I'm very interested in the way that the New York Times has decided to elevate the value of food writers in the last year. Frank Bruni, the former restaurant reviewer, is also there, tackling topics as diverse as the 2012 election and Whitney Houston. Sam Sifton, the restaurant critic after Bruni, is now the National Editor -- with a little side dish of inter-office griping. And Mark Bittman, once the paper's go-to quick-fix recipe guy, is now an opinion-page specialist (with a recipe thrown into the magazine every three out of four Sundays).
It's Bittman's rise that I've watched most closely and been most interested by. When I first started reading his Minimalist columns, they were still a hit-or-miss stop for me because most of his recipes contained quick, meaty dinners or an abundance of "so easy to get in New York!" spices. Slowly, though, Bittman's cooking -- and his posts about it -- changed. Gone were the recipes for Crispy Duck with Roasted Turnips and Port Reduction; instead, Bittman began discussing and dissecting his own diet, eventually moving to a vegan-before-dinner "less-meatatarian" regimen that brought many more salads and veggie-rich soups into the mix. The man who once published Fish admitted he could never write an updated version because there would be no way to guarantee that the fish within would be sustainable. Instead, he published Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating, and thus began his real opinion writing career.
What I find most interesting and ultimately exciting about Bittman's diet upgrade is that he (mostly) continutes to discuss it in the everyday way he always did in his Minimalist videos. In his books, and in his columns, you can see the activist he's become; some of his writings are off-putting, even to a sympathetic vegetarian reader like myself, because they often fail to understand the dietary and time demands of people who can't think about food full time.
But when he's talking food policy, what he's saying is usually sensible and interesting. Take, for instance, the video and accompanying article on the New York Times opinion page today, where he tours a small company that's making fake chicken.
It's not just a review of the fake meat's taste; it's an introduction to the idea that, perhaps, this could become an alternative to some of the rather thoughtless uses of chicken that already exist. When chicken is added to a pasta sauce or a wrap -- is it there for the chicken flavor? Or is it more a texture issue? Is it just that we've been raised to think there should be meat in a sandwich? If someone tossed this chicken into your soup, and you didn't know they'd made the switch, would you ultimately care? Would the everyday consumer ultimately care?
It's a fascinating question. My guess is that the answer will probably always come down to cost. If I can get a can of chicken-flavored soup for $1 and actual chicken soup for $1.50, and they taste the same, which do I buy? (Of course, getting a can of any soup is counter to Bittman's ultimate goal of thinking more about food production, but this is where my mind leapt).
The nice thing about having food issues debated more prominently at the Times, and about having food writers occupying non-traditional reviewer positions, is that it can open a path to conversation for an entirely new group of readers. I like what the Times is doing with Bittman. I hope they keep him in the foreground.