Tag Archives: Mark Bittman

Top Chef v. Desperate Housewife

Two weeks ago, after Mark Bittman’s Bitten column, TV Cooking v. Real Cooking, shone a bright light on the “charade” that is today’s modern cooking shows, the New York Times strikes again. Where Mr. Bittman attacked today’s popular cooking shows as “baffling and intimidating,” writer Jodi Rudoren in the Times’ Home Work column (On This Cooking Challenge, Reality Bites) proposes a new reality show to at least partially remedy those problems.

In what she describes as “Top Chef: Home Cooks”:

“…contestants would not work in the Kenmore Kitchen — or whatever Bravo’s latest brazen product-placement deal prescribes — but rotate among stations where the oven might be miscalibrated, or one of the burners (but you wouldn’t know which one) was perennially slow, or there was precious little counter space. Instead of the stocked Top Chef pantry, they would peruse refrigerators and cabinets with the same crusty condiment bottles and stale spice racks that were in their homes on the day they were picked (again, rotating for fairness). And none of those sexy square plates or triptychs; family-style service would be on the platters passed down over generations, some perhaps chipped.

Contenders would not be expected to butcher a side of lamb (as the pros did in season 4, episode 12), but to pick protein from the plastic-wrapped pre-cuts in Pathmark, which might just be harder. Forget the basic-skills races of dicing onions and cleaving chickens (season 3, episode 10); home cooks would compete over who could get the most into the dishwasher and, by eye, select the perfect-sized container for each lump of leftovers.”

While this show, which someone at Bravo claims is under development, might not earn the highest ratings, I am guessing audience members that have ever really cooked for a family would immediately recognize part of themselves in each episode.

Sound like reality to you? 


Further Reading:


4 Simple Food Strategies to Live By

I woke up this morning with an Earth Day hang over, not from drinking too much, but from consuming way to much information.  Being on Twitter yesterday was like facing a fire house with an endless, and I mean endless supply of water.  Great energy.  Let’s just hope it lasts.

Being sensitive to my “information hangover,” I am dedicating this post to brevity by offering four simple ways for each of us to eat better until next Earth Day.  

  1. Do not get fat; if you are fat, reduce. Favor fresh vegetables and fruits. Avoid heavy use of salt and refined sugar. Get plenty of exercise and outdoor recreation. See your doctor regularly, and do not worry.  –Ancel Keys, Cardiologist, 1959
  2. There are no “secrets” to cooking – only good guidance combined with experience.  To cook good dishes you must start with real food. In general, the better the ingredients you have the simpler your cooking can be.  -Mark Bittman, How to Cook Everything, 1998
  3. Eat less, move more, eat lots of fruits and vegetables…go easy on junk food.  -Marion Nestle, What to Eat, 2006
  4. Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.  –Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food, 2008

I highlighted the years to show what looks like a “dumbing down” of a message that hasn’t really changed in 50 years (no offense, Mr. Pollan) – eat less, eat produce, avoid junk, cook more, exercise. Repeat.

Why didn’t I think of that?

Happy eating!


Supporter of Food Renegade’s Fight Back Fridays

Dear Julia Child, We Need You!

There was a time not so long ago that cooking shows resembled today’s reality TV, where mistakes were made and corrected right before your very eyes.  No second takes.  No editing.  Just the real thing.

How times have changed.  

Mark Bittman’s recent Bitten column, TV Cooking v. Real Cooking, shines a bright light on the “charade” that is today’s modern cooking shows.

A charade because it’s all taped, and therefore not only doesn’t take place in real time but doesn’t even give a sense of what “real time” might be. And I’m not talking about braising time or the like but the actual work involved.  A further charade because when it’s taped, all sorts of egregious mistakes can be magically made to disappear. 

Baffling and intimidating because nearly every ingredient is usually prepared in advance, and what isn’t is selected so that the chef can show off his (almost never “her”) knife skills, which are bound to intimidate nearly all of us who can never aspire (and why would we, really?) to chopping an onion with our eyes closed; his ability to make food fly in the air while cooking it; and/or his skill at presentation, which has absolutely nothing to do with taste.

Julia Child In Action

”The grand thing about cooking is you can eat your mistakes” — Julia Child

I wonder how the rising popularity of cooking networks and shows – available 24 hours a day, seven days a week – has contributed to the migration of eating away from home, which is nearly on par with eating at home in terms of consumer food expenditures.  Have we decided to live vicariously through TV’s celebrity chefs?  Are we truly baffled and intiminated by the process of cooking?

Mr. Bittman’s column, while entertaining to read, also points out a serious challenge for people interested in developing a more sustainable food system.  We need confident and flexible home cooks in order to move away from highly processed, unsustainable foods.

Consider a hypothetical case of a CSA program “newbie.”  Let’s call him Bill.

Bill has been buying his food from a major supermarket chain for years.  He shops there 3-4 times a week, stopping in to pick up a couple things, but walking out with more than expected every time (another victim of impulse buys and sophisticated in-store marketing).  He often opts for prepared foods or frozen entrees, which he eats while watching back-to-back cooking shows on The Food Network.

After the urging of his friends, Bill joins a local CSA farm.  He’s excited about supporting a local organic farmer.  He receives his first box, takes it home, unloads it on the counter, and scratches his head.  What is all this?, he wonders.  More important, what am I supposed to do with it?  He makes a great salad and stores the balance of food in the fridge.  The next night, he makes another great salad, but with less zeal, and considers making something with some of the  radishes, beets and chard.  No clue.

Within a couple weeks, he has become discouraged and ends up throwing away (hopefully Bill composts) much of the food from the farm.  He tries to opt out, but his money was given up front and the farm can’t afford to give him his money back.  Bill does not renew, and becomes an outspoken critic of CSA programs in general.

It wasn’t supposed to be that way.  He was supposed to “learn to eat seasonally” and to “enjoy experimenting with new foods.”  But, Bill was overwhelmed and The Food Network and its line up of celebrity chefs were of little help.  This insecurity in being able to cook like Giada De Laurentiis, along with his “supermarket withdrawal” (common symptom associated with CSA newbies), caused Bill to yearn for the “any food, any time” offerings of the industrial food system.

Another missed opportunity.

Related Information and Links:

Innovating the Food Buying Experience

In Sunday’s New York Times, Mark Bittman presented an idea that many readers might have found controversial: organic food is less important than getting Americans to generally eat better. His reasoning was that the impact of “a simple shift in eating habits” would have significant health and environmental benefits.

I agree.

Mr. Bittman belongs to a distinguished list of “real food” advocates that have been calling for important and overdue changes to the American diet, including:

  • Michael Pollan: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
  • Marion Nestle: “Eat less, move more, eat lots of fruits and vegetables.”
  • Alice Waters: “Good food depends almost entirely on good ingredients.”
  • Michelle Obama: “You can begin in your own cupboard by eliminating processed food, trying to cook a meal a little more often, trying to incorporate more fruits and vegetables.”

I doubt many people would disagree with these food luminaries, with the possible exception of the major food companies selling us “edible food-like substances” (thanks Mr. Pollan). To learn more about why they might resist, I recommend reading “The Perils of Ignoring History” on Bill Marler’s blog, which draws potential parallels between Big Tobacco and Big Food.

If it were as easy as suggesting to people that they eat less processed food (and possibly paid more per calorie), which is intuitively obvious but doesn’t play well in the marketplace, we would be well on our way. We are not.

We need a game plan.

My recommendation is that we start with a vision of where we ideally want to be. This blog is dedicated to the vision of Sustainable Food on Every Kitchen Table™, and our journey toward that vision begins by attacking the point where consumers make their purchase decisions – food retail, especially supermarkets.

Supermarkets, which account for nearly 60 percent of sales of food at home in the U.S. (75% when you include supercenters and warehouse clubs), are where consumers are confronted hundreds of times a year with tens of thousands of food choices covering everything one might imagine…and likley tens of thousands of additional food products that they would never have imagined.

The vast inventories carried in these stores are supported by over $10 billion spent on sophisticated food advertising and approximately 17,000 new “food products” flooding the market every year, making today’s supermarkets highly efficient selling machines. Unfortunately, leading food companies make most of their money selling highly processed foods, made up of inexpensive ingredients from monoculture crops (e.g., corn, soy, wheat); major contributors to today’s health and environmental problems.

My last blog post provided a potential framework for designing a new, consumer-oriented retail experience that connects consumers with real food. Whether that idea, a derivative, or something entirely different is part of the solution, without Real Food-oriented shopping experiences, preferred by consumers, it is difficult to imagine slowing down or effectively evolving America’s mechanized food system.


Related Information and Links: