Orbital Matters

Saturn Smith
Editor’s Pick
MARCH 9, 2012 4:44PM

Fake chicken (and Mark Bittman) to the rescue?

Rate: 10 Flag

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.

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Alas the era of the French Chef is gone and the utilitarian, 4-ingredients-or-less tofu cook is King. Or Queen. We seem to be at a point where we want to blame food for our problems. And while there are some very real reasons to limit indulgences in that old professional style of cooking, I am not willing to eat fake food meant to look and taste like what the body is craving. I will eat less, thank you. Keep the fake chicken...Vive la France!
As a pescatarian, I agree wholeheartedly about most chicken applications. I mean, if you're talking about perfectly prepared, hissy-from-the-fryer fried chicken that's one thing. But the kind of chicken most people consume daily as a matter of course, as a generic protein -- it's texture, not flavor.

I've had no trouble moving my meat-loving husband to a largely vegetarian diet. He now thinks of meat as a treat -- a visit to Five Guys Burgers he makes once a month with a friend, or the slice of rare prime rib twice a year at a celebratory event. Really, he's learned to eat meat when the meat makes sense.

We don't eat a lot of meat substitutes, and haven't found the need in most applications. Pasta dishes, noodle dishes, rice dishes, salads, soups, vegetable plates, empanadas, stuffed vegetables, beans, quiche/frittatas, etc. -- all are delicious without meat or a meat substitute. We do break out the faux occasionally with frozen veggie burgers (Morningstar Farms!) and the Gardein "beef tips" when I make my Guinness Mock-Beef Stew for St. Paddy's Day.
Only about 1/3 of the planet can afford a meat-based diet. As the population approaches 7 billion, human carnivores need to make the decision whether they are willing to sacrifice meat to keep 1/7 of the global population from starving to death.
I only read the Times on Sunday and went a long stretch without following closely. So I hadn't known that Frank Bruni used to be a restaurant reviewer. I like his political columns a lot.

re the fake chicken, I was just reading in The Economist of the advances in manufacturing artificial meat. Wouldn't this be OK for vegetarians they wondered? For some, yes. But others go veggie for health reasons so for them no.

The Times does such a good job with its food and restaurant columnists. My favorite cookbook remains the Craig Claiborne International Cookbook which came out in the late 70s.
I have vegan relatives and I've eaten my share of vegan food and my observation is fake food is never as good as the original and frequently not very healthy.

Traditional Tofu is much better than soy processed and textured into something with a vague resemblance to meat.

And no, I don't want it in my food.
Yeah Foodies rule....Thanks so much for the info.

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I'll just stick to those chefs that "just" continue to serve, while evolving it, the mediterranean diet...Viva l' Italia!
This is just a bunch of self-absorbed, Bourgeois epicureanism, the sign of dying capitalist culture.

It is a form of Repressive Desublimation, too. As people increasingly have smaller families, stay single their entire lives, go their entire lives without knowing how to cook, they view food-writing and food tv as a type of pornography. This, I believe, is due to a misplaced hearth-instinct, which has been smashed by the realities of Capitalist labor relations, which prevents people from spending enough time home, with friends, family and neighbors or in the community, so that they can become good, productive, 24/7 employees for the Corporations, and help them become more profitable.

To compensate for this unfulfilled hearth instinct, we have the Food Network and Food Writing. It makes us feel vicariously satiated. We may even prepare the occasional gourmet meal (and make Capitalists a lot of money in the process) .

But we will never feel fulfilled. And hence the Capitalist cycle begins anew.

r
I liked the blog post and, surprisingly for an article about a food writer, actually has incited me to do something,

I was also relieved to see that the usual standard bearers of thought themes find any little hook in an article as a reason to raise their own particular flag and wave it.
Hey Jen, Great to see you back. You are inspiring me to dip my foot back in.
I guess I would buy the cheaper one since its still the same,
Just be practical, I wonder what does PETA says about this.

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I am not willing to eat fake food meant to look and taste like what the body is craving. I will eat less, thank you.

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