Mark Bittman, 'Locavore,' Cooks Endangered Fish
Mark Bittman, author of The Minimalist column of the New York Times, recently posted a seemingly innocuous recipe for "Red Snapper with Citrus Salsa." Problem is, red snapper is one of the most over-harvested and thus endangered fish in the world. Tom Philpott, food editor for Grist, called him out on his lack of responsibility, writing "I believe that influential food writers, especially ones concerned with conscious eating, need to start educating the public about the dismal state of the oceans."
How knowledgeable is Mark Bittman about fish? He's the author of the book Fish: The Complete Guide to Buying and Cooking (published 1999), and wrote a thought piece for the Times back in November 2008, titled "A Seafood Snob Ponders the Future of Fish." Surely his book How to Cook Everything wouldn't have recipes on how to cook everything endangered? Oh, it does, suggesting red snapper in multiple recipes (we checked).
In his most recent book Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating with More than 75 Recipes, Bittman writes:
Fish is a special case. Wild fish, obviously, is organic, though there are concerns about mercury and heavy metals in tuna and swordfish. But much of it is also endangered, so it sometimes can't be purchased with a good conscience... If you can find fresh (or well frozen) wild fish that's not on any endangered species list (the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Web site mbayaq.org has a list, broken down by region), and isn't on any warning lists (yellow fin tuna, for example, is not currently endangered though it does contain high mercury levels), and you don't object to it for ethical reasons, it's probably the best choice in animal foods.
Bittman's red snapper recipe completely contradicts his own words, and it makes it difficult to take the man seriously — we've always been a little suspicious of his recent change of career focus from "The Minimalist" to a locavore / advocate Michael Pollan-wannabe, and this oversight is telling. He tells his readers to check a website to see if a fish is endangered, but he won't do it himself when handing off a recipe to the New York-friggin Times?
Tom Philpott, in a related blog post criticizing food media's careless approach when it comes to endangered fish, wrote: "The effort starts with food journalists—people who have a direct impact on the public imagination about fish," and says, "It seems to me that food journalists have generally failed at this task. I see examples all the time of foodie articles blithely extolling the culinary virtues of this or that fish species, without considering the impact of consuming them."
At the same time, we feel like we also have to call out the Times' Dining Section here too: As one of the preeminent food sections in the world, is there a policy at all about posting recipes with endangered fish? Did this recipe fly right past the food editors and fact checkers, people of a higher food literacy who arguably should know more about responsible and sustainable eating?
Bittman responded to Philpott's post in a comment, and his excuses are less than convincing. He apologizes, yes, but then he gets defensive, writing that Seafood Watch, a site which publishes lists of alternatives for over-fished seafood, the site he recommends in his book, is "managed by scientists - not cooks." Isn't that the point? If we rely on taste alone—and believe us, red snapper is tasty—and ignore the environmental repercussions, we will demolish delicious oceanic species.
Bittman also feels that "Some responsibility for sustainability and health – general 'goodness' - must rest with the individual." Which is fine—and true—but only if the advocates of "sustainability and health" keep fightin' the good fight. You can't be a leader (or even part) of a movement, Bittman, if you aren't constantly maintaining your position. Also, why are you writing recipes if you expect your readers to fact-check them in their entirety? Do we need to doubt oven-temperatures for your recipes as well? Water content? Salt levels? Come on.
Owning up to his "sloppiness," Bittman states that he'll be writing "a bigger piece" as a follow-up on his error. While we'll wait to see what he has to say, we can't help but be suspect of a food writer incapable of practicing (and publishing) what he preaches, and then turning this whole episode around to write yet another piece about fish and eating responsibly, and furthering his own career. You'd think the author of books with the titles Fish: The Complete Guide and Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating would have gotten it right in the first place. How many chances does Bittman get to get it right?