Bittman Battles the UFOs, One Meal at a Time

The crusading journalist/cook preaches to the choir at Feast Portland, but it's good to be reinspired.

By Kristin Belz September 24, 2012

Coke may be "the real thing," but soda is not even real food, Bittman reminds us. (Yes, he calls it soda; he's from New York. It's not pop, it's soda!) Soda has zero nutritional value. In fact, it's killing us.

Overheard at the Schnitz, before Mark Bittman’s lecture at Feast Portland last Thursday: tall twenty-something dude telling friend, “yeah I’ve been a fan of Bittman since I read this list he did of his favorite meals you could make in ten minutes or less. I had to come tonight.”

Undoubtedly, Bittman was preaching to the choir that night, addressing the tall dude and most of the rest of us in the packed house. But a gathering of believers isn’t a bad thing. It’s good to get one’s faith reinvigorated. And Bittman is an informative, articulate and sometimes even delightfully cantankerous speaker. His tell-it-like-it-is personality (he’s a native New Yorker) comes through even more in his speaking than in his writing.

Most of us Portlanders don’t spend 100% of our time in the Portland bubble; we pop out a bit and spread our progressiveness at times. So to learn a few more facts in the fight for real food against “unidentifiable foodlike objects” is helpful to our own plans to save the planet, and the people while we’re at it.

Bittman presented plenty of facts and stats in an engaging way, with simple, compelling PowerPoint slides to illustrate. A few memorable morsels: about 10% of our calories come from unprocessed foods. Only one out of every four meals eaten in our country contains an unprocessed fruit or vegetable (that stat includes  as an “unprocessed” fruit or vegetable a solitary slice of iceberg lettuce plopped limply on a fast food  hamburger). A fast food hamburger typically will cost $1, while a salad at the same joint will cost $4.  The meat in that burger doesn’t come “from one part of one cow”; it doesn’t even come from one country, let alone one cow. It typically comes from four different countries. These numbers boggle, but bear repeating. These ratios need to be reversed.

The Feast Portland opening night lecture had elements of a rally: applause, for instance, when Bittman stated, “we should have a soda tax.” His talk was also a sort of campaign speech. Though he isn’t running for office, Bittman is trying to raise our awareness and improve life for more people than some political candidates might be doing (he does not exclude 47% of voters from his audience). And he has a clear view of the role of government: it should “prevent corporations from literally marketing us to death.” The food “movement” he is a part of (and leader of, though he might not use such an egocentric word) should force the government to “act in the interest of the sometimes silent majority” instead of in the interest of the corporate food behemoths. 

Bittman is a master not just of making complicated policy and statistics palatable (sorry, couldn’t resist that pun) but also of making daunting lifestyle changes unintimidating and achievable. His motto is a sort of “If I can do it, anyone can” but not in that Oprah/anyone can overcome all odds/”aren’t I amazing” sort of way. He is the modest but serious common (and common sense) person. “Eat less junk and more good stuff,” he tells us. Fix healthy school lunches. Don’t try to follow strict rules; incremental changes are ok. You don't have to be 100% vegan to be healthy. Just try to eat real food, more often. And since most of America has forgotten what real food is, he offers a dictionary definition: food is “nourishing and promotes good condition in plants and animals.” It isn’t soda. Sorry, Coca-Cola. 

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