Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Mark Bittman Disses Oprah (and I in Turn Diss Mark Bittman)

I've written a little about Mark Bittman before. He's likely one of the better-known foodies who's carved out a nice niche for himself co-opting the term "vegan" while making it clear that he doesn't take veganism seriously. Bittman is beloved by those who fancy themselves green and conscientious omnivores and is the guy behind the whole "Vegan Before Six" diet. He's gone on the record repeatedly as saying that veganism is too hard and that he has no interest in going vegan (or even vegetarian), himself. He's cited one of the reasons for this as having something to do with vegans consuming meat substitutes (apparently as opposed to consuming whole basic foods). His interest, he says, is simply in getting people to become "less-meatarians".

I don't read Bittman's column regularly (or even sporadically), although if you wade through past blog posts, you'll see that he'd gotten under my skin a little a few years ago. I stumbled across one of his NY Times pieces this morning ("Is 'Eat Real Food' Unthinkable") and stopped to take a gander. In it he discusses how the USDA fails miserably to advise Americans properly on what they shouldn't be eating. Although the USDA leans towards suggesting a "more plant-based diet", it waffles and uses vague wording, perhaps to placate meat and sugar lobbyists, when going into details concerning consumption that should be lessened or avoided altogether. That part of his article was reasonable enough and I certainly don't disagree with Bittman's emphasis on the need for healthier eating habits. What was unfortunate, however, was that he chose to insert a dig at Oprah and to use it to revisit a stereotype he perpetuates about veganism, and that he once again took the opportunity to dismiss veganism.

Bittman refers to her recent show in which she "challenged" her staff to "go vegan" for a whole wretched week and rightfully calls her on how

her idea of surviving without meat and dairy — no explanation given for why we should go from too much to none — is to fill your shopping cart with fake versions of both, like meatless chicken breasts and dairy-less cheese.
The truth is that many vegan food bloggers and others in the vegan community who did watch the show also bemoaned this very thing, shaking their heads at Oprah's focus on processed substitutes. Although some vegans do make use of meat and dairy substitutes and processed foods -- the same manner in which innumerable non-vegans consume processed foods -- it doesn't follow that the dietary aspect of veganism necessitates the consumption of products or that most vegans do consume them in abundance (just 'cause Oprah offers something up doesn't make it so). Nor does it follow that one should take off running with these assumptions and dismiss the dietary component of veganism as somehow being environmentally unfriendly.

Bittman, however (and not completely unlike Oprah), side-steps the issue of the ethics of using non-human animals and uses Oprah's show to lead up to yet another dismissal of veganism, as well as to emphasize that humans' real concerns when it comes to whether or not they put non-human animal parts and products into their mouths should be about their health and the environment:
[T]he goal is not universal veganism, which is pie-in-the-sky; it’s health and sustainability. And we get there by preparing real food, vegan or not. (Remember: Coke, Tostitos and Reese’s Peanut Butter Puffs — yum! — are all vegan.) The answer is not fake animal products, whose advocates argue that they’re transitional to a kinder-to-animal diet. Indeed, that’s good, but a real food diet is better.
I'm left wondering if Mark Bittman has ever leafed through some vegan cookbooks or if he's ever spent a couple of hours reading vegan food blogs. I'm half-tempted to send him a link to a few of my monthly "What Vegans Eat" posts to see if maybe there'd be some way to show him that the dietary component of veganism doesn't de facto exclude "real" foods. In fact, most vegans I know spend much of their time researching ingredients and cooking from scratch. It's really disingenuous -- and unfortunately misleading -- of Bittman to create this false dichotomy between what vegans eat and "a real food diet".

Erik Marcus of the unfortunately named adores Bittman, often lauding him as someone to whom vegans should be paying attention, saying that
[i]t’s so refreshing to hear Bittman talk because the majority of meat eaters who write about food are just appallingly misinformed about veganism. Bittman, by contrast, really understands the spectrum of concerns that relate to food, and he manages to reject veganism for himself without at all acting like a dick about it.
So it looks as if even someone who rejects veganism, calls it too much of a "tough sell" and who stereotypes vegans as eating processed foods (when Bittman's entire raison d'ĂȘtre is to educate people to avoid eating processed foods) is "refreshing" because he's one of the few who's supposedly not "appallingly misinformed" about it? Just because he's not "a dick about it"? It seems to me that Marcus, who often publicly appears to pride himself on his snark and sarcasm, is himself "appallingly misinformed". And rather than find him refreshing, I think that Bittman's anti-vegan stance has reached the end of its shelf-life.


Michael T said...

I don't know much about Mark Bittman, but I can say that being vegan is EASY! It will be my 1 year vegan anniversary on Monday Fed 14th, and my only regret is that I didn't go vegan sooner! Vegan before six is another word for COP-OUT. Go Vegan!!!! It's Easy!

Vanilla Rose said...

It's as if the vegan-organic movement has totally bypassed these alleged "experts".

Marty said...

Hi Mo,

First I just wanted to say I enjoy your blog and hope you pick up on the podcasts again.

Now my comments:

Being vegan is easy. Flipping a switch from a standard diet and going vegan overnight is going to almost *require* a quick substitution of processed vegan foods for real animal flesh. I've been veg for almost 20 years but vegan only since July. I can't imagine Oprah's staff sitting down on day 1 and making seitan! (Not that that isn't processed too.)

I don't care much for Bittman's Vegan until 6. It sounds too chic for me and too trendy. But, in the long run, or short run, I do believe that it has caused an immediate reduction in consumption of eggs, bacon, sausage, butter for breakfast and too numerous to name other foods for lunch. If we could convert the world to 2/3 vegan I consider it a decent start. I think people get hung up on these small steps as endpoints. The endpoint is a vegan world but if we use a ballpark figure of 30 billion animals slaughtered each year perhaps saving 20 billion is a good thing.

I just think most people will get there by small changes in diet and thinking. Whatever you think of Bittman is almost irrelevant but the result of his misinformation could well be a tremendous economic hit for the animal agriculture industries as people opt for non animal foods. I agree with Gary Francione when he says we need to have a financial impact if we're going to close down the slaughterhouses.

People are really not altruistic. Health might be the number one reason they go vegan. And if it is they can't avoid learning of the environmental destruction eating animals has on the earth and it's peoples. And if they learn that they can't help but learn about how the animals are treated. That was my path to veganism and it's why I believe that any reason someone has to go vegan is a good reason.

Marty's Flying Vegan Review

sheree boyd said...

perfect summary of a sad article in the NYT.

Are those reese's pb puffs truly vegan? somehow I find that doubtful as it is very difficult if not impossible to find mass market chocolate w/out milk in it.

Pollan said the same thing on the Oprah show regarding vegans as eating processed foods. I don't know where they get their stats from and what I think is really ironic about that statement is by saying that they act as if omnivore's don't eat processed foods and its just as vegans with unhealthy habits.

Speaking for myself, I mostly cook from scratch and the only time I see a bunch of processed food is in the carts of all the omnivore's I'm surrounded by.

I agree with Tiedemann, being vegan is easy! :)

Adam Kochanowicz said...

This is such a strange story. Three people who are very confused about veganism either patting each other on the back or criticizing each other.

I couldn't have described it better myself--the false dichotomy Bittman portrays between a fake omnivore diet and "real food."

Rhea Parsons said...

While I agree with the fact that being vegan does not require the masses of processed mock foods that were focused on the "Vegan Challenge" episode, I would point out that Oprah was not the one in the supermarket filling people's carts with mock this and that. Kathy Freston did that, as well as go along with the idea of being "vegan-ish."

I would expect the only vegan on the show to be the one best advocating veganism. That, to me, was one of the biggest disappointments of the episode.

M said...

Rhea, the whole thing -- from Oprah's show to Bittman's article -- is a mess. And where accountability is concerned, I'd hesitate to single out Freston. Bittman should have known better than to take a swipe at veganism by dismissing it as perpetuating the consumption of processed foods. Oprah's producers should have known well enough, if her focus was in any way on health, to not focus on processed foods. As for Freston, if you scroll to the end of this interview ( you'll see that she's not even vegan, but boasts publicly that she wears wool.

Our job, I guess, is to work harder to educate the public about what veganism really is and of how eating a health diet as a vegan is easy and doesn't require cart loads of processed substitutes.

Unknown said...

PLEASE email Bittman a link/ insight in to the true diet of vegans. I have only been vegan for 3 months, but I have to agree that it is INCREDIBLY EASY, and my only regret is previously thinking it unattainable. I also have to say that despite the fact that I am a full time student who also works two jobs my diet has never had such unprocessed whole food variety as it has since going vegan. It is also remarkable how my tastes for whole foods have drastically broadened too, where I used to hate beans, avocados, sweet potatoes, and squash, my palate has now matured into an avid appreciation! Change your diet, Change your tastebuds, Change the world!

Sharon Knettell said...

Sharon Knettell

I like Bittman. If you do not have a bridge (Bittman) of understanding, what you get is complete hostily as in those "Whacky PETA vegans".

In fact these discussions in the maistream media are bringing a better focus to veganism. My friend a dedicated omnivore was surprised when she heard DR. OZ reccomend "The China Study".

I eat plants now, but some see vaganism as a cult. Don't make it one.

M said...

Michael, I agree that going vegan is easy. Congratulations on your one year anniversary tomorrow!

Vanilla Rose, I don't get it either.

Marty: Thanks for your comments. I'm sure that some do rely on substitutes at first to make the switch -- particularly people who aren't into cooking very much. However, I can't applaud Bittman as making a significant difference when at the end of the day, all he's doing is perpetuating speciesism. And I certainly can't describe him as making any sort of positive difference when he's actually become outspoken against veganism.

KD said...

"Our job, I guess, is to work harder to educate the public about what veganism really is and of how eating a health diet as a vegan is easy and doesn't require cart loads of processed substitutes."

Yes!! I've been talking about vegan education (on Your Daily Vegan) for quite some time.

Not to downplay the importance of educating people about a vegan diet, but there needs to be conversations on what veganism is in the first place.

It’s long past time to address this issue in the community, and long past time to organize ourselves as a real movement that can affect change. We are not organized, we are not unified, we are not consistent with our message- and it’s holding the vegan movement back. While the vegans are fighting with each other over whether or not a bee is an animal, billions of non-humans are dying. We cannot inspire change if we cannot unify ourselves.

Vegan education is the first step.

artsycraftsyivy said...

"Are those reese's pb puffs truly vegan? somehow I find that doubtful as it is very difficult if not impossible to find mass market chocolate w/out milk in it."

Hi, Sheree Boyd. She's talking about the cereal, not the chocolate. And then it depends on the manufacturer, at least in the US. In the US, the only major brand of cereal that does not add D3 (wool fat) to cereal is Quaker. Kellogg's, General Mills, and Post all add it in the US, but I think they don't in Canada.