Mark Bittman

September 4, 2011

Newspapers, magazines and television are ramping up for the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. It’s shaping up to be a major community-building moment for Americans. I take this seriously, but I haven’t been able to come up with any plausible angle that ties in with the Thornapple Blog. I may have shot my patriotic wad with the “Memorial Day” blog I wrote at the beginning of the summer. At any rate, I’m heading off in a different direction this September.

By popular demand—well one person asked for it—I’m revisiting a blog theme that ran last January, when I posted short essays on five “food icons”: Norman Borlaug, Vandana Shiva, Temple Grandin, Michael Pollan and Wendell Berry. This month we’re going to stay at sub-iconic status. I’m going to post four blogs on contemporary figures that you may or may not have heard of. I’ll get back to the true icons sometime in the future, so don’t take my failure to recognize people like Marion Nestle or Frances Moore Lappé as a slight.

I’m starting with someone that I have never met, and that I only became aware of relatively recently. Mark Bittman has been the principal food writer for the New York Times newspaper for some time now. He also does food bits on the Today show. This means he is famous. He’s probably known to more people than the five icons I wrote about in January. But although my criteria are admittedly obscure, just being famous doesn’t make you an icon in my book.

More recently Bittman has contributed to the Times opinion page. He takes an avidly pro-environmentalist stance in his opinion columns. The most recent effort criticizes a new pipeline project that would connect oilfields in Alberta to refineries in Texas. More typically, he writes on food and farming issues, and in these columns he is a dedicated critic of industrial agriculture, including genetic engineering. He is “for” things that he takes to be the opposite of industrial agriculture: small farms, organic food, local production.

Bittman has a book Food Matters that intersperses a lucid but rather condensed statement of his food ethic with a number of recipes. That’s also the approach he follows on his website, which (I must confess) I had not actually looked at before today. Since I tend to support many of the causes that Bittman is supporting, part of me feels like I should be following his blog, and reading his columns more carefully than I do. I will say that I find myself agreeing with him more often than not (which is still to say, not always). I’m also happy to make any Thornapple readers who are even more clueless than I am aware of him.

But there’s another part of me that is kind of repulsed by what I take to be a pretty uncritical and reflexive (now there’s a word) thread in his writing. I think perhaps it exemplifies what James Madison was worried about when he wrote about the need to curtail the partisan tendencies of democracy. He was thinking about the way that once parties coalesce around a given set of issues or interests, they tend to be behave as if winning is the only thing that matters. Partisans lose sight of the principles and values, and yes even their own interests, that led them to coalesce into parties in the first place. They’ll do anything to best their adversaries. It’s a kind of thinking that leads to “In order to save the farm, we had to destroy it” kinds of activism.

Bittman is surrounded by others who battle from the opposite partisan position. Trent Loos appears on the radio and writes a sometimes inane blog  defending nitrates in your food and other aspects of conventional agriculture. But I should add that I kind of like what Loos has to say about the way many people split between apathy and sheer ignorance when it comes to agriculture. Then there are some who carve out a unique niche and defend that in a similarly reflexive manner. James McWilliams is a young historian with what look like impeccable credentials. But he wrote a singularly stupid book called Just Food: How Locavores Are Endangering the Future of Food and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly. McWilliams also blogs. He combines militant vegetarianism with a love of Monsanto and rabid advocacy of fish farming. It should be interesting, but it’s not. Bittman, Loos and McWilliams are ignoring the philosophical questions that drive me: the links between food and community, between farming and sustainability, and between a culture of the table and the formation of moral character. More pointedly, they seem to be writing for people who already agree with them.

I just hate to think that by blogging for Thornapple I’m in some weird competition with them. Thank the Lord for obscurity. That and the fact that these are sponsored blogs may be my only defense.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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