Food politics are inordinately complex, which is probably why some activists are fond of reducing their arguments into easy-to-grasp slogans. "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants," Michael Pollan famously counseled.
And this weekend, Mark Bittman--who for more than a decade distilled recipes for his Minimalist column in The New York Times' dining section--shared his simple eating wisdom.
In a Times op-ed piece entitled "Make Food Choices Simple: Cook," Bittman heartily endorsed eating at home.
"Compared with a restaurant, the frustrations and annoyances are minimal, the food is as good or better-tasting, unquestionably healthier and more environmentally friendly, and much less expensive," he wrote.
Bittman's argument bothered me--and not just because my job responsibilities prevent me from following his advice. While I agree every eater who's physically able should learn how to cook, the wholesale rejection of restaurants strikes me as shortsighted.
There are more than 13,000 restaurants statewide, and I have no doubt many of them "provide a pound per person of prison-raised pork served with fruit from 10,000 miles away, followed by a cake full of sugar and artificial ingredients," as Bittman fears. But that's a reason to patronize the right restaurants, not a justification for staying home.
Americans already spend way too much time at home. They work from home, watch movies at home, and social-network on their computers instead of sitting on their neighbors' front porches. Restaurants give us a chance to reconnect with the real world, and all the friends and strangers with whom we share it.
"One of my favorite hobbies is to go into a corner diner and see that table of four to seven retired gentlemen talking about the mayor and the potholes on First," says Anthony Anton, president and CEO of the Washington Restaurant Association. "If that isn't keeping the community together, I don't know what is."
Restaurants link people with ideas, too. I'm stymied as a home cook because the foods my husband is willing to eat range from rib eyes to hamburgers. Anton has the same problems with his young daughters. Since cooking multiple meals isn't economically feasible, eating out allows us to broaden our diets beyond cheese pizza and spaghetti. In the last week alone, I've eaten spicy tofu soup, sweet potato empanadas, and rabbit rillettes while my husband ate steak.
Cooking at home may have a slight environmental edge, although Anton's not ready to concede it: "The more things we can do things collectively as a community, the fewer resources we're using," he says, adding that the buying power of a successful restaurant can keep a small farm afloat. But the social benefits of supporting restaurants are staggering.
Anton--who was understandably thrilled when I called him to discuss the importance of restaurants--points out that restaurant customers pay sales tax. Grocery shoppers don't. While taxes add to the eating-out costs that annoy Bittman, they also underwrite the public safety, parks, welfare, and transit programs that keep our cities healthy.
There are no studies directly comparing the total number of jobs created by the home-cooking and restaurant industries, especially since the first category would be difficult to quantify. But restaurants employ 269,000 people statewide, or nine percent of Washington's workers. Anton claims that number has far-reaching effects.
"An incredible number of people get their first job in a restaurant," he says. "I think that's why the American workforce is so strong. I think the skills they learn in restaurants carry them through."
Cooking at home isn't an option for me because my job requires me to eat out. But I'm guessing I'm not the only eater whose job responsibilities conflict with Bittman's vision of cooking at home. The sample menu Bittman provides in his column--"nuts, a small frittata, fish, salad and watermelon"--is a far cry from the frozen pizza that does dinner duty in many working households.
Putting together a meal of fresh fish and produce requires more than the half-hour shopping trip Bittman mentions: If home cooks care about food safety, quality, and the environment, they're forced to suss out their region's best vendors and cultivate relationships with them. That's an admirable activity, but a time-consuming one. It's also what restaurant chefs get paid to do. I trust chefs at restaurants which pride themselves on ethical, sustainable sourcing to find and serve the best possible products.
I don't expect the cooks at McDonald's and Applebee's to do the same, of course. But lumping all restaurants under a single banner is lazy. Just because millions of Americans are riveted by Dean Koontz books doesn't mean I've stopped reading. There are plenty of junk restaurants, but serious restaurants shouldn't be made to suffer for their sins.
I'm not opposed to eating at home. A cozy meal with friends can foster intimacy, intellectual exchange, and a thousand other intangibles that make home cooking worthwhile. But I don't think permanently sequestering ourselves in our own private dining rooms solves the environmental and obesity problems that rightly alarm food activists.
Eating out regularly doesn't square with everyone's lifestyle. Perhaps it's too expensive to patronize restaurants that have freed themselves from the industrial food chain, or perhaps carving out an hour for dinner is impossible. I'll borrow here from Bittman: "The thing, though, is not to discount this argument simply because not everyone is in a position to benefit from it, but rather to use it to benefit those it can, and to create the same possibilities for everyone."
Restaurants give us the opportunity to stimulate the economy, build our communities, expand our culinary knowledge, and support small farms in ways that are very hard to do from home. Plus, Anton says, "there's that Norm factor I love."
"I don't know if you're a Cheers fan," he continues. "But you think about the whole restaurant yelling 'Norm!' You don't get that at the grocery store."