By Ezra Klein
Mark Bittman taught me to cook. I read his New York Times cooking column, “The Minimalist,” religiously. I bought “How to Cook Everything,” that red brick of a cookbook, and then, when I gave up meat, I bought its green companion, “How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.” He was like my cranky, no-B.S. food uncle.
But now Bittman wants to do more than teach me, or you, how to cook. He wants to convince us that the whole food system has fallen into calamity. His new book, “Animal, Vegetable, Junk” is a stunning reinterpretation of humanity’s relationship to the food it forages, grows and, nowadays, concocts. It’s about the marvel of the modern food system, which feeds more than seven billion people and offers more food, with more variety, at less cost, than ever before. But even more so, it’s about the malignancy of that food system, which is sickening us, poisoning the planet and inflicting so much suffering on other creatures that the mind breaks contemplating it.
Even as someone who is fairly critical of our modern food system, I wasn’t prepared for the scale or sweep of Bittman’s indictment. And I’m not sure I’ve bought into every piece of it. But it is bracing. And it raises profound questions about the relationship among humans, animals, plants, capitalism, technology and morality. So I asked him on my podcast, “The Ezra Klein Show,” to discuss it.
To listen to the full conversation, subscribe to “The Ezra Klein Show” wherever you get your podcasts, or click the player below.
(A full transcript of the episode can be found here.)
Mark Bittman Cooked Everything. Now He Wants to Change Everything.
Mark Bittman Cooked Everything. Now He Wants to Change Everything.
The acclaimed food writer offers a sweeping indictment of our modern food system.
I’m Ezra Klein. And this is “The Ezra Klein Show.” [THEME MUSIC PLAYING]
I’ve read Mark Bittman forever. I read him at The New York Times when he wrote “The Minimalist” cooking column, which I loved. I don’t think I can tell you how many recipes I made from that. I bought his cookbooks. I had “How to Cook Everything,” that big red one. And then when I went vegetarian, I had “How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.” I did not have the baking one because I don’t bake. I read his food policy writing. He’s like my cranky food uncle. He’s been there at every step in my food journey. I’ve learned how to cook from him. And I’ve learned, I think, more importantly, a lot about how to think about food from him. So when he sent me his new book, “Animal, Vegetable, Junk,” I was excited. But I also was totally unprepared for what the book really is. It is this sweeping history and reinterpretation of humanity’s relationship with food, going back to our hunter-gatherer days, tracing the development of agriculture, the way that changed our social mores and the way that changed our laws, then the industrialization of agriculture, the pressure of both technological advance and the profit motive, the way capitalism and philosophy converge to create a food system that — and there’s really no other way to put this — is poisoning us and poisoning the earth and inflicting cruelty to other creatures on a scale that breaks your mind if you try to contemplate it. And that is not to say that system does nothing good. It feeds billions of people with a variety that we never could have imagined at another point in human history. But it’s doing those other things, the poisoning things, too. And we actually have to take that seriously. Bittman’s indictment here is sweeping. And I’m not sure you’ll hear that in this conversation I’m bought in on every piece of it. In particular, I think I have a different relationship or different theory of food technology than he does. But what he’s doing here is bracing. And what he’s trying to get people to contemplate, trying to get us to contemplate in terms of what our food really means and what it is interwoven with in our world, I think is really important. It raises profound questions between the relationship among humans and animals and plants and capitalism and technology and morality. It is all here, all on your plate. So there’s a lot to talk about. One quick note, though, before we get into it, you will hear us talk about CAFOs in here. That is concentrated animal feeding operations, these massive factory farms, where a huge proportion of the animals we eat are raised in, just not to mince words, truly horrendous conditions. But that’s very much part of our conversation, so I wanted you to have that definition. As always, my email is [email protected] Here we go.
So I want to start with a beautiful John Muir quote you use, which is, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” Tell me how that applies to food.
I mean, that’s ecology right there. That is basically the acknowledgment that we are one. Living things are one. The planet is our home. I think a key question that doesn’t get asked that’s so simple is, what is food for? And the answer is food is to nourish people. And nourish means promote health. So we can get into affordability — I’m sure we will — and get it through accessibility and whether food is green or not and whether people who produce it are treated fairly and all of that. It’s all important. But at the end of the day, food is to nourish people. And when you ask that question, what is food for, and then you see what the food system looks like, there’s a disconnect there because the food system is not producing food primarily to nourish people. It’s producing food primarily to generate profits. So when you produce food to nourish people, you also have to pay attention to the soil, and you’re paying attention to the earth, and you’re paying attention to other species. So all of this starts to mush together into this great oneness. And that’s why the current term that best describes the kind of agriculture we should be aiming for is agroecology, which is simply a combination of agriculture and ecology. But Muir was an early ecologist. And that’s why I chose that quote.
So I want to go back on the reverse of this question for a minute, what the implicit goal of our food system is right now. If an alien came to Earth and was asked, what is our food system for, what is it trying to do, what would be the answer?
I don’t know what an alien thinks. I do know that if you describe what food does to the United States, in the United States, which is denude the soil, poison the soil, air, land, and so on, torture animals, underpay people for their work. and so on, if something other than the food system, say, an invading army were to do that, you would mobilize the troops and get to work fighting that.
Well, let me try to make sure we’re convincing somebody who isn’t already where we are in this conversation. You and I have known each other a long time. People don’t know about me. But I wrote a food policy column for a minute at The Washington Post. You’ve obviously been in cooking and food and food policy, writing for much longer. And so within that conversation, it’s often taken for granted there’s a crisis in our food system. But somebody can walk into this and say, look, the global food production system, it now supports almost 8 billion people, which is an extraordinary accomplishment. Food is cheaper than ever before. More people have more variety at their fingertips than ever before. Sure, a lot of it is processed, but people are choosing a lot of that stuff and maybe like it. So what do you say to convince that person there is a food system crisis as opposed to we should just throw a parade; it’s going great?
Close to a billion people are underfed. So we can have that discussion in a minute. But it works well for a third to a half of the people on Earth. But it doesn’t work well for the most-often poorest people on Earth. And that’s who’s getting sick, and that’s who is undernourished or malnourished. So I don’t think we can have a parade, no.
So I think a question laced through the book is, how should we understand the choices people make in the grocery store? Because there’s a critique of this conversation. It’s very elitist. People who live in coastal cities and like to shop at farmer’s markets and have developed a lot of contempt for ultra processed food are looking down at people who buy sugary cereal. How do you think about the food choices people make? How do you understand those as either representing individual tastes or social structure or manipulation or what?
I think the public health community has screwed up by focusing on behavior change for years and decades. And behavior change, of course, if it’s manageable to you — and you’re right. That tends to be people with more money, regardless of where they live. Behavior change is all well and good, just like exercising is all well and good. But what do you say to the woman who’s working two jobs and doesn’t have a car and has three kids and just doesn’t have a second to breathe? How do you tell her she’s eating wrong? And what I say to that woman is, I’m sorry that the system has failed you because that woman may have no option but to go through the drive-thru or to do grab and go at 7-Eleven or even to shop for dinner at the local convenience store or a liquor store or gas station or what have you. It really goes back to saying, what is food for? If food is to provide nourishment for as many people as possible, then our food system is failing because it doesn’t do that. By making ultra-processed food the easiest option for many, many people, it’s failing to provide nourishment. Put the environmental stuff and all of that aside. It’s not even doing that.
What is an ultra-processed food?
There’s no strict definition. It’s a food you couldn’t produce yourself. It’s a food whose ingredients are not commonly found in the kitchen. It’s a food your grandmother or, in your case, forgive me for being ageist, your great grandmother would not recognize as food. It’s any of those things. We know what it is. You don’t need to be told that an apple is not ultra-processed food and Apple Jacks are ultra-processed food. Everybody knows that.
But like soy milk, is soy milk and ultra-processed food?
I don’t think that’s ultra processed. I mean, of course, it’s processed. You have to grind soy, soak and grind soy beans to make soy milk. That’s a processing thing. But it’s not turning soybeans into Trix or into Chicken McNugget or what have you. It’s turning it into a form of food that’s based directly on the original ingredients.
So this book I was not prepared for. It just has a remarkable scope. It is an entire history of human beings’ relationship with food, with agriculture, with how we eat. On page 251 you have a sentence, where you write, “all of these issues stem from industrial agriculture’s marriage to high-yield monoculture, which in every way runs counter to the way nature establishes things.” And that felt to me, at that point, the whole book. So I want to go through that sentence a bit. What is high-yield monoculture?
Monoculture, as the name implies, means growing one crop at a time. But growing two acres of artichokes or lettuce or tomatoes or whatever is not the same thing as growing 3,000 acres of corn or soybeans or wheat or anything, for that matter. In order to grow one crop on one plot of land year after year, you have to constantly be boosting that soil’s nutrient content. And the only way to do that is by adding chemical fertilizer. And in the process of doing that, you also have to apply pesticides and herbicides so that nothing else will grow in that soil. There’s another line in the book that I like quite a lot, and that is that nature likes chaos. If you look at how things grow in the forest or in a field or whatever, it’s so unpredictable. It’s so wacky. You can’t put your arms around that. You can’t define it. You can’t name every living thing that you’re seeing. And then you go to an industrial cornfield and there is one thing growing. And if you see a moth or a butterfly, it’s an unusual thing.
This is a book very much about the relationship between human beings, food, technology, and economic systems. I recognize that makes it a little complicated. But those are the big players here. And this book is laced through with a real counterintuitive narrative about whether or not we have understood our own technology and what it’s doing. Let me ask it this way. I think most people believe that technology has been great and it’s how we feed the world. And I think you believe that actually technology has made it harder for us to feed the world well because we have approached the technology wrong. We’ve approached it in a reductionist way, with insufficient respect for the natural world. But I don’t want to put words, too much in your mouth. What is your view of what our relationship to technology and nature is? And what should it be?
There are two or three or maybe five turning points in the last 500 years or 700 years, where agriculture could have developed differently and had a different relationship with technology. So when you decided to take land away from peasants and start to grow crops not in order to feed the people around the community of the crops, but to trade them, make money, and begin a cash economy, that’s a turning point. When you decide to enhance that by saying, a big part of our country’s economy is going to be based on growing surplus of food that we don’t really intend to eat — we just intend to sell — that’s another turning point. And technology has serviced that as opposed to servicing, helping, people grow food for themselves, for their communities, for their regions. Farming has historically been grueling work. But some of that technology could have been and still can be put to work making farming more dignified, less grueling, less backbreaking, more, dare I say it, fun, more rewarding, at least, for people who want to farm 50, 100, maybe even up to 500 acres of land, which is not insignificant. These are not anti-technology arguments. They’re seeing technology as a tool. I’m not particularly anti-genetic engineering. Genetic engineering is just an advanced form of hybridization. It hasn’t done much good, so far, because it’s been put strictly to work for chemical companies thus far. When it’s put to work for producing better food for people, it might be able to do a good job. But it’s, like, who does technology work for is kind of the question here. How do you want to apply that technology? Where do you want to put your energies? The reason this book is political, if that’s the right word, is that a lot of it is about intent. Do we want to look at where we are, evaluate it dispassionately, correctly, and say what changes do we want to make in order to make things better for the majority of people who live here, and in the rest of the world as well? So it would be nice if the junk food diet didn’t lead to diseases that killed more people every year than COVID killed in 2020. If we can look at these things, then we can make judgments. Again, I’m not saying we have to turn the whole thing on its head tomorrow, and tractors are evil, or hybridized seeds are bad, or any of that. I’m saying let’s try to use these things more wisely, with the goals of less damage to the environment, better public health, and so on.
So I want to go through a technological story here and one that’s really challenging to what I thought I knew. Walking into this book, my belief was that the Green Revolution was one of the truly great achievements in human history. And you really question that here, try to tell an alternative narrative. So first, tell me what the standard narrative is of the Green Revolution. There was a Nobel Peace Prize awarded for it. What do people think it was?
It was American largesse and technology and good-old American know how, generously exported to the rest of the world so that poor people in Mexico and India and elsewhere could catch up and learn how to farm the way we were farming and become wealthy farmers and feed their country. That’s what the Green Revolution was supposedly about.
So give me your interpretation of the Green Revolution.
The Green Revolution was a strategy by which U.S. agriculture, or the profitable side of U.S. agriculture, was to be exported to the rest of the world in a sort of typical alliance between government and business. So can we sell more John Deere tractors in the rest of the world? Can we sell more Pioneer seeds in the rest of the world? Can we sell more Dow chemicals in the rest of the world? Well, we can do that if we convince the rest of the world that the American style of agriculture is the way to go. And that’s kind of what the Green Revolution was. But if you look at the numbers, a lot of the success of the Green Revolution came from subsidies. The so-called success of the Green Revolution came from subsidizing the crops that were subject to being grown with American-style techniques. If you look at the bigger picture and say, did the Green Revolution really increase yields on many, many crops in many, many countries, the answer is no. And if you look at the global picture and say, well, the yields of crops, did the total amount of crops grow during the period that we call the Green Revolution, and the answer is yes. So it’s a little more complicated than that, I guess. But it really was about exporting U.S. techniques. I mean, not to be too glib, but it was kind of a form of neocolonialism. It was like if we can get the rest of the world to buy into our system, we make money.
But let me say one reason why I’m pushing a little bit more on this big — particularly the questions around technology. And I’ll use animals as the example. I care a lot about animal suffering. I’m vegan. I would get rid of antibiotics on farms in two seconds, except for treating animals that are actually sick. But I don’t believe right now there is any path to substantially reducing the number of animals raised in terrible conditions and then slaughtered for food, aside from technologically replacing them, replacing them with plant-based meats, replacing them with lab-and-cell-based meats, clean meats, whatever people like to call it now. And so I’ve become, on this particular issue, like, a pretty intense techno optimist or techno — I’m relying on technology to do the work because I don’t believe that people are going to accept eating less meat. And I don’t believe they’re going to in the long run except eating worse meat and going back to sort of how this was traditionally, which is meat is a small part of the diet. I don’t think you think that’s necessarily a good direction to really try to push this super hard, in part because so many technological efforts have failed before. But am I misreading you? Is there another equilibrium one can be working for? Because I do think you want to know in your head what you’re working towards, like what utopia you’re trying to find.
Yeah, I’m 100% supportive of your explorations and anyone else’s explorations of finding meat substitutes that people like. But I think you and I actually are going to agree to differ here. I do believe a lot of the things that you said won’t happen will happen. And I think an act of government, or a responsible act of government can make them happen. So if you take antibiotics out of — routine use of antibiotics out of CAFOs, maybe you have to reduce the number of animals that you’re raising in those cases by 5 percent or 10 percent. I don’t know. You probably have to reduce them some. You can’t crowd them quite as much. Now, you say, OK, well, that just means there’s going to be more CAFOs. But if you also start supporting existing Clean Water and Air Acts, and you start seeing lawsuits of people who live near CAFOs and are getting sick — you see those lawsuits win — well, then maybe meat becomes more expensive and/or you eat less of it. Meanwhile, some of your meat substitutes may mature to the point where they make some sense. And meanwhile, we may see more bills that allow more people to do better farming. And we see an increased number of animals grown under humane conditions and used for meat. So there’s a lot of different factors in this. It’s not like, oh, Ezra likes cell-based meat and Marks likes everybody to eat less meat. It’s both. It’s everything. Let’s just move things in the right direction and see what changes that brings and then have the same discussion in a year. Right now it’s not happening on the levels where it’s going to make these kind of differences.
This is where I wonder about the politics of all this and maybe where I’m more pessimistic on the politics of all this than you are actually, which is you talk a lot in the book about organizing, about massing people. You just talked about passing stronger laws and enforcing them. And my read of the politics is that if you can convince people that their food, in particular meat, but not only, is going to get more expensive, you are in trouble. Sometimes capitalism gets talked about as a truly abstract force. as if it’s a god. But companies, they go in directions that are in relationship to the market. They shape preferences for advertising. But it’s very hard to sell people stuff they don’t want. And in particular, it’s often very hard to sell people in mass stuff that is more expensive. And so it’s true that richer people will buy more pricier goods. But overall, the fact that Costco chickens, as my colleague Nick Kristof just wrote a fantastic piece about, Costco chickens are extraordinarily popular, the rotisserie chickens. They are loss leading because they are so cheap. And the way they were made so cheap, in large part, is inflicting tremendous suffering on those chickens in Costco, which is one of these companies raised up by progressives due to their labor standards as a good humane company. And so one of the things that I worry about when I just look at the numbers here and then think about China getting richer, India getting richer, Malaysia getting richer, et cetera, is that if you don’t come up with something that is cheaper, right, that is actually able to undercut on cost, you will lose. It will only be a thing that Mark and Ezra are into over time. But that most of the things I hear in terms of regenerative agriculture and more humane standards and so on are just by nature are going to be more expensive because the externality, the thing keeping the meat so cheap, is that we are making the animals pay the cost. That is a cost we just put it on them. And so I’ve become very radicalized in the direction of some of these more technological solutions. And I don’t want to be. I just don’t think — I just have become much more pessimistic on the political path. But do you think I’m too pessimistic?
Well, I don’t know. I’m in a window of optimism. It may be brief. You bring up externalities. And maybe you want to describe, if you want to, what an externality is.
Yeah, I’ll quickly do that, which is it’s an unpaid cost to the system. So when — let’s use an example from this conversation. If you’re a confined animal feeding operation, a massive factory farm, and you’re just pumping waste into these giant lagoons, and they’ve made the air in the area acrid, and they’ve poisoned the water, but you are not paying that cost, that’s an externality. Other people are paying a cost that is coming from your production. So your meat is cheaper, and people around you can’t open their windows on Tuesdays.
So first you said the externalities are borne by the animals. And of course, they are. But second you said the externalities were borne by people as well, and they are. And you named one public health consequence. And the externalities are also borne by the environment, which means they’re borne by society at large and those costs are paid by all of us. No one’s going to want to pay more money for food. I get that. But I believe we can understand that meat is a luxury or meat is a precious thing and that we’re not entitled to it given the cost. If none of this had any consequences — and in a way, you’re kind of assuming that cell-based meat doesn’t have externalities. You’re thinking, oh, well cell-based meat, we’ll do that. It’ll be lower in resources. It won’t pollute as much. Or we won’t be torturing animals, won’t have as much saturated fat or whatever. But we don’t know that. So you can go all in on it. But the information isn’t there yet. What the information is there on is that factory farming of animals is bad. And we need to do whatever we can to limit it now.
Yeah, that’s a place where — that’s why I’ve been pushing on the technology side of this. Have you seen Elizabeth Kolbert’s new book “Under a White Sky“?
I haven’t. I’ve seen that it exists. But I haven’t looked at it yet.
That book’s really lodged in my thinking. And the argument she makes there is that we have so terraformed the world. We have like forced to the Anthropocene so profoundly upon the world that there is no going back. There is only more manipulation. She puts it as a problem of control. We wanted to control nature. Then there are all these problems what we did to control nature. But unfortunately, the only answer is to try to impose controls of the controls. And then, of course, given this terrible history, those are going to have problems too. And —
Boy, does that not sound like an optimistic book.
I don’t think it is. But there’s a part of me that felt it was very realistic, right? We are just — we are Lucy on the chocolate production line now. And we’re just forever going to be trying to deal with the problems of what came before. And I think what you’re arguing for here is a much more profound re-centering of our philosophy around this to say, no, we should move in another direction. And I find myself caught between them. I would like to think that we can change our philosophical understanding of food and our relationship to the natural world. And then I look at consumer preferences and particularly look at what’s happening in countries that are getting richer and what preferences are coming online. And I have a lot of trouble — and maybe this is my own lack of imagination — imagining the lever, or the levers, that would change the way we think profoundly enough. So when you think about them, what are they? I understand that you’re pushing for year-by-year incremental solutions. You have a wonderful line in the book, this will not end. The story will not finish in our lifetimes. But you’re talking about changing how we think. How do we change how we think at scale?
Right. I want to make it clear, not that you accused me of this, but I want to make it clear that I’m not talking about going back to some bucolic time, and I’m not talking about some kind of reactionary vision of farming. I’m talking about using technology, using our knowledge, using science, and so on to farm and eat in better ways. I don’t know whether that’s going to be manipulating nature more or less. But I think we need to take nature more into account. And one of the surprises in writing the book was finding myself feeling this kind of increased reverence for nature and having a little more understanding, as a kind of lifelong atheist and failed Jew and whatever, this just kind of beginning of understanding of the power of religion, or at least spiritualism. And when I was writing that stuff about nature loving chaos and thinking about some of the farms I visited that don’t look like farms, but to produce food for their communities, but they look like they belong in nature, that was life changing for me and thought changing.
I think sometimes about the way society builds an intellectual immune system to ideas that particularly powerful interests don’t want to see believed. And one of the ways is by convincing everybody those ideas are silly, that they’re unserious. Corny, I think, is a word you use for some of this earlier, even though you’re talking about your own ideas I went to U.C. Santa Cruz. I live in Northern California. The hippies were right about a lot of stuff.
But we look down on most of it. Oh, when you talk about oneness with nature, you’re simultaneously saying the most obvious thing in the goddamn world because, of course, we’re at one with nature. We’re animals. And you sound like you’re about to take ayahuasca, not to say anything bad about taking ayahuasca. And this is a real, in my view, issue. You have to build belief systems. Now, some belief systems we’ve normalized. This is to take nothing away from beauty and power of Christianity. But if you just hear somebody described Christianity and you are not inside the system, it sounds pretty odd. But because Christianity is very powerful, to question Christianity in any kind of condescending way is a very, very intellectually, politically dangerous thing to do, not that nobody does it. But you would not do it at scale. Whereas to say like, oh, these hippies with their nature and oneness ideas and this idea that we have that we actually don’t know best, and we need to take the land more seriously maybe give a fair amount of cropland back to the land, you sound like a lunatic. But it’s actually a completely straightforward reading of what our relationship to the world probably should be. There’s just a defense mechanism built around it.
So it does go back to how do you change the culture. Because people who say those kinds of things are not wrong. People who say we need to pay attention to our relationship to nature or we need to take care of the land and all these other hippie-sounding things are not wrong. But they’re mostly not powerful. And their vision, our vision, is not dominant. But that’s, in a way, a similar discussion to racism, gender bias, and so on. How do you change the way people think about the world? And my way of doing it is to talk to you and write books. People will say it’s a pipe dream, the notion that you could feed the world without completely mastering nature or trying to master nature. And of course, there’s going to be some collateral damage and many externalities and so on. But it’s the only way to do it. But the pipe dream is to think that we can keep doing things the way that we’re doing them now. And so it’s like Margaret Thatcher ridiculing everybody by saying there’s no alternative to capitalism. But that’s not right. Capitalism, big-ag industrial agriculture, a society where some people benefit mightily and others suffer, these are the realities that we’re living with it today. But that doesn’t mean that they’re permanent or the realities of the future. And I think it was Ursula Le Guin who said the divine right of kings was once unchallengeable. You could not say that there was such a different way of running things than being ruled by a king who was given his power from god. And that determined a lot of what happened. And that’s gone. And that’s progress. That’s changed. And it may take 700 years to get to a place where things are radically different. And like I said, I certainly am not going to live to see any of this. But that doesn’t mean we can’t work towards it, and we can’t say this is the way it ought to be, and the way things are now is not the way it ought to be.
Given your work, your dozens of cookbooks and your years writing “The Minimalist” food column at The Times and all the recipes I’ve made from you, one of things that was interesting me was pleasure was not something talked about that much in the book. And your definition of food, food is to nourish. But a lot of times when I buy a bar of chocolate, I’m not buying that to nourish myself. I’m buying that because I like it. I think a lot of people know that some of the food they’re buying is not there to nourish. It’s to make me feel less bad about being alive just for a little while on a day when I need that. And so how do you think about that? Like, you had a sentence you write, when soda was reverse engineered to make it less harmful, does that really benefit eaters or farmers? I’m paraphrasing a little bit. But I know I like soda. And if it weren’t harmful for me, I’d probably drink more of it. So how do you think about pleasure? And how do you think about using pleasure in this project?
Well, I think the reason I’m not talking about that is because in the context of this conversation, my primary concern is seeing food that is nutritious, that is fair, that is affordable, and that is as minimally damaging to the earth and other species as possible. I think delicious is a distant fifth or maybe sixth. I certainly think that food that’s appealing and delicious — I’ve spent my whole life doing that. And I today. I’ll cook tonight. It’s not something I ignore, it’s just not the point of — it’s not the point of all of this right now. Another thing that might be considered silly is to say tastes can change. But actually taste buds are trained. And we learn our preferences. There’s evidence that we learn our preferences in utero. But we certainly learn our preferences when we’re really, really young, and everybody knows that. Everybody knows how hard it is to change their diet. And everybody knows that during the lockdown, many of us gained weight because we allowed ourselves to eat way more ice cream or hot dogs or cheeseburgers or cookies or chocolate bars or whatever than we normally do because we felt the need of comfort. And I guess that’s fine. But the fact is that we derive comfort from the foods that we learn to love as a child. And we continue to allow marketers to teach our children that McDonald’s is the fun place to go, that Coke is the best beverage that there is to drink, that breakfast means eating cookies with milk on top of them. And until we teach children what real food is, where it comes from, how to make it, then we’re going to keep having these struggles as adults.
So that’s a really rich answer. And I want to come at a couple of parts of it. So first, I do want to push on this idea that the pleasure is fifth there, because maybe this is me reading the politics of the book or thinking about the politics of this issue. But I think if you don’t win pleasure, you will lose. If the food companies can say, my thing is more delicious, that people are largely going to choose it. I think the hope here is that delicious is a social construct. I’ve had one really, really radicalizing experience of this around ceasing to eat animals. I loved me. When we met originally, I was a big self-styled foodie. I think we went and had lunch at a Jose Andres place in DC, who’s done great work, actually, on pushing vegetables, but was not doing it at that moment in time. And I love burgers. I love sushi. I love all of it. And even though now, I still taste memories that I understand those things taste good. I would be revolted if I ate raw tuna. I just can’t now not because I don’t on some level like it. If they made fake raw tuna, I would eat in a second. But I can’t. And if you think I’m being weird, imagine eating dog, right? Just think about eating dog because there’s no reason to think dog isn’t delicious. But what we think of as tasty is socially constructed. And as you say, it’s commercially constructed. And so I think there’s like two ways to think about this. One is you can try to technologically end run it. That’s part of my argument about the manipulation of meat. But then there’s another argument you’re making, which is that you can reconstruct how people think of it and also change how those ideas are constructed in the first place. You push in this book to end the advertising of food to young children. You talk about other countries that have done that. So we actually have experience there. Tell me a bit about that.
I think it is a social construct. Most people would agree that a carrot tastes really good. But we don’t think of a carrot as a treat. I don’t know what that’s worth. But what I do know is that we’re not born craving Skittles or Frosted Flakes or Coke. Those are learned preferences. And we have to protect our children from being taught that their food preferences are, let’s say, perverted. That is to say we have to protect children from being sold junk food before they know the difference between right and wrong. And that seems like a pretty self-evident statement, that why would you allow somebody to teach your child that they should prefer food that’s going to hurt them in the long run? It’s allowing marketers to enter the minds of children before they can form judgments and convince them of preferences that are going to last for the rest of their lives and are going to damage them. I think that it’s fair to say that we should be limiting the ability of marketers to do that. And we’re seeing that in a limited way in different countries around the world.
A lot of people — I’m one of them — find it basically easier to eliminate whole categories of food than to make things occasional treats. So in recent years, a bunch of diets have gained popularity, ketogenic diets, intermittent fasting, paleo. Do any of these, to you, have merit? Are you persuaded any of them are a good choice?
I write keto off from the start because of its environmental consequences. You do not want to sit around telling people they should be eating more meat. I think there’s, like, three or four rules in food. And one is to cut back on junk food. And another is to eat fewer or no animal products. Another is to eat more plants. So if you’re going to be a vegan, great. But you have to remember the junk food part of things. So I think you can make whatever diet you want to. We’re subjected to fads. But I think that the fundamental rules don’t change that much, and a lot of fad diets are about marketing and about— there’s a huge diet industry in this country. And most people don’t really need to be on some specific diet. They just need to move towards a more sane diet. But again, there’s the question of accessibility, affordability, and all of that marketing.
What did you think of Biden’s selection of Tom Vilsack to return to lead the Department of Agriculture?
I told you I was in a window of — a brief window of hopefulness and optimism. So now I’m a big Tom Vilsack fan. It’s in keeping with the way he’s — Biden is operating. It’s still too early to know. I want things to go well. So I’m not going to sit here and say I don’t trust Tom Vilsack as far as I could throw him. I would have said that before he was appointed. I was not in favor of his appointment. And no one in my largest political or social or whatever circle did want Vilsack to be Secretary of Agriculture. But he can be pressed. And the kinds of changes that we need to see in the next few years are not so radical that he won’t consider them. It’s sort of a question of, is he going to put all of his chips in with big ag, which is what he’s done since the Obama administration ended? Or is he going to really consider the needs of eaters and smaller farmers? I spoke, for a long time, with a member of his staff for the justice for Black farmers piece I wrote for The Times recently. And I liked the guy a lot. And I thought I thought the guy was making a tremendous amount of sense and that they were really going to be putting their energies in the right place I think it’s up to us to hope for the best, but push them as often as we can.
Are there a couple of policy changes they can make without legislation that you think would be pretty important?
Well, the antibiotic thing doesn’t need any legislation. The F.D.A. could do it tomorrow. I had this conversation with an F.D.A. guy when I was writing the opinion column for The Times during the Obama administration. And they have the power to do it. And they don’t.
Are there any ways you would change the U.S. government’s nutrition guidelines?
Well, there was a big ruling not long ago, I think a couple of years ago, that the nutrition guidelines shouldn’t take environmental concerns and sustainability into account. And I think that’s the first change is that you have to look at what we grow not only from the perspective of what it does for humans, but what it does to the land. Then you can call them nutritional guidelines, but they wind up determining what happens on farms. I don’t know whether you want to consider poisoning by pesticides or other carcinogens a nutritional issue or not. But certainly they’re a public health issue. And I think that kind of thing should be considered. I could see a broader anti-sugar stance on the part of the nutritional guidelines. But there’s a lot to like about the nutritional guidelines. It’s just that they don’t have the punch that they need to have in terms of what gets grown and how marketing gets done. If people were to look at MyPlate or whatever the current incarnation of it is and apply that to their diets, they’d wind up with OK diets.
Let’s do some recommendations. What’s your favorite cookbook that you didn’t write?
Well, I think the answer to a lot of these questions is going to make me sound like an old man because my favorites are old. And I learned how to cook from cookbooks. And I learned how to cook from Craig Claiborne and Julia Child and a woman named Paula Peck, who’s largely forgotten, and “The Settlement Cook Book,” which was really important, “The Joy of Cooking” and duh-duh-duh-duh-duh. I think the first cookbook I fell in love with, swooned over, could not believe how great it was, was Julie Sahni’s “Classic Indian Cooking.” I mean, that changed my life. That really, really changed my life.
I’ve never read that one. So that’s a great recommendation. What cookbook would you recommend to somebody trying to go vegetarian?
Well, this is really easy. I would recommend “How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.” I’m sorry. I can’t help it. That’s what I would recommend.
Fair enough. And it’s great. So it’s a reasonable self plug. Was there a book that made you want to be a writer? Or if not, is there a book that practically inspires you today as a writer?
I think my answer to this, which is going to be again really old fashioned, is probably PG Wodehouse.
Oh, so great.
That’s the stuff that I read over and over again. And if I get in a certain kind of bad mood, it’s like, oh, I’ll just go read a little Lord Emsworth or Bertie and Jeeves or whatever, and it works.
You know, it’s actually a helpful recommendation for me because I’ve read Wodehouse before. But I often am looking for something to read for bed when I’m tired and I don’t have the energy to concentrate for long. And actually Wodehouse is a perfect answer to that problem. And I’ve been looking for months for a book like this.
It is perfect. I read it out loud sometimes. And if you’ve only read Bertie and Jeeves, you have to read the Blandings stuff because it’s actually — it’s better. It’s funnier. It’s amazing. I remember when I started reading Wodehouse, and I wasn’t young. I had read, because of some PBS, or that is BBC series, called Mapp and Lucia, which was written by this ‘30s guy, ‘30s or ‘40s guy named E.F. Benson. And I ripped through all of this E.F. Benson. And I went into this bookstore, and I said, if you like E.F. Benson, who should you read? And the guy said, well, I assume you’ve read all of Wodehouse. And I was like, who? And that was my introduction to Wodehouse. So that was funny.
Who do you just think is the best food writer just in terms of the beauty with which they wrote about food?
I always loved Claudia Roden’s work. And that was also a very important early cookbook for me. I don’t remember what her Middle Eastern book is called but pretty sure it’s still in print. It’s gone through a billion different editions. And it’s great. And she’s a wonderful woman and a terrific writer. But my absolute favorite and perhaps edging that out by a nose is Elizabeth Luard’s peasant kitchen, which when I first bought it, it was called “The Old World Kitchen.” And it’s kind of a forgotten lost arts kind of book, how things were made pre-World War II and even pre-20th century. It’s very, very rich, and she handles the stuff beautifully. I like both those books a lot.
What’s the last book you’ve read that changed your mind?
That I think is “Optimist’s Telescope” by Bina Venkataraman, who’s the opinion editor of The Boston Globe. I don’t know that it changed my mind. But it helped me think that I was right to be thinking more about the decisions that we make and how they affect the future. And I tried to get into that some in “Animal, Vegetable, Junk” when I talk about these turning points and how things might have gone differently or when I talk about not being so angry about the past, because people were making decisions for whatever reasons they were making. But clearly, they weren’t doing the kind of thing of let’s make this decision for our grandchildren our great grandchildren or five generations ahead or whatever. They were thinking, let’s just make this decision for what’s expedient right now. And I think we need to do that. When I said before I don’t plan to live to see the kind of changes that I think we should have, I think that’s a mature attitude, that we need to be thinking about the benefit of humanity years after we’re dead. And Bina’s book is a lot about that.
Your book has a ton of anthropology in it. What’s a great book on anthropology?
I was really inspired by “Sapiens,” which I read twice and listened to while running when I was living in Berkeley. I think that was really important to me because it was like how the hell do you tell the story of humanity? And I thought, well, if the guy can tell the story of humanity, then I can certainly tell the story of food. So that was a really inspiring book to me and an important book.
And then finally, what is your favorite children’s book?
That one is so dead easy for me. And it’s like not even close. And it’s “Wuggie Norple.” Do you know “Wuggie Norple“?
Of course you don’t. But “Wuggie Norple’s” out of print. It has no message at all. Or if it does, it’s so arcane I haven’t figured it out. It’s completely silly. The illustrations are killer. It’s, like, 40 years after I read it to my kids. And now I have a grandson. I read it him. It was the first book I bought when he was born. It’s Tomie DePaula, who is a terrific illustrator and storyteller, did all the Strega Nona books, which are really good too.
Mark Bittman, thank you very much.
Really fun, Ezra. Thanks.
That is the show. Thank you to Mark Bittman. If you enjoyed the show, there are two ways to support it. One, you could leave us a review wherever you’re listening to this. Go give us a couple of stars of whatever you think we deserve. But it really does help the show’s discoverability in the various podcast apps. Or second, to send this episode to somebody else you think may enjoy it, maybe somebody you want to talk about it with. We really appreciate it if you take a moment to do either one. “The Ezra Klein Show” is a production of New York Times Opinion. It is produced by Roge Karma and Jeff Geld, fact checked by Michelle Harris, original music by Isaac Jones, and mixing by Jeff Geld.
“The Ezra Klein Show” is produced by Roge Karma and Jeff Geld; fact-checking by Michelle Harris; original music by Isaac Jones; mixing by Jeff Geld.
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