Saturday, March 16, 11 a.m., IKEA, 450 Sargent Drive, New Haven
Food is essential. It's basic. You die without it. But we're interested in it beyond mere sustenance. Food and cooking have become key elements of our popular culture in recent years. And there may be no one in America who has given so many novices a nudge into the kitchen or more to think about when grocery shopping than Mark Bittman. As the author of a whole line of cookbooks and books about food, a TV host, and as a regular New York Times columnist on the subject of cooking, health and our food supply, Bittman helps shape the discussion on Americans' eating habits. As it happens, he's been shaping Connecticut food discussions for over 30 years. Bittman did his first piece of food writing for the New Haven Advocate back in 1980, as a restaurant reviewer. Bittman will be on hand at IKEA in New Haven Saturday morning to talk about the past and future of food and to promote cooking tips from his most recent cookbook, How to Cook Everything: The Basics, as well as his forthcoming diet book, Eat Vegan Before 6:00.
We all seem to be talking and thinking more about food these days. (Some of us are eating more to correspond with our interest.) There are TV shows devoted to the difficulties of the restaurant business, to cooking competitions, to teaching beginners how to become competent in the kitchen. There are talk shows about food and cooking. It's odd, considering that — unlike dancing or singing or designing clothes — cooking is something that's pretty difficult for viewers at home to evaluate when seeing it on a TV screen. And still the TV shows are captivating and popular. It speaks to the public's obsession with the subject. And the fact that many of us are giving more thought to what we buy at the grocery store, what we cook and what we eat, reflects food's place in the culture. It's fitting then that for all of the celebrity chefs and food personalities we have, there are also now figures like Bittman that you might call food intellectuals.
If talk turns to recent studies about the dangers of sugar, or about the push for labeling genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food, or about the potential hazards of runoff from factory farms and meat processing plants, chances are that Bittman has had a hand in bringing the topic to the public's attention. Take Bittman's recent push to promote the health and environmental benefits of the vegan diet. Research has shown that cutting back on meat consumption and animal fats can reduce heart disease and other ailments. A diet of vegetables and whole grains can lead to weight loss as well. But one barrier to this, for some, is the difficulty of making an across-the-board change, of meeting the challenge of completely renouncing or giving up things as central to the standard American diet as meat and dairy products.
Of course there are plenty of ethical reasons to avoid animal products, and sometimes a gradual approach doesn't make sense for people who want to cut out meat because they want to reduce animal suffering, for instance. But Bittman is a pragmatist. He figures that if eating less meat and dairy is good for our health and good for the environment, and if reducing animal suffering is a goal, then if Americans — waiting until 6 p.m. before eating the steak and cheese — rolled back their meat and dairy consumption by something like 60 percent, that can only be a good thing, too.
"It's an interesting and doable diet," says Bittman, who spoke to the Advocate recently.
He generally aims for the doable. Bittman is as much culinary life coach as he is food philosopher. He wants us to turn our food talk into action. More than anything else, Bittman wants Americans to be cooking. He wants our efforts in the kitchen to shape what we eat, and influence the way we spend time with each other.
"Eating your own food — and sharing it with people you care about — is a crucial human activity," writes Bittman in How to Cook Everything: The Basics. "Family meals stimulate conversation, communication, and love. It's a fact."
For Bittman, there's an implicit connection between cultivating a culture of home cooking and pressing for more food activism and awareness about what goes into the food we make and eat. He's interested in seeing more detailed labels on food to better inform consumers. In addition to information about genetically modified products and pesticide use, labels with details about animal welfare, antibiotic use in animals, carbon footprint and more would be good for our health and good for society, says Bittman. Oh, and don't be surprised if at his New Haven appearance Bittman talks a little about that horse meat that showed up in some of IKEA's Swedish meatballs recently.
"Not everything that's in food is on a label," says Bittman. "We have a right ask How is this stuff made? What's in it?"