ANIMAL, VEGETABLE, JUNK: A HISTORY OF FOOD, FROM SUSTAINABLE TO SUICIDAL
By Mark Bittman
Mark Bittman writes the way he cooks: The ingredients are wholesome, the preparation elegantly simple, the results nourishing in the best sense of the word. He never strains; there’s no effort to impress, but you come away full, satisfied, invigorated.
From his magnum opus, How to Cook Everything, and its many cookbook companions, to his recipes for The New York Times, to his essays on food policy, Bittman has developed a breeziness that masks the weight of the politics and economics that surround the making and consuming of food. In Animal, Vegetable, Junk, his latest book, he offers us his most thoroughgoing attack on the corporate forces that govern our food, tracking the evolution of cultivation and consumption from primordial to modern times and developing what is arguably his most radical and forthright argument yet about how to address our contemporary food cultures’ many ills. But it still goes down easy; the broccoli tastes good enough that you’ll happily go for seconds.
Bittman starts Animal, Vegetable, Junk with the early hominins. As these human ancestors learned to walk upright, they began to forage across larger areas and hunt with comparative ease. Bittman notes that they also started to develop more flexible diets: “a variety of fruits, leaves, nuts, and animals, including insects, birds, mollusks, crustaceans, turtles, small animals…rabbits, and fish.” Eventually, with the nutritional boost of this new diet, they soon learned how to track faster prey (which was easier to do in groups and thus produced more social behavior) and to cook over fire.
With more nutrients and more advanced methods of gathering and cooking food, the early hominins’ “already sizeable brains grew bigger.” Hardwired to eat “what we can, when we can,” they had diets that differed from place to place: “Some humans had diets high in fat and protein, and some had diets in which carbohydrates dominated.” But despite these differences, the emerging food cultures and diets had one thing in common. The epoch of hunting and gathering produced “a period of greater longevity and general health than in almost any other time before or since.” Eventually it also produced a new trick: how to stay in one place and grow crops whose surplus could be stored.
That transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture was welcome in many ways, but it came at a price, Bittman writes. Yes, it supported larger populations, but diets became monotonous and less nutritious, life spans declined, and work hours increased. Bittman is not the first to make this argument. Jared Diamond memorably called farming the biggest mistake in human history, and so Bittman doesn’t belabor the point, accepting that we now live on a planet where food is something we raise, not something we hunt or gather.
For Bittman, the central drama of this story begins in the course of the last century, as agriculture and food processing became mass industries, and as we moved from having two types of food (plants and animals) to being overwhelmed by a new third type—one that was “more akin to poison.” These “engineered edible substances, barely recognizable as products of the earth, are commonly called ‘junk.’ ”
This junk food has created, Bittman argues, a “public health crisis that diminishes the lives of perhaps half of all humans.” Through its dependence on an agriculture that “concentrates on maximizing the yield of the most profitable crops,” it has done “more damage to the earth than strip mining, urbanization, even fossil fuel extraction.”