Vegan Reflections on Mark Bittman

Today’s New York Times has two essential pieces for food activists.

The first looks at the mounting public distrust of agribusiness, and the rapidly improving prospects for the alternative food movement. Somehow the article avoids any mention of vegetarianism. You’d think from the article that the only voices at the table are bestselling conscientious omnivores like Pollan, Schlosser, and Nestle.

Mark Bittman’s companion piece is much better. It brings up the whole issue of organics, and assesses its relative importance. The money passage:

[To the public, organic] seems to have become the magic cure-all, synonymous with eating well, healthfully, sanely, even ethically.

But eating “organic” offers no guarantee of any of that. And the truth is that most Americans eat so badly — we get 7 percent of our calories from soft drinks, more than we do from vegetables; the top food group by caloric intake is “sweets”; and one-third of nation’s adults are now obese — that the organic question is a secondary one. It’s not unimportant, but it’s not the primary issue in the way Americans eat.

I don’t see how anyone could disagree with that analysis.

I hear Bittman’s writing come up a lot in vegan circles, and he’s often looked at with distrust and resentment. But I think most of his critics have no appreciation of just how good of a writer he is, in terms of being consistently interesting and well-informed. I also really appreciate his ability to bring a nuanced perspective to even his shorter articles.

But Bittman’s greatest talent is his ability to speak persuasively to exactly the sort of people he references in the excerpted passage above: people who get more calories from soda than from veggies. Bittman has a knack for identifying ways these folks can make huge changes, and he presents his ideas in terms that seem sensible and easy.

I have deep and probably irreconcilable differences with Bittman over animal slaughter and meat eating, but I’ll readily acknowledge that he’s getting millions of Americans to take their first steps away from a meat and sweets heavy diet.

I view Bittman in much the same way I view Ram Dass. A huge number of Americans who are dedicated to meditation and yoga owe their start to Ram Dass’ classic, Be Here Now. But Ram Dass never put himself forward as a guru or advanced teacher, and I once heard him say it makes no more sense to follow him for life than it would to have your kindergarten teacher, however excellent, become your lifelong teacher.

In a similar way, I look forward to the time when the millions of people who got their start in conscientious eating from people like Bittman, Pollan, Nestle, and Schlosser are ready to take their next steps. Because—count on it—many people who are taking their first baby steps today because of Bittman’s inspiration will, years from now, progress way beyond their teacher.