Local Eating, Organic Eating, and a Last Meal from Jean-Georges Vongerichten

The writer talks about the virtues of eating locally grown food and what foods he considers guilty pleasures.
  • Transcript


Question: How important are organic foods, and how truthful is the labeling?


Mark Bittman: One has to hope that things that are certified organic are organic.  But what does organic mean?  It's a term that’s defined by the United States Department of Agriculture.  It doesn’t mean anything or it doesn’t mean much about how the animals are treated.  It doesn’t really mean much about what kind or what breed of the animals there are.  It doesn't mean anything in terms of how the workers who are raising these animals or farming these crops are treated.  Doesn’t mean anything about where the food is from. 


So does organic have some meaning?  Yes, I think the term organic has some meaning.  But I think that it's not the most important thing.  I won't go so far as to say it’s a red herring because I think there are some important things about it but I will say this.  The most important division in our style of eating right now is not organic versus non-organic and it's not local versus non-local.  It's plants versus anything else and I don’t mean to be repetitive but the message is very, very clear. 


The way that people can eat best is to eat less crap to put it bluntly.  And crap is processed food and junk food and you can have organic processed food and you have organic junk food and that food is maybe a little better than non-organic processed and junk food but it's not good food and that's the most important lesson we could learn, I think.


Question: Is it important to eat locally grown, seasonal foods?


Mark Bittman:  Well, again, I think the clear answer is that, as far as your body is concerned, a grape from Chile is better than a cheeseburger from around the corner. If you're willing to eat turnips, carrots, bread you bake yourself, frozen meat, a very limited diet, you can eat locally almost anywhere, at least in this country, all year round and that's great but it's expensive, it's inconvenient, and it takes dedication.


I think it's a swell idea and I think that ultimately for food to make sense in this country I think we're going to see more regionalism and less food coming out of California.  But I don’t think we'll ever be at a place where we see no food coming out of California, unless it falls into the sea, of course.  And I think that if you want to be truly a local eater, you're not going to be drinking it.  If you live in the northeast, as I do, you're not going to be drinking any coffee.  You're not going to be drinking any caffeinated tea.  You're not going to be using any olive oil.  There are a lot of things you're just going to be missing out on.  That's fine if you think that that's the highest priority.  There are other priorities, I think. 


I'm a fan of local food.  I really like local food, but to go back to the discussion of trendiness in food.  Everything need not be taken to an extreme and this is another thing that has been taken to an extreme.


Question: What foods are your guilty pleasures?


Mark Bittman: If I'm driving say six hours and I decided to stop at Wendy's or whatever I guess there's a twinge of guilt.  But there's also an excuse because you're away and, you know, you're busy and blah, blah, blah and I don’t exercise that excuse very often.  So I don’t really feel guilty about it.  I think what would make me feel guiltiest, and I don’t do it, is going to a supermarket and buying a huge bag of potato chips and coming home and eating it but I don’t do it, so.


Question: What would you choose as a last meal?


Mark Bittman:  Why do they choose -- because they want something comfortable, they want something they're familiar with.  They all want bacon and eggs, right?  I mean I don’t -- that's my guess.  Everybody wants four fried eggs in butter with unlimited supply of bacon and really, really great toast.  I would – am I being executed?  I have to get the scenario.  So assuming I'm being executed and I have the – its not a last meal, like I don’t want to think about cancer last meals, I want to think about execution last meals.  I would call – I'm privileged I can do this -- I would call my friend Jean-Georges Vongerichten and tell him I want to cook for me until I tell him to stop.  That would be my last meal.  But I do like the four or six eggs cooked in a lot of butter with bacon and really good toast.  I like that, too.