Bittman didn't broach any opinions which would unsettle or surprise regular readers of his New York Times op-ed column, which may have been part of the problem. For listeners accustomed to the thoughtful, nuanced tone that Seattle Arts & Lectures guests usually adopt, Bittman's unvarnished certainty verged on demagoguery.
"It was so...strident," sighed a woman in the lobby, who hastily identified herself as a liberal before revealing she'd walked out on the talk. A few dozen attendees departed early, but it was impossible to know whether they were driven out by frustration, boredom or scheduling conflicts.
From the start, Bittman seemed determined to prove that not very eater who believes in whole grains is a cuddly Pollyanna. "You're late," he scolded his audience soon after he stepped to the lectern. (The lecture's start was slightly delayed by swarms of Bittman fans trying to claim tickets from the Will Call window, although Bittman's high-speed delivery left him with extra time at its end.)
Bittman was less inclined to take any blame for the evening's hiccups, apologizing for putting his PowerPoint slides in the wrong order by saying, "the gaffes were only 5 to 10 percent of the presentation." Later, he bristled when Grist's founder and president Chip Giller, in an on-stage interview, told him many of the audience members wanted to know which vegetable he liked best.
In a Krusty the Clown moment, Bittman displayed a grumpiness that isn't apparent in his cookbook encomiums to kale and kohlrabi.
"I don't like favorites," he spat, saying he likes different vegetables on different days. "I'm not going to name 30 of them here."
"I've been told when I don't like a question, I get testy," he added. "Am I doing OK?"
According to audience reviews, maybe not. The Seattle Times' Nancy Leson tweeted after the lecture, "Sure were a lot of cranky people leaving the @bittman lecture 2nite. A Seattle pal: "You're from the East Coast, is everybody like that?""
But Bittman's personality wasn't the only sticking point. As he raced through a series of overarching policy prescriptions, he failed to appeal to any hard science - although he threw in an anecdote about losing 40 pounds in middle-age -- or acknowledge any potential flaws in his reasoning. Worse still was his unapologetic elitism.
"You all know the difference between this and this, right?," Bittman said, motioning at a slide of carrots and cheese curls. "Because there are people in this country who don't."
Bittman went on to define food as that which promotes "growth, nourishment and general good nutrition."
"We need to demonize bad food," he said, referring to "soda, junk food and unidentified food-like objects."
Yet cheese curls and colas aren't the only edibles which don't promote "growth, nourishment and general good nutrition." That same description could be applied to gin, wine or foie gras - all of which pose interesting questions for eaters concerned with local food, organic standards and humane farming - but Bittman didn't mention them. He briefly name-checked beer, saying "beer is one of the better things" among American indulgences.
But Bittman didn't propose taxing brie and imported butter along with soda, nor did he suggest limiting the amount of lardo sold in one swoop ("veganism is an almost unachieveable goal," he decreed.) By not daring to extend his attack to the food and drink that SAL attendees might actually keep in their homes, Bittman missed an opportunity to stimulate a meaningful conversation.
"You're the choir for the congregation that needs to get this message," he assured audience members. Few of them left the room singing a happy tune.