Wednesday, June 13, 2012

"We have pocket guides for fish; finally, there’s one for humans."

It's almost as if Mark Bittman were reading WWPD. (He did once respond to something I wrote at Culture11, so it's not entirely implausible.) PG, take note: Bittman calls foodies to task for caring about where their food comes from and what its impact is on the environment, but not paying attention to the labor issues, thus suggesting... that foodies do not, thus far, care terribly much about workers' conditions.

Overall, I of course approve in this move away from the fetishization of farm-to-table, but I must nitpick:

-If "foodies" care about what Bittman correctly notes they care about, how did that come to pass? I'd think he himself is somewhat responsible, as one of the leaders of the food movement. Rather than 'fessing up to having contributed to misdirected priorities, he chastises his own converted flock, and links to the Portlandia chicken sketch. Sure, he uses "we," but in that way an op-ed writer does, where it's clear the writer himself isn't part of that first-person plural. There's no indication that he influenced the "provenance of your heirloom tomato" slant.

-"That tip you debate increasing to 20 percent might be the difference in making the rent." From the full article, it's clear that Bittman wants to see changes in how much food workers are paid (but not, alas, a move to paying all workers, servers included, minimum wage), but this sentence gives the impression that he wants labor to be just one more consideration made at the level of the individual consumer happy for a chance to pay more in exchange for smug. The consumer who, as I keep pointing out, has limited info at best, in terms of where a bunch of asparagus came from, but also in terms of which establishments pay their workers at least minimum wage. (See: the proliferation of tip jars.) "I have tipped 20% for years. after reading this article, i will go to 25-30%," someone comments.


Britta said...

Have you read "Omnivore's Dilemma"? I feel like Bittman actually would agree and has written on 90% of what you think about food, and that the Bittman which has become a certain whipping boy for groups on the left is a caricature hardly resembling actual Bittman. Bittman's entire book (OM) was about how structural forces make it almost impossible to eat healthily, and that it shouldn't be left up to the consumer to make it their full time job to figure out how to eat. He's had some clunky newspaper columns, but on the whole he has been arguing at great length for many of the points you make.

For this article, he explicitly mentioned servers as needing basic benefits and a higher minimum wage, and he also made nod to exploitation of general Walmart employees and a desire for the general minimum wage to be raised (which wasn't the focus of this article, and I don't see anything wrong highlighting the fact that the food service wage has not gone up in over 20 years, unlike the general minimum wage, which as inadequate as it is, at least has been rising), so I don't see how claiming he didn't or doesn't care about this is anything but an extremely ungenerous reading.

WPB said...

Omnivore's Dilemma was written by Michael Pollan. Bittman's book on the topic, Food Matters, advocates for a way that you can eat more healthily-- namely by becoming a vegan 2/3 of the time.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


What WPB said. Bittman's the one who went on the epicurean tour of Spain with Mario Batali, Gwyneth "YPIS" Paltrow, and some really gorgeous Spanish actress, because why not. He definitely wants us to feel bad about buying the wrong tomatoes or asparagus, not just to avoid having meat/eggs/cheese alongside it before 6pm.

But I totally see how one might conflate Bittman and Pollan. Both of them, as well as Alice Waters, have both advocated for meaningful sorts of change, and promoted an aesthetic ideal that gets branded elitist, to which they respond, in unison, 'what about lentils?' and so on. Pollan, I believe, is the one who noticed corn subsidies, and came up with a brilliant libertarian-friendly (that's you, WPB) solution to how the government can stop us eating junk by actually intervening less. He also went on Freakonomics and reluctantly mentioned being about to eat Chez Panisse and Dubner was all, oh no he didn't. I think Bittman, Pollan, and even Waters will ultimately be remembered as a positive influence, even revolutionarily so, on how Americans eat, but they also sometimes need to steer their captivated audience in better directions.

As for Bittman-not-Pollan, this specific article, and tipping, he does, as I acknowledge in the post, make good points (if not ideal ones) about food-industry wages. But that throwaway line - like I said, nitpicks - was, if you know the readers of these things, the one that was bound to stir up excitement. The thread is full of proud (but invisible, this being the Internet, so who knows how honest) 30% tippers.

For obvious reasons, people much prefer routes to virtuousness that involve spending money on looking like a nice person (the hybrid-car "South Park") than any kind of greater sacrifice or mobilization. Mr. Used to Tip 20% Now Tips More, much like Ms. Used to Eat Organic Now Eats Local Too, is less interested in changing a system than in showing off what a great person he is. And already, too much of the food movement, perhaps inadvertently, encourages this type of smug, ways that rich people can spend a few extra bucks (preferably when others are looking).

Britta said...

hahaha oops. Clearly my brain has started summer vacation already. Too bad I still have papers to write! :P

Yes, alright, mea culpa. I like Bittman's "How to Cook Everything" and his clips on NYTimes, but you're right that his position re. food policy might be less aware than Pollan's.

Also, I think Pollan's libertarianism is where the left meets up with libertarians (as in, against a form of corporate welfare which results in really terrible choices for consumers.) I'm pretty sure he would be in favor of political intervention into growing vegetables, say, government incentives for sustainable small-scale growers.

PG said...

But Jayaraman (whose book, Behind the Kitchen Door, will be published next year), justifiably believes that these battles won’t be won at a federal level without a massive shift in consumer thinking.

Another labor organizer who doesn't think the government can fix the problem without mobilization and awareness by food buyers! ;-)

However, I'm somewhat skeptical of the conflation of everyone in the "food chain." The people who make coffee or wait tables in non-chain restaurants for the most part don't even look much like the people who pick fruits and veggies or process meat. $19,000 would seem like a fortune to many of the latter.

Just the fact of having direct interaction with the ultimate consumers, as restaurant servers do, empowers those workers. The giant blowup rat of New York labor protests (is there just one for the whole city? because I'd see it in different places but never on the same day) allows the people who live more-or-less where the ultimate consumers do to inform them of the hospitality industry's shortcomings. There's no tipping, in a jar or otherwise, for the tomato pickers.

Also, I don't like the federal minimum wage floor to increase too much because it ignores the massive differences in the cost of living in different parts of the country -- not just state-to-state but even within states, eg Northern Virginia compared to Harrisonburg. I'd prefer federal law to set locally-sensitive minimums (as the fed government sort of does with wages for its own employees).

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


"Another labor organizer who doesn't think the government can fix the problem without mobilization and awareness by food buyers! ;-)"

While I have complete and utter confidence in your ability to win an argument, on this particular note, "mobilization and awareness by food buyers" isn't quite the same as saying that the locus of change is the choices an individual consumer makes at the supermarket.

Anyway, I don't think Bittman was saying that hipster restaurant workers, Applebees waitstaff, and tomato farmers are all the same. What I understood him to mean was that food gets to us from a great many steps, and if we're meant to care where our food comes from, we can't just care about the more romantic ones.

But your point - the question of relative visibility - is important, and could be taken further still. Restaurant staff are more visible than farmers, but even within the "restaurant" category, in some parts of the country, at least, there's a really sharp divide between the staff you-the-yuppie-customer are supposed to relate to and those you're not. This is about busboys vs. waiters, but the most obvious example is the barista.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Not much of an oops - Bittman writes serious, Pollan-esque articles as well, just didn't write the book you'd mentioned. He's plenty aware, but like just about all aware-about-the-issues food writers, he leaves us with a mixed message. If anything, my main criticism of his work would be that he underestimates the time and effort it takes to cook from scratch - those addictive NYT videos where everything's already prepped and in tiny glass bowls on a pristine countertop, etc. But he's certainly less of an over-the-top, you-must-polish-each-grain-of-rice-from-scratch sort than most of his peers.

PG said...

"mobilization and awareness by food buyers" isn't quite the same as saying that the locus of change is the choices an individual consumer makes at the supermarket.

Well, this may just be a running disagreement about what's meant by "choices an individual consumer makes." Obviously, if literally only one person changes his consumption, this will not affect an industry. But a movement made up of individuals who choose to minimize their purchase of food that is produced in conditions of cruelty (to animals and/or humans), and to alert companies as to why, has been proven to be an effective tool in the absence of collective-action-through-government.

Speaking of baristas, coffee makes for an interesting example of consumer choice in action within a context of minimal government regulation. The existence of "fair trade" coffee strongly implies that the other coffees are perhaps not so fair, yet both seem to thrive in the marketplace. I don't drink coffee so I don't know much about what drives the choice of consumption: do people only buy fair trade as a form of conspicuous virtuous consumption, or is it preferred by people who are genuinely concerned about fair treatment of coffee growers?

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

"do people only buy fair trade as a form of conspicuous virtuous consumption, or is it preferred by people who are genuinely concerned about fair treatment of coffee growers?"

Do people act in ways that are so black-and-white? Someone who picks fair trade over unfair trade or whatever might have "genuine" concern, but it could also be a very slight amount of concern, enough so that when presented with the two options, this consumer won't think, gee, the quality's probably worse on the one where the labor was more just, so I'll take the free trade coffee instead, thanks.

I don't think there's anyone buying fair trade coffee who's entirely neutral on how that coffee was produced, but until a "fair" version of whatever it is emerges, most probably weren't thinking about it. As I keep harping on, it's unrealistic to expect consumers to have deeply or even casually researched everything they consume. Do you know where your coffee comes from? Great. How about the milk in it? The cup/thermos it's in? The scone you got with it? The eggs and cream that made up that scone? Who milled the flour? Was that person paid a fair wage?

What people (who are not free-market contrarians or some such) will do is, they'll see something that makes one product look a little more "nice" than another (be this local, organic, a lot of green on the label, a word like "purity," a phrase like, "only the finest hand-picked [...]," and, pressed for time and not really paying attention, will go with that one. Consumers rely on specialists to figure out what to are about, such as, sticking with coffee, on a coffee shop deciding to stock fair-trade coffee and organic milk. But of course the coffee shop is not necessarily plugged into any real issues, and could well have assessed that certain changes will up their profits.