Articles / The Lives Behind Your Meal

The Lives Behind Your Meal

Published October 11, 2023

Plus: The superior noodle, Nestlé goes healthy, and the story of a very important woman

PSA: How to Cook Everything Fast, Revised Edition has been selected for a Prime Day Deal and is just $14. Ends today, October 11. Find it here.

This Week’s Marksisms

Food with Mark Bittman: Andrew Friedman and Jon Templin

Hello friends. I’ve been sick, so not much energy for cooking (a little; see below) but plenty of time for reading (and binge-watching Succession, about which surely enough has been said already). So here’s what we’ve got.

One of our guests on today’s episode of Food, Andrew Friedman, has made a career as a “chef writer,” as he calls it — he’s chronicled the lives and work of some of the world’s most famous chefs, notables such as Alfred Portale, Tom Valenti, Alice Waters, and Jeremiah Tower. Chef culture has changed over the years, though, and Andrew’s new book, The Dish: The Lives and Labor Behind One Plate of Food, reflects that beautifully. The Dish tracks a main course, I suppose you can call it — strip loin, tomato, and sorrel — at an independent Chicago restaurant from start to finish, profiling the restaurant and farm workers whose hard work makes the meal possible.  

Joining us along with Andrew is Jon Templin, proprietor of Butternut Sustainable Farm, which is located outside Sturgis, Michigan, about 140 miles from Chicago. Jon’s farm is robust — he grows everything from chili peppers to strawberries to eggplant to ground cherries and lemon balm — but he’s perhaps best known for his tomatoes and even his nasturtiums, and he provides the sorrel in The Dish. Andrew and Jon have stayed in touch, and Jon was a wonderful addition to the episode.

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Soba Is Better. Right?

This is probably the subject of a longer period of musing, but in our family – the family of my origin and, to an extent, that of my (and others’, obviously) creation – when you were sick, you ate pastina (teeny tiny pasta, like couscous) with butter. (There was no real Parmesan available to my family of origin in the ‘50s and ‘60s, but my kids got that.) But when I was sick last week, we had no pastina and, for that matter, no Parmesan (shameful, I know, but it happens).

What we did have were very, very thin soba noodles and a halfway decent assortment of Japanese and Korean seasonings, including shichimi togarashi, the chile-and-sesame based spice mix. And I have to tell you that, when you can barely stand up, if you cook soba in salted water, maybe with a few pieces of wakame or other seaweed, and top it with soy sauce, sesame oil, maybe a drop of vinegar, and a sprinkling of togarashi, you will eat faster, better, and more flavorfully even than if you were to make pastina with butter.

The longer piece I want to write—dare I say it because it’s so heretical for an old, white, Euro-American food writer (and because I have friends who will attack me for asking)—tackles these questions: Aren’t soba noodles many times tastier than plain white noodles? And why are soba noodles (which are made from buckwheat, long considered an “inferior” grain to wheat) so much better than those made from whole wheat?

The content below was originally paywalled.

Your answers and comments welcome. (Attacks, not so much!) I’m gonna work on it.

And in the rest of the world…

Food Giants Act as They Do

From the Guardian, the headline tells all, but read on for details: “US nutrition panel’s ties to top food giants revealed in new report.” And for a headline that could be from the Onion, for a line which if it comes true I’ll eat my hat (and I’m wearing one, too), you can read this: “Nestlé vows to increase sales of healthier foods by 2030: The world’s largest food company said it wants to boost sales of better-for-you products by as much as $27.3 billion by the end of this decade, a 50% increase from 2022.” (Maybe I’ll renege on the hat thing, since 50% of 2% is 1%, and that’s just about believable.)

Stayin’ Alive… Less

Not enough attention has been given to the role of ultraprocessed food (and, arguably, environmental poisons) in this WaPo piece, but it’s a good, in-depth look at the shortening of all of our lives as a result of mostly avoidable chronic illnesses.

Our Country’s Shame

Also from the Post, the story of Viola Fletcher, the 109-year-old survivor of the Tulsa massacre, still waiting for reparations. Anger-inducing, inspiring, heart-breaking, shameful…

Scary, Dangerous Work

We – people who talk about the role of food in our lives on a daily basis – often say “seven of the ten worst paying jobs in the US are food-related,” and that’s a bad enough statistic, but what we (or I) don’t say often enough is that many of those jobs are dangerous, scary, horrifying. Some solid and hard-to-take New York Times reporting here.

See you next week.