Tuesday, June 2, 2015


     Those of us who are interested in food and the politics of food - food safety, healthy food, access to affordable and healthy food, food-related health problems and food as a way to improve our health, the dysfunctional relationship between consumers and the industrial producers of food - are fortunate to have so many knowledgeable and concerned individuals taking up the cause of telling us the truth about what we put in our mouths. These writers include but are not limited to Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation), David A. Kessler, M.D. (The End of Overeating), Michael Pollan (In Defense of Food, The Omnivore's Dilemma, and more), and Mark Bittman, whose many cookbooks and New York Times columns would provide a much-more-than-adequate education in all things food-related even if no other resources were available.

    I have quite literally been reading Bittman for decades, and so I was delighted when Blogging for Books offered me the chance to review his newest book, A Bone to Pick. Since he left off writing his "Minimalist" column for the Times, Bittman's columns and blogs have addressed the tougher and trickier topics of, to quote the subtitle of this book, "The good and bad news about food, with wisdom and advice on diets, food safety, GMOs, farming, and more." Much more.
     No one can deny that we do not eat as healthily as our grandparents did, or that we eat things they might not even have recognized as food, full of ingredients even we, even if we could pronounce them, would be unable to define or explain. From the addition of antibiotics and pesticides and herbicides to GMOs, much of our produce and animal products look very different from the way they did fifty years ago, and the ways in which they are processed before they get to us have also changed radically. These changes, and the science and the politics behind them, are just some of the things Bittman covers in the chapters of A Bone to Pick, which is a collection of his writings in recent years for the Times, mostly from his opinion column, with the rest from the paper's Sunday magazine.
     The book's many short chapters are divided among six main sections: 
          Big Ag, Sustainability, and What's in Between;
          What's Wrong with Meat? (no, he doesn't say we should all be vegans);
          What Is Food? And What Is Not?;
          The Truth About Diet(s);
          The Broken Food Chain;
          Legislating and Labeling.
Each well-researched, well-written, and clearly argued, and in fact entertaining chapter is designed to inform readers about what's really going on with what we eat as well as to persuade us to take action, beginning with our own food choices, to improve the situation when it comes to what we eat and its effect on our lives and those of others. 
     Bittman pulls no punches when it comes to his views on our broken food system, but he is also extremely fair and gives credit where credit is due. One chapter is even titled "Not All Industrial Food Is Evil," and really, wouldn't it be naïve to think we could feed ourselves and the world without some forms of industrial food? Bittman is certainly not naïve, and neither is he a prophet of absolute doom. In the final part of the book, in a chapter called "Why Take Food Seriously?", he writes: 
     "I've never been more hopeful. (In fact, I was never hopeful at all until recently.) Each year, each month it sometimes seems, there are more signs that convenience, that mid-20th-century curse word, may give way to quality - even what you might call wholesomeness - just before we all turn into the shake-sucking fatties of Wall-E
            We are taking food seriously again."

Bittman writes like the smart, knowledgeable, concerned friend we probably all wish we had, one who can tell us what we need to hear because he's right there with us; he just has more information (and, thankfully, a sense of humor). His short, clear, compulsively readable chapters are as addictive as potato chips (sorry - I couldn't resist); you'll probably finish one and think "I have time for just one more." What's so wonderful about this book is that it's not only something that should be read, it's also enjoyable to read. Readers will learn so much, and even if much of what we learn can be disappointing and discouraging (how can those corporate and legislative bigwigs be so insensitive and callous when it comes to the needs of real people?), can come away feeling empowered about issues we should probably all be paying more attention to. It's kind of the next best thing to actually sitting down to a meal with one of America's very best writers on the very important subject of food, in all its aspects.

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