
  • Get Real  Then there are commenters not keen on the yuppie fervor. Denver's S.P., for example, is all r ight with Bittman's ideas but says there are limits: "let the consumer determine what is popular and thus more valuable ... life is all about choices, and stupid is as stupid does."
  • And Unicorns and Rainbows  David, a commenter from NYC thinks Bittman's found a nice hobby. "Ahhh, a food manifesto! Brilliant but so cute it almost seems naive. Whole Food and Trader Joe's have caved and willing to accept GMO's. We have a work force that is exhausted by hours worked, fear of losing their home and health insurance IF they have either and the congress that is impotent at best at serving the needs of their constituents rather than the needs of the lobbyist."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.