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Talking Down to the Poor about Food

[ 117 ] September 27, 2011 |

While I often like Mark Bittman, like a lot of the recent generation of food writers (and, all too often, environmental writers more broadly), he talks down to the poor. As someone who doesn’t work two jobs, who doesn’t have to search under the couch pillows for change to buy their kids meals, and who lives a life of leisure and high-quality food, it’s real easy for Bittman to tell the poor to cook more.

It’s not that Bittman’s message is wrong. The idea that fast food is cheaper than cooking healthy food is pretty much bunk. Processed foods are both masterfully marketed and physically addictive. The food system in the United States is broken. Obesity is a major public health problem in this country.

But when Bittman says things like this, it gets under my skin:

What’s easier [than political action] is to cook at every opportunity, to demonstrate to family and neighbors that the real way is the better way. And even the more fun way: kind of like a carnival.

Maybe. But cooking for a big family is hard work. It’s not fun for everyone. Food writers (Michael Pollan does this as well) romanticize a past of family meals. But those meals were not easy to make. They were almost always created by women who stayed at home and toiled away at running a household. Even if that situation were desirable today, and many of us would say it is not, it’s not realistic. Most families cannot survive without two incomes and even working two jobs. That doesn’t even take into account single parents. The history of processed food does not inspire one with delicious joy, but it is also a history of technological relief from drudgery. That’s no less true today.

Bittman dismisses the idea that we don’t have time to cook because we spend an average of 90 minutes today watching TV. But if you are working 2 jobs or are depressed or are stressed out by your troubles, watching some TV after a long, hard day is simply more enjoyable than cooking. Even after I get home from the office, and my job is far less difficult than blue-collar or service labor, I usually don’t want to spend 90 minutes cooking. I want a quick meal, a beer, and a baseball game.

Plus, what do the kitchens of the poor look like? Do they have decent pots and pans? Do they have functioning stoves? Have they paid the gas bill? Are their kitchens infested with cockroaches? Not infrequently, the answers to these questions are depressing.

Again, I don’t want to downplay the good points Bittman and others make. But in not trying to understand the actual lives of the people they are talking to, they are making the same mistakes that reformers have made throughout American history, ranging from Progressives who wanted to turn immigrants into good Americans to TVA planners who didn’t care about farmers losing their land on the Tennessee River to the designers of public housing projects who thought a patch of grass in front of a 20 story building would be enough green space to satisfy residents. If we don’t empathize with and listen to the people we are trying to work with, we risk alienating them. Food reformers are no different and messages like Bittman’s are going to go in one ear and out the other.

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  1. Kim says:

    Yes! I often feel this way when reading articles like Bittman’s. It makes me think, “Oh yeah, what I need is a wife and a job to support her taking care of our family in a romantic nostalgic never-really-happened sort of way!” (Actually, I often think I need a wife, I think I could get tenure a lot easier if I had a wife at home.)

  2. prufrock says:

    Even after I get home from the office, and my job is far less difficult than blue-collar or service labor, I usually don’t want to spend 90 minutes cooking.

    This. I am far from poor, and I enjoy cooking, but there are days when it just can’t happen.

    For example, by the end of today I will have prepped my wife’s lunch, woken her up (at 6:15 AM), readied my son for school, sent my daughter off to my mother’s house, dropped the boy off at school, worked nine hours slinging code, taken the boy to baseball practice, gotten the kids ready for bed (an elaborate ritual), and then and only then is there adult time.

    Where is there time to cook in all of that?

    • Tom Nawrocki says:

      Bittman doesn’t seem to understand the timing of that 90 minutes spent watching TV. It’s not like people get home from work, plop down in front of the TV for an hour and a half, then decide to run to McD’s to feed the family.

      Families tend to be hungry at the end of the working day, and want to eat as soon as possible. The vast majority of the TV-watching takes place after the evening meal has been served.

  3. I think it’s even worse. Articles like this give the impression that they’re being judgmental, that they’re viewing someone who comes home between their two jobs with a bag of McDonald’s instead of rushing to create a wholesome meal in the 15 minutes available before they have to go make ends meet as deficient parents or bad people. That doesn’t just make the arguments go in one ear and out the other, it makes people out and out hostile to what you’re saying. And with good reason.

  4. c u n d gulag says:

    I can’t speak for other cities, but I have lived in NY and Philly. And in some not so great neighborhoods.

    Are some of these writers under the impression that there are well stocked supermarket, brimming with fresh fruit, meats, and vegetables in poor areas?
    When I lived in Queens, the supermarkets were tiny compared to their suburban cousins. TINY! And, consequently, you don’t have a ton of choices. And not a lot of space is set aside for things that are perishable – like fresh fruit, veggies, and non-frozen meat and seafood.

    Bodega’s are often the only choice within walking distance. And hauling a couple of days, or a weeks, worth of food is not an option. Safety certainly is one concern. And the other, is whether the elvators in the high rise tenements work. You want to lug a weeks worth of cans, bottles, and food, up 4 to 10 flights of stairs? Go ahead, try it!

    There’s more than money, exhaustion, or laziness involved. And to think otherwise, shows a complete lack of knowledge about those neighborhoods, and the options available to the people living in them.

    In other words, they show their ignorance.

    • DrDick says:

      As I say below, most of the poor live in areas where good, healthy, fresh food simply is not available.

      • soullite says:

        And even when it is, good luck affording. This guy basically expects every ounce of disposable income to go toward healthier food. So you have to live a dull, boring life so that some rich asshole can pretend that you’re one of the ‘noble’ poor.

    • BJN says:

      Well, other criticisms aside, Bittman does write about food deserts, as well as the many other problems keeping cheap, healthy foods off people’s tables. Much like posting calorie information though, I don’t think that policy solutions alone will solve this. Bittman is guilty of talking down to an extent, but he acknowledges criticisms of his viewpoint more than he is sometimes given credit for.

  5. kg says:

    My wife and I really love to cook but we struggle to make a decent balanced meal for ourselves and our son on weekdays because there’s so little time. On the weekends, however, its on.

    We’re in a GOOD situation. I can’t imagine what its like for single parents or those working different shifts than their spouses, etc. Another aspect that bears repeating is that so many poor people don’t have easy access to the proper raw ingredients in the first place.

    • kg says:

      Some of Bittman’s commenters really take him to task as well. Who knows if he reads them or LGM.

    • actor212 says:

      It’s not just the cooking.

      You have to make a shopping list, then go to the market(s) and buy. You have to spend an hour or so a week in the market, and now tack on about an hour to the getting there, back and unpacking your car/bike/bags. That’s a significant chunk of time out of a limited weekend to begin with.

      I cook, sometimes I’ll even cook during the week if I have enough leftovers and some pasta laying about. I can afford to order in, but not as readily as I used to be, so yes, I’ll make the time but it’s not coming out of my leisure time, it’s less time spent at work or rushing home, or skipping the gym (which altho sounds like leisure really is part and parcel of the nutrition/health requirement of life)

  6. Lee says:

    Besides the patronizing aspect of the writing, the thing that really gets to me about food writers being nostalgia about the past is that they are wrong. The poor and even the not poor ate horribly for most of human history in terms of quantity, quality, and variety.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      Right, the history of American food is not generally one of delicious bounty, but of poverty, monotony, low quality, and unclean food.

      • actor212 says:

        My mom used to make a ham last ten days when my dad would be seasonally laid off. If I ever have even one more “ham salad” sandwich, I’ll puke.

        • DrDick says:

          My mother grew up a hillbilly in the Missouri Ozarks during the Great Depression. Even though they were farmers, there were weeks when all they had to eat was biscuits and “thin gravy” (salted, melted lard). She suffered from chronic malnutrition throughout her childhood, which permanently affected her health, even when she joined the professional classes after marriage.

      • Lee says:

        This is spot on but you should replace American with Human for better accuracy. Rich and varied diet was the province of the rich until very recently. Its why these impossible feasts and festivals were important forms of entertainment for the rich.

    • This raises an interesting question: do people in poor neighborhoods with bodegas and fast foot restaurants have better or worse access to good food than their counterparts 70 or 100 years ago?

      • Lee says:

        This is a very interesting question and a very tough one to answer. They probably have access to a greater quantity of food than the poor of seventy to hundred years ago. They probably also have more access to meat. The quality and variety is probably the same better because of regulations and improved transportations. On the other hand, the fast food restaurants are very brutal on the body and probably hurt the overall health of working people today compared to working people in the past.

        I think that if you get rid of the fast food restaurants, poor neighborhoods of the present are probably better off than those of the past food wise. With fast food restaurants, not so much.

        • Let’s make it more specific then: do they have better or worse access to fresh produce?

          • In Lowell, if anyone’s interested, the “food desert” problem is ameliorated by a collection of southeast Asian markets scattered throughout the neighborhoods. They aren’t bodegas – they have fairly extensive fresh produce sections, and while they’re considerably smaller than suburban supermarkets, they’re also a great deal larger and more diverse than corner stores.

            • djw says:

              Interesting. Live in a pseudo-food desert (downtown Dayton), but it’s not actually one because of a fantastic middle eastern market around the corner and a Mexican market about a mile to my north. These places enhance my life greatly, and make carlessness quite a bit more tolerable. Produce is consistently cheaper than any conventional grocery store, and while organic is not an option, it’s pretty good quality.

              • I once stopped at a SE Asian market because they were advertising fresh tilapia for $1.99/lb. $1.99!

                They sure were fresh, all right; they were swimming around in a tank. I asked the guy if he’d fillet them for me. “No.”

                All right then.

          • LeeEsq says:

            The poor today probably have generally better access to fresh or relatively fresh produce thanks to better transportation and refrigeration. My neighborhood in Brooklyn is very mixed economically but the Korean grocers carry a fair amount of fresh produce and there fruit/vegetable vendors.

  7. DrDick says:

    I agree completely, which is one of the reasons I almost never read Bittman. As someone who did all or most of the cooking in three marriages, as well as as a single father, I can testify that it is not easy. that is especially the case in trying to appeal to many different food preferences. That said, I did and still do mostly cook everything from scratch. Mostly it takes me about 30-45 minutes to get a meal on the table. I sometimes spend a bit longer on weekends and use a crockpot for slow cooking meals such as curries, stews, and braised meats.

    In addition to time and energy or properly equipped kitchens, which are often in short supply for the poor, there is the problem of access to good food. Many, perhaps most, live in what have come to be called “food deserts,” areas where the only food available is fast food and packaged food, as there are no grocery stores. When there are, they tend to be small mom and pop places where the prices are significantly higher, owing to economies of scale. If you add a half hour or longer trip just to get to the grocery store, that makes cooking even less attractive.

  8. Joshua says:

    While I understand this criticism, I’m not sure what Bittman is supposed to say here.

    The problem is that people don’t eat real food anymore. The reasons are legion and worthy of sympathy, but the problem is still there. Bittman can either address it directly and look like a jerk (as he does here), or address it in terms of policies which got us to this point and be dismissed as a communist.

    • DrDick says:

      We all agree on the problem, but Bittman seems to be blaming the victims and not addressing the underlying causes of the problem, which Erik and the commenters here have pointed out.

      • BJN says:

        Those saying that Bittman does nothing but chastise the poor from his silk fainting couch should at least read his food manifesto:

        http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/02/01/a-food-manifesto-for-the-future/

        Contains a lot of policy prescriptions including conditional cash transfers similar to Brazil’s and very little talking down. The above criticisms are valid, but Bittman’s arguement that habit and overreliance on convenience have gone too far is hardly the only thing he has ever written about consumption.

        • Erik Loomis says:

          This is a good point. To reiterate what I said in the post, Bittman has many legitimate criticisms. But like reformers throughout American history, he quickly slips from identifying real problems to telling the poor to change their behavior without seeming to understand why people do what they do.

          • shah8 says:

            To a certain degree I am just really unsympathetic about complaints of non class consciousness. Remembering the oatmeal thing, and also remembering how every time someone talks about needing to raise gas taxes, someone else talks about how that’s a horrible burden on the poor.

            While there is merit to be concerned that a poor person can’t afford to go to work if gas taxes are high, at the end of the day, poor people are hostages to fate. They are hostages to the broad nature of our society. To the extent that *anything* lifts people out of poverty, it’s a functional society with well funded institutions that doesn’t discriminate among whom it services. Poor people *rarely* ever support programs that would do that, and often ally with tax jihadists.

            Being able to cook your own food? Having the time and the talent/training to cook your own food? It’s not really negotiable. You can buy “cheap” drug foods like cheetos and french fries, but it’s expensive to buy already prepared nutritious food. A healthy population has to have the time and the means to cook their own food. Insofar that people cannot do that, it’s about deep inequity in the society. Sure, Bittman can be all understanding and shit, but really? In order to get good, you have to cook often. In order to get beyond the ridiculously limited palates that poor people choose among, they are reliant on someone they know to introduce them to healthy things they like. This goes on…

            In the end, the attitude that Bittman has to be more “appreciative” is a subtly pernicious tone that is more about evading questions about why people can’t cook on their own time.

    • Lee says:

      Okay, I call this bulk. Despite the horrible quanitities of processed food out there, more people are eating real food now than ever before. The European poor existed on bread, and after the 18th century potatos, with the occasional bit of cheese, meat, veg, or fruit till very recently. The poor in Asia, rice. In the Americas, corn and potatos.

      • Ruviana says:

        At the risk of stirring up something (isn’t that a cooking technique)I do note that the corn based diet of the Americas also included beans (among other things), providing complete protein. Perhaps it was bland, but it wasn’t the sort of limited diet this comment might suggest.

        • rea says:

          A corn diet without beans gets you pellegra.

        • Lee says:

          Potatos are even better for a monotonous but nutritous diet. You can do a lot with potatos. My basic point is that food writers, advocates, and foodies in general have this fantasy about the past being filled with organic goodness when it really was not. The poor and even the not so poor ate a diet that consisted of carbs with the occassional vegetable, fruit, and piece of meat or fish, which was usually salted. Wide access to vegetables, fruits, and meat really did not exist before the mid to late 19th century. It didn’t become common, even in the richest countries, till the 20th century.

          These are basic facts that anybody remotely interested in culinary history should be able to find out. Many of these food writers are very well-educated and should no better. The fact that they don’t is a source of frustration as a liberal/social democrat and a person with Bachelor degree in history.

          • dave says:

            Yes, the image that in the past everyone ate the kind of varied produce that a country-house estate could grow with several full-time gardeners on-staff is pernicious. OTOH, this critique also elides [in the European context] the widespread posession of kitchen-gardens by skilled working communities from the later Middle Ages onwards, and the persistent efforts by social reformers [leftist and paternalist] to provide housing for workers that had sufficient space for food-growing, throughout most of the last 200 years. People have for a very long time known that fresh produce was life-enhancing, and striven to make it available to all. Unfortunately, they have failed.

  9. Hogan says:

    There’s the nut of a decent column in Bittman’s last four or five paragraphs. Too bad it’s buried under a metric assload of “if only we had better poor people.”

    I’m still not sure what all this has to do with Aqua Teen Hunger Force.

  10. Lee says:

    And I mean that for most of human history, the diet of most humans was horribly monolithic rather than filled with the organic local, fresh nostaligia of the food writers.

    • DrDick says:

      Actually, for most of human history the food has all been organic, local, and mostly fresh, since that was all that was available. While the average diet among agriculturalists (hunter-gatherers actually have better, if less dependable, diets) over the past 10,00 years has not been ideal and heavily weighted toward carbohydrates, has been much more diverse than you indicate. Pulses constituted a large part of the diet in all agrarian societies (pease porridge hot?) and vegetables in season, while not abundant were still normal. the urban poor in the past 5,000 years have suffered more in these terms, but still no worse in terms of quality than the modern poor, if often much less adequate in quantity (even allowing for the fact that about 15% or more of American households experience food insecurity – skipping meals)

      • MPAVictoria says:

        “still no worse in terms of quality than the modern poor”

        Ever eat rotten meat DrDick? That was very common before widespread refrigeration.

        • DrDick says:

          I did have in mind nutritional quality rather than state of preservation. As others have observed, meat was not a large component in the diets of the poor and working classes until fairly recently.

      • Lee says:

        Dr.Dick, until relatively recently the poor mainly ate a monotonous diet that centered around some sort of grain or tuber. There might have been supplimental fruits and vegetables but this was not that common even among peasants. In Europe and the Middle East, cheese and meat or fish, usually heavily salted, were rare treats. These aren’t hard facts to find out.

        • DrDick says:

          As an anthropologist, I am well aware of the facts of these diets and the evidence of health consequences from analysis human skeletal materials. The diets generally centered on cereal/tubers and legumes of various sorts (the pulses listed above), supplemented by various vegetables (onions were a staple in much of the Mediterranean). While they were not entirely adequate nutritionally, the bigger problem for peasants and other poor was the amount of food available rather than the overall quality. This is also a bigger problem in the Old World than in the New World, where even in state level societies people routinely supplemented the crops with wild foods.

          I never said that the diets were not bland and boring, they certainly were. Nor were most vegetables abundant, but they were seasonally available in small quantities. The skeletal analysis shows some chronic malnutrition, but much more episodic famine.

          I would also point out that these problems are most pronounced in state level societies and often completely absent in non-state farming peoples.

  11. Murc says:

    The idea that fast food is cheaper than cooking healthy food is pretty much bunk.

    Er… is that true once you factor in opportunity costs, though?

    I mean, you say this, and then spend the entire back half of the post discussing the massive physical and mental demands on the time of people that make cooking an unattractive option. Seems a tiny bit contradictory.

  12. Uncle Kvetch says:

    My wife and I really love to cook but we struggle to make a decent balanced meal for ourselves and our son on weekdays because there’s so little time. On the weekends, however, its on.

    Same for my partner and myself (and we don’t even have to contend with child care). We use most weekends to “catch up” by stocking the freezer with big batches of easily reheatable meals.

    But like you, I will readily acknowledge that we’re relatively fortunate in terms of the time, budget, and equipment that’s available to us (and in the fact that we both like to cook).

    Y’know, maybe if so many people weren’t running themselves ragged just to bring home enough money to put something on the table…nah, what am I saying, that’s just crazy talk.

  13. actor212 says:

    I’d be curious to know a) how old Mark Bittman is, and b) whether his mom spent 90 minutes a day listening to the radio while reading a magazine or newspaper.

    I see no effective difference in time-wasting there, yet I’d bet he’d have some qualitative raionale bullshit.

  14. It’s even more complicated than for poor people than it is for the rest of us. In New York at least, here is how WIC works: Every month the family gets several checks– five or six, I guess. Each check is good for $X dollars, and specifies certain food items that must be purchased. Canned beans, for example, or bread or cereal. Each check is also good for a gallon, or sometimes two gallons of 1% or skim milk. All of the food items specified by the check have to be WIC approved. You can’t just buy any canned beans, or bread– the kind you buy has to be identified as the kind you are allowed to buy by a little blue tag on the shelf next to the unit pricing information.

    It is a strange and arbitrary classification system. Ten bucks worth of fresh fruit or vegetables, for example, but a two dollar sack of white potatoes doesn’t qualify. The WIC stuff is mostly in the middle aisles,where the canned and processed stuff is, and won’t get anywhere near the meat or the poultry. Even the produce selection is grim– $10 bucks of fruit and vegetables for a family of four for a month? A $2 bag of seedless grapes looks like a sack of emeralds when you are working with that kind of limitation.

    • actor212 says:

      Bill, wasn’t there a Congresscritter or Assemblycritter here in NYC that tried to live for thirty days on the state WIC program, to prove that it was bloated and overfunded and in need of reform?

      As I recall, he didn’t even last a week.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      Right–I was behind someone with a WIC card a few weeks ago. It was a disaster. She bought pineapple in syrup instead of water. That wasn’t acceptable. It had to be in water. So they had to back and get it for her. She bought bagged spinach but it had to be fresh spinach. This sort of thing. It ended up taking 10 minutes, was clearly embarrassing for the woman, and was just bizarre.

      • Ruviana says:

        I’ve seen this as well with WIC (food stamps don’t have the same degree of restrictions). It drives the WIC user, the checker and the people in line all crazy–you can buy the 10.5 oz can of tomatoes but not the 10.9 oz can of tomatoes. You can only get smooth peanut butter, not chunky peanut butter (these are illustrations for the arbitrariness of the permissible foods). Often what would be cheaper is not a permissible food. I bave no supporting documentation but I’ve heard that permitted WIC items are often designated based on food industry recommendations, which wouldn’t surprise me.

  15. learner says:

    As with many tough issues, it’s easy to get patronizing fast. This applies to the ‘why don’t parents feed their kids something other than chicken nuggets’ meme and to the meme taken up by Bittman.

    One of the smartest thinkers and writers on this front is Ellyn Satter

    Check out what she has to say about why you can’t apply an experience like Bittman’s to the average poor person

    http://www.ellynsatter.com/april-2011-family-meals-focus-56-hierarchy-of-food-need-i-169.html

    Excellent insights

  16. Doug says:

    I’m not sure that John Scalzi’s notes on being poor have come up here much. Worth everyone’s time.

    “Being poor is knowing exactly how much everything costs. …

    “Being poor is having to keep buying $800 cars because they’re what you can afford, and then having the cars break down on you, because there’s not an $800 car in America that’s worth a damn.

    “Being poor is hoping the toothache goes away.

    “Being poor is knowing your kid goes to friends’ houses but never has friends over to yours. …

    “Being poor is knowing you can’t leave $5 on the coffee table when your friends are around.

    “Being poor is hoping your kids don’t have a growth spurt. …”

  17. denvercook says:

    I get the critique here. And agree. Victims shd not be blamed & individual action is not going trump collective action with regards to the luxury of time & the availability of affordable fresh foods. However, I do think that it’s important to try & get people on the bandwagon to see cooking as fun & not drudgery & making some effort to sitting together around a dinner table. Cooking for my family does take planning but b/c I really do have a passion for cooking with and for my friends & family, I’ve built up a big arsenal of dishes & strategies that allow me to get a tasty home-cooked meal on the dinner table in about 45 minutes during the week. My fondest memories of my childhood are cooking and eating w/ my Dad & there is nothing I want more for my kid than for him to grow up enjoying cooking in the kitchen with me and eating tasty food w/ folks he cares about. I want cooking and eating proper meals to be in schools. Lunches are now a mere 15 minutes in some elementary schools! Most importantly, I want folks to have access to delicious wholesome meals and time to enjoy them. Those of us with the means and the opportunity should be agitating for good food and including our community. I think that’s more Mark Bittman’s point. But I’m willing to accept that I’m being too generous.

    • BJN says:

      Bittman’s columns are mostly directed at a general audience and not Senators, so it makes sense that he spends more time talking about what people can do in their day to day lives rather than policy (which he does comment on, with some regularity). My take on Bittman’s argument is that while we certainly don’t go back to an imaginary women in the kitchen 50s lifestyle, maybe we have gone too far into the convenience direction, and that some easy to make but still pretty tasty meals would make a big difference in our health and socialization for a smaller cost than we imagine. Poor people face more hurdles in day to day life than can easily be listed (though props to Scalzi’s above quoted essay). However, many of the poorer people I’ve known, and a lot of the middle class ones too, are legitimately uninformed about their options. Being a dick about it isn’t going to get anyone anywhere, but letting people know about crock pot cooking, easy to make recipes, home grocery delivery, etc. isn’t hurting anyone.

      • David W. says:

        Crock pots are wonderful as you can set them to slow cook for hours and free yourself up to do other things.

        • DrDick says:

          Prep it the night before and plug it in as you leave for work and you have a slow cooked dinner waiting when you get home.

        • learner says:

          Investing in a crockpot might make sense for low-income people who may live in a crummy apartment where some combination of the stove/oven/sink/hot-water don’t work. OTOH, if the kitchen is infested with vermin, it may make sense to eat take-out and fastfood. Especialy since low-income people move often either because their apartments are sub-standard or they can’t make rent. At which point they can’t afford a van rental and will throw many belongings away. Peeps, think harder and either talk to real poor people or at least visit their neighborhoods!

          • DrDick says:

            Some of us actually have done all of those things. Some of us have even been poor at some time in the past. Nobody here suggested that this is a cure all, just that is can save time for some people.

    • JL says:

      But for some of us it is drudgery. I respect that it’s not for you. But it is for me. I just do not enjoy it at all. It is actively stressful. I am so amazingly lucky that I have a husband who, like you, enjoys cooking, and is good at it. However, I have pretty strong sympathy for people who just find cooking unenjoyable. I would really like to see some subset of food reformers focus on creating healthy convenience foods.

  18. Western Dave says:

    “However, I do think that it’s important to try & get people on the bandwagon to see cooking as fun & not drudgery”

    My mother tried to get me on the bandwagon to see cleaning my room as fun and not drudgery. It didn’t work. While some people will find cooking fun (and hey, I’m one of them under certain conditions) it is never fun when you are also trying to help someone with their homework, set the table, finish off last night’s dirty dishes, start a load of laundry etc. etc. all at the same damn time.

    • Lee says:

      I live alone. I do not have to take care of anybody but myself after work. I still find cooking relatively exhausting because the amount of clean up that I have to do to make a meal for just myself is often disproportionate to the energy put into cooking. Pots, pans, and other utensils have to be cleaned. Counters have to be wiped. This is why I really like salads.

      • Western Dave says:

        One pots. It’s a amazing what you can do with ramen noodles, frozen vegatables and an egg. (If you don’t use the little packet of salt the noodles come with this is nutritionally sound and a pretty cheap meal.) Back in the day we called it grad student soup. Also roasting a chicken on Sunday and eating it for the rest of the week can be boring but cuts down the cooking time. We still do this. Night one roast chicken in the micro-halogen oven. Night two chicken burrito (one cutting board, one pan, one pot for rice or refrieds). Night three chicken stew (one pot).

        I highly recommend Desperation Dinners and Rachel Ray for quick easy clean up meals.

        And hey, there is nothing wrong with salad.

  19. Lee says:

    It just occurred to me, didn’t George Orwell have some choice words to say about progressive bourgeoisie criticism of the diet of the poor in the Road to Wigan Pier? This makes the schtick of Mark Bittman and other food writers even older than we think it is.

  20. Yosemite Semite says:

    “I usually don’t want to spend 90 minutes cooking. I want a quick meal, a beer, and a baseball game.” Sounds to me that you’re more like a slug, Erik.

  21. CJColucci says:

    When I was unemployed, and we were living on my wife’s income plus savings, we still had a decent kitchen with a big refrigerator. I had time to go shopping. I made delicious, nutritious, inexpensive meals, but they involved cheap (delicious but tough) cuts of meat, legumes, and long-cooking vegetables, so I spent hours cooking.
    How someone who is actually poor, and has been for a long time, and is working, could do all that is beyond me.

  22. David W. says:

    As someone who as a college student with a working wife and a kid fixed the main meals of the day, I found you could fix decent healthy meals on a budget and still have time left in the day to study, thanks to cookbooks with 20-minute meal recipes and a handy bus line that went right by a decent supermarket every day. I also learned how important meal planning was in terms of saving time and money. If only I’d have had a rice cooker back then, I could have avoided cleaning the stove top a few times!

  23. rhino says:

    I spent over a decade as a professional cook and chef. I ran some very well reviewed fine-dining restaurants, an excellent catering company, and even though the well-documented miseries of the chef’s world drove me into the world of plumbing, I still cook a lot.

    I am a very good cook. I am skilled, fast, I know a lot about ingredients, I know what’s in season, how to use up leftovers and minimize waste. Despite quitting professional cooking in disgust, I still love to cook, i throw frequent dinner parties, routinely make my own breads and soups, and so forth.

    I would never dream of expecting a person working 14 hours a day with 2 hours of commuting and 4 children to do their own cooking from scratch. The very thought is ridiculous.

    Anyone who suggests such a thing to the typical harried lower class single mom deserves to be wedgied, then swirlied, and finally pantsed ceremoniously in the middle of Whole Foods.

  24. jncc says:

    But if you are working 2 jobs or are depressed or are stressed out by your troubles, watching some TV after a long, hard day is simply more enjoyable than cooking.

    So is drinking a fifth of Jim Beam.

    “But it’s more fun to do something else” isn’t a very persuasive argument about what people “should” do.

    • Pepperfez says:

      And talking about cooking as though it can and should be fun and relaxing is at least part of the process of making it fun and relaxing. If you never cook or read about cooking, it’s much harder than if you know some convenient recipes and techniques.
      Starting with the premise that poor people simply can’t be expected to cook until radical systematic change takes place is just unproductive – Bittman is a bit of a putz sometimes, but he’s onto something good here.

    • jmack says:

      “But it’s more fun to do something else” isn’t a very persuasive argument about what people “should” do.

      No, but since the argument is actually closer to “it’s more fun after 8-12 hours of other work to do something else other than a difficult, time-consuming task I am not particularly good at, when I still have other work to do,” I am not sure of your point.

    • b.g. says:

      Wow. So needing to relax after a long, hard day = drinking heavily.

      Perhaps you ought to be writing Bittmann’s columns for him. You have even less of an idea what it’s like to be poor. Spare me any “bootstraps” anecdotes, plzkthx.

  25. pacifist viking says:

    This critique may be valid of much writing on this subject, but I’m not sure it is valid for this article. Isolating that last passage may make it look condescending, but the carnival line refers back to something earlier in the piece about the appeal of junk food (“food carnival”). Furthermore, Bittman only turns to that passage after examining the structural factors that make junk food more appealing than cooking (“because money and access and time and skill are not the only considerations. The ubiquity, convenience and habit-forming appeal of hyperprocessed foods have largely drowned out the alternatives: there are five fast-food restaurants for every supermarket in the United States”), and after discussing desirability and difficulty of political/social action. In fact he raises the very issue that you raise (“And after a long day of work at one or even two jobs, 20 extra minutes — plus cooking time — must seem like an eternity.”).

    Indeed, as Bittman is critiquing arguments defending junk food for the poor, you could argue he is critiquing condescension/talking down on the other side (the poor need cheap calories, etc.).

    In my opinion, you’ve taken a valid critique of a certain strain in food advocacy and applied it to a particular article that is less deserving of that critique.

  26. denvercook says:

    The consequences of wage stagnation & crummy benefits & leave time is obviously one of the biggest contributing factors to quick, cheap processed food being such a large part of our diet. Being stressed with little personal time is not a good combo for getting inspired to do more work in your kitche. But I think Bittman addresses this head-on. And I just really believe that educating people about the joys of cooking and eating & how to make quick, affordable meals goes a long way to generating enthusiasm. That doesn’t also mean that we shdn’t also address and confront the underlying reasons that crappy food is cheap, good food is not and the luxury of time. It really doesn’t seem like Bittman is ignoring the underlying issues that crappy food cheap, good food is not and the luxury of time is the biggest deal-breaker for home-cooking.

    I also agree, lots of people will find cooking drudgery no matter what. It will always feel like a chore. But if at the very least young people learn the basics of how to get around a kitchen & a few decent meals to cook themselves in a pinch, that’s not for nothing.

  27. denvercook says:

    The consequences of wage stagnation & crummy benefits & leave time is obviously one of the biggest contributing factors to quick, cheap processed food being such a large part of our diet. Being stressed with little personal time is not a good combo for getting inspired to do more work in your kitchen. But I think Bittman addresses this head-on. And I just really believe that educating people about the joys of cooking and eating & how to make quick, affordable meals goes a long way to generating enthusiasm. It just really doesn’t seem like Bittman is ignoring the underlying issues that crappy food cheap, good food is not and the luxury of time is the biggest deal-breaker for home-cooking.

    I also agree, lots of people will find cooking drudgery no matter what. It will always feel like a chore. But if at the very least young people learn the basics of how to get around a kitchen & a few decent meals to cook themselves in a pinch, that’s not for nothing.

  28. gmack says:

    Given this post and comment thread, it may be worth remembering that dealing with food issues, particularly on a global basis but even in just the U.S., is an area of radical politics. The Slow Food Movement’s idea of a “right to taste,” for example, has extraordinary implications. It would, I think, potentially require major transformations in food production and distribution, but also in the role of the work place, monetary distribution, and so on. Folks who write about food have often been accused of a kind of elitism, and this accusation is often accurate. But it is not necessary: the “right to taste” is not just an elitist pursuit but potentially a demand for far more radical transformations benefiting the poor both here and around the world.

  29. Flounders says:

    Would it be trolling to note that there’s an awful lot of whining about how hard it is to cook in this thread? To do something that a lot of people have managed to do for a lot of centuries without much drama? Tone it down, guys– normal people might be listening in.

    • b.g. says:

      If you’d scroll up, you’d notice links indicating that, yes, people have cooked for millennia, actually, but the vast majority of them did not eat well in any sense of the word.

      “Normal people” as opposed to, what? Basic cooking skills are not common anymore. I know any number of “normal” people who can’t cook.

  30. Eli Rabett says:

    As is the case in all these things George Orwell said it best (in the Road to Wigan Pier)
    ———————————
    Now compare this list with the unemployed miner’s budget that I gave earlier. The miner’s family spend only tenpence a week on green vegetables and tenpence half-penny on milk (remember that one of them is a child less than three years old), and nothing on fruit; but they spend one and nine on sugar (about eight pounds of sugar, that is) and a shilling on tea. The half-crown spent on meat might represent a small joint and the materials for a stew; probably as often as not it would represent four or five tins of bully beef. The basis of their diet, therefore, is white bread and margarine, corned beef, sugared tea, and potatoes–an appalling diet. Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome things like oranges and wholemeal bread or if they even, like the writer of the letter to the New Statesman, saved on fuel and ate their carrots raw? Yes, it would, but the point is that no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing. The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots. And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food. A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn’t. Here the tendency of which I spoke at the end of the last chapter comes into play. When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit ‘tasty’. There is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you. Let’s have three pennorthof chips! Run out and buy us a twopenny ice-cream! Put the kettle on and we’ll all have a nice cup of tea! That is how your mind works when you are at the P.A.C. level. White bread-and-marg and sugared tea don’t nourish you to any extent, but they are nicer (at least most people think so) than brown bread-and-dripping and cold water. Unemployment is an endless misery that has got to be constantly palliated, and especially with tea, the English-man’s opium. A cup of tea or even an aspirin is much better as a temporary stimulant than a crust of brown bread.

    • LeeEsq says:

      This is the passage I was referring to above. One thing that Orwell got wrong was the potato part. A diet of potatoes is basically nutritious if boring and potatoes are versatile. You could do a lot with them cooking wise.

  31. [...] and do talk about using less, walking, biking… whatever your particular flavor of enlightened action/activism might be: But when Bittman says things like this, it gets under my [...]

  32. [...] in the WorldApple Keynote October 4th – iPhone 4S/5 Predictions (Video) – The World Of TechTalking Down to the Poor about Food : Lawyers, Guns & Money /* Begin Contact Form CSS */ .contactform { position: static; overflow: hidden; width: 95%; } [...]

  33. JB2 says:

    I agree with Bittman: McDonald’s is evil (and more expensive than real food); processed food is evil (and more expensive than real food); obesity is a much bigger problem than some food writer being mean about the terrible eating habits of poor people.

  34. el donaldo says:

    Let’s not forget that Bittman’s blog design team at the New York Times stole the logo from Food Not Bombs, and that when it was brought to Bittman’s attention, he did nothing about it.

    http://www.indypendent.org/2008/02/06/times-blog-rips-off-food-not-bombs/

  35. vesta44 says:

    Ya know what, Bittman, I grew up in the 1960s, and both of my parents worked. The only reason we had home-cooked meals every night was because I had to come straight home from school every night and start supper before my mom got home so she could finish it when she got home. We weren’t poor, but we weren’t well-to-do either – my dad was a mechanic and my mom worked for the telephone company (and neither of those jobs paid all that well back then when you had 2 kids to support). So get off your privileged high horse and see how life really is for those less-fortunate than you and don’t lecture them about their eating habits, it’s none of your damned business.

    • JB2 says:

      I work with the less-fortunate every single day, and I can safely assert that many of them are are grotesquely overweight, with all manner of the health problems that attend obesity: diabetes, hypertension, asthma, bad knees, bad backs.

      And yes, it is all of our business. Cheese Doodles and Mountain Dew are killing any chance for moving this nation forward.

  36. LKS says:

    Also, the poor often do manual labor, or jobs that require standing up all day. Just what they need when they get home is more standing up.

    Also, too, cooking for eight isn’t actually much more effort than cooking the same meal for one. It’s mostly a matter of bigger pots. The prep time will of course take longer, but rarely correspondingly longer.

    And, also, too, cooking is a learned skill, and one that is in fact fairly difficult to master. Those who condescendingly advise the poor to prepare more of their own food seem to think the Knowledge Fairy will magically materialize in their kitchens and guide them through the process.

    And finally, also, too – have you guys checked out the price of potatoes lately? The cheapest I can find here in FL is $4/5 lb. And that’s on sale.

    • JB2 says:

      “Also, the poor often do manual labor, or jobs that require standing up all day. Just what they need when they get home is more standing up.”

      But many poor people don’t work, have never worked, and never will work. And many of them are are in terrible physical condition due to terrible eating habits. The last thing they need is liberal enablers telling them that it’s OK to stuff their faces with processed carbs and corn syrup.

  37. Glenn says:

    Trying to take the good parts of Bittman’s op-ed to heart, if it really is true that healthy food is as cheap or cheaper than fast food, then it seems to me (without, admittedly, working out the economics) that a government program to help subsidize the preparation of healthy meals in some fashion would make sense. For example, maybe the city could set up community restaurants where people could pick up basic healthy meals, and the city could cover the rent and utilities so that the operator could pay people to fix the food, make a decent profit and still offer meals that were competitive to fast food.

    • DrDick says:

      I am not sure about the overall economics of healthy food vs. fast food, though it is definitely cheaper to cook it yourself than to buy fast or prepared food (one of the reasons I learned to cook in the first place). The problem for many poor people is that what they can afford to buy and cook is often not much healthier than the prepared and fast food (lots of starchy foods, fatty meats, etc.).

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  39. [...] The piece particularly interrogates the annoying Mark Bittman piece from a couple of weeks ago when he blamed the poor for their own obesity, accusing them of being too lazy to cook for themselves. Viertel explicitly addresses this, noting [...]

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