Thursday, February 12, 2009

A Poison Pen

When food journalism turns bitter

During a conversation regarding food journalism I had with a friend recently, the name Gina Mallet came up. Gina Mallet is an Anglo-American who grew up in post-war rural England, moved to the United States and now lives in Toronto, where she is a food writer, restaurant critic and a James Beard award winner for her book “LAST CHANCE TO EAT, The Fate of Taste in a Fast Food World” A tome dedicated to the dying art of Haute Cuisine and the taste experience missing from so much food today. Part memoir, part rant. Mallet reminisces fondly of dishes such as Coquille St. Jacques, Sole Veronique and a host of other Escoffieresque concoctions, and takes great pains in bemoaning the fate of our culinary resources. All well and good. However, why are some of her other writings so blatantly contradictory towards many of the sentiments put forth in her book? In an article published in Food Arts Magazine in May 2008 titled “Beware the Neo-Puritans!” she criticizes Michael Pollan for being a political writer who is just one of the critics that is making food a surrogate for everything they find rotten in our way of life, but claims in her book that cookery is being killed by industrialized food production. She also criticizes Alice Waters for making people think that organic food’s real mission is to protest the evils of industrial food, inorganic chemicals, toxins, genetically modified ingredients, which are a devil-driven shortcut to increasing our food supply. She believes that the treatment of animals, factory farmed chicken etc. comes second to taste, poking fun at Jamie Oliver and his campaign to improve the conditions in the chicken industry. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage Meat Book is one of her favorites. Is it just the recipes and not the philosophy behind HFW’s take on meat production? A huge proponent of genetically engineered foods, synthetic pesticides and McDonalds, she also insists that farmed salmon farmed salmon is consistently better than wild. On one hand she states"I don't want to eat strawberries in January. I'd like to go back to the time when the seasons meant something", then gushes over this statement by her culinary idol:

“Hear, hear added the Queen, Delia Smith, Britain’s Julia Child, told the BBC that the taste of food mattered more than whether it was organic or environmentally friendly. She couldn’t get into the politics of food. The poor and pensioners needed cheap battery chicken. She was skeptical about food miles. She loved fresh shelled peas from Kenya in the winter".

On her blog, she recently took issue with a column by the N.Y. Times food writer Mark Bittman. Here it is Verbatim:

Stocking your kitchen may be controversial....
by Gina Mallet on Thu 08 Jan 2009 02:42 PM EST | Permanent Link | Cosmos
Mark Bittman of the NYT blogged his list of how to stock your kitchen!

He must have a very large kitchen and soooo much time and no weight problem....

Most egregious:

Use only dry beans. He claims they're more economical and better tasting.... Couldn't disagree more. Dry beans take time to cook and are rarely as reliably cooked and goodtasting than when canned. Tiny green Flageolets, chick peas, red beans, black beans.... and of course the cans are easy to keep.

Bittman nixes bouillon cubes. So easy to make your own bouillon, if you have the time. Fact is that chefs use bouillon cubes at home regularly.

OUT: Canned peas (and most other canned vegetables, come to think of it). Obviously Bittman has never tasted the great Cassegrain canned petit pois which is better than any fresh or frozen pea. Canned peaches are a lifesaver and better than fresh peaches picked unripe, their usual state.

OUT Minute Rice or boil-in-a-bag grains. Bittman says stores as many types of grains as you can - who has the space? The bagged mixed grains are a godsend, offering variety on a small and storable scale.

Canned Coconut milk? True it's good in v. small amounts. Unfortunately North Americans don't sell small cans that you find in British supermarkets. Canned coconut milk is very fattening and the lo-cal can tastes of milk of magnesia.

WALNUTS And/or other nuts: but how old are they? Once dried nuts do have a shelf life but you rarely know how old the nuts are when you buy them.

DRIED FRUIT For snacking!!! The drying process removes most of the useful vitamins and nutrients and leaves sugar and calories. Because dried fruit is condensed moreover, it also contains MORE sugar, calories and carbs per gram that its hydrated counterpart! For example, 100 grams of dried apricots contains 238 calories and 53 carbs, while 100 grams of fresh apricots weighs in at just 56 calories and 13 carbs.

Frozen shrimp is "incredibly" convenient. Tasteless too.

Why all the Snarkiness towards Mr. Bittman? Is it because Mr. Bittman, today, is perhaps one of the most respected and well-liked food writers in the business? After reading Mallet’s response to his article, one cannot help but feel a sense of jealousy on her part. She states that “Fact is that chefs use bouillon cubes at home regularly”. This statement is not a fact but comes second hand from a N.Y. Times article that she read. I found this in one of her blog posts from 2007:

“A few years ago, the NYT had a funny article - which of course I can't find now - about how many chefs make their own stock in the restaurant but at home use stock cubes. I picked up a tip - I toss a cube into the water in which I cook pasta and into the water of the vegetable steamer”.
The Irony of this is that it is an article from 1999 by, of all people, Mr. Bittman. ( It is obvious that he has changed his opinion regarding bouillon cubes and, most likely will tell you so.)

In her book she states:

“unless consumers stick up for taste, there won’t be any” (p. 218).

If she genuinely believes that, why be an an advocate for canned foods, bouillon cubes and a host of other dubious crap and bad practices? Why lash out at some of the people who do truly seem to care about taste? And why does the writing, viewpoint and attitude of this person turn my pen poisonous and my writing bitter?


Tangled Noodle said...

I must admit that an initial skimming of Mark Bittman's pantry list produced a knee-jerk reaction similar to Ms. Mallet's "who does he think he is?" diatribe. Fortunately, I read it again with more attention and found solace in his words, "My point here is not to criminalize their use, but to point out how easily and successfully we can substitute for them, in every case with better results."

I suspect that my reaction had a lot to do with facing an embarrassing truth: I often take the easy way out when it comes to cooking, reducing meal preparation to the hurried production of something edible as opposed to something that is delicious, too.

I haven't read any of Ms. Mallet's previous writing to comment fairly but I will say that inconsistencies of opinion, viewpoint and attitudes (in others and in myself) are annoying and frustrating, and can add a dram of bitterness to the conversation.

Andrea said...

Well I've already told you my opinion about trying to force politics out of's pointless (and why would we want to?) I personally love Mark Bittman, but I haven't read anything else from Mallet, either, so I can't say how I feel about her. But I will say, that there are larger issues with our food supply than just how they taste. The recent peanut butter fiasco is a good indicator of that. Another fascinating read. Thanks!

ahnniescarlet said...

You've written a very good critique, and her comment about dried fruits is just incorrect according to the American Dietetic Association, an organization that can back up its claims with real research. Although, as the years go by, while I like Mark Bittman's writing his recipes are just not my taste, not very balanced in texture and flavor. I also notice he often works off of another writer's ideas (without giving credit) and then the NY Times promotes it like he's the first one to do it. So, maybe she was looking for an opportunity to stomp on him a bit!

Ryan Rose said...

I like your take. I'm all for people's ideas evolving over time, but Mallet seems very inconsistent. And this whole idea of politics or animal treatment not being germane to the discussion of food is ridiculous. B.R. Myers skewered this self-indulgent thinking in the Atlantic amazingly in this article:

BoP said...

So has Mallet said anything now that Bittman has shown us his pantry?