Feb 10, 2021 • 11M

Our "Suicidal" Food System: How We Got Here and Next Steps

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Mark Bittman
I used to write mostly about the pleasures of cooking. As I learned more, my focus evolved to include food's impact on agriculture, the environment, public health, labor, politics, racism, inequality, justice, and more. That's the stuff you'll find here.
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February has been a big month so far: Not only did we launch The Bittman Project yesterday, but last week I published a book. It’s called Animal, Vegetable, Junk: A History of Food, from Sustainable to Suicidal, and it’s honestly some of the best work I’ve done in my entire life. My goals for writing this book (plus one of my favorite sections from it) are mostly where I wanted to focus today’s newsletter. But before I get there, let me tee up that audio clip above.

As you can probably guess from the “suicidal” in my book title, the U.S. food system is not in a great place; it hasn’t been for a long time, and let’s just say that the Trump administration didn’t make things better. But because I want the community we’re building here to be a hopeful and forward-looking one, I thought we might talk a bit about what policies or food initiatives we can expect (or hope) to see from the new administration to help get things on track. So, I called my friend Ricardo Salvador to ask him. He’s the director of the food and environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, very smart and very nice. We tried to keep it short (10 minutes) while still laying out a few of the key changes to look for in the coming term.

Below, you’ll find a brief explanation about why this book is so tremendously meaningful to me, plus the first of three excerpts that we’ll run here on The Bittman Project. It’s about how the burger came to dominate our food culture — and what that means for us. I hope you like it (and if you have any thoughts or reactions, feel free to drop them in the comments).

I mean, this is surreal.

I have always been drawn to the big picture, to large, general topics; I did, after all, write How to Cook Everything. So it’s not surprising the idea of linking food and its history in relation to humans has been kicking around in my head since the early ‘70s when I started thinking about food as something other than “what’s for dinner.”

That’s the central theme of my new book: the relationship between food and people, one that I believe has not been considered thoroughly enough.

In Animal, Vegetable, Junk, I try to provide an understanding of these three things:

  • Human history can be viewed through the lens of food. Nothing is more important than food, and nothing you can think of — including war, the economy, even money — has had more influence. And yet, food has gotten short shrift from historians and the press. (In 2010, when I proposed a weekly column that took food seriously to The New York Times’ opinion editor, he wondered whether it was “interesting” enough.)

  • The history of food has shaped where we are today. U.S. inequality, for example, would be less extreme if farmland had not been first stolen from Indigenous people and then given away by the federal government to white males almost exclusively. Food — access to and/or lack of it — has had historic and deadly effects on public health, the environment, resource use, and the economy.

  • It is essential that we create a kind of road map that will lead us to a just food system: one that ensures that everyone has access to nourishing food, that good food is universally affordable, that food is grown in a way that’s sustainable and protects the land, and that the industries that involve food provide more dignified and well-paying jobs in food and farming. 

With these three themes as guideposts, I’ve tried to integrate what I’ve learned to be true about food into a single narrative, one that’s manageable to most readers of general nonfiction and that is, in its way, complete without being overwhelming.

I can tell you that I was nearly overwhelmed by it and had nightmares of never finishing, of it becoming one of those old fashioned multi-volume history books. This was not out of arrogance or a sense of grandeur, but of the sheer volume of information I had to consider when looking at our ongoing and changing relationship to food and agriculture.

Since my goal was something more along the lines of Sapiens—a grand, interesting story, guided by a moral compass—I, like most authors, had to make many decisions about whether certain sections were worthy of being included, or whether they were to be sacrificed for the overall narrative. Like most authors, if I were to do another round of rewriting (there were probably 10 from the time I had a solid draft until I was told to keep my hands off the manuscript), the book would look somewhat different.

Nevertheless: I recently read Animal, Vegetable, Junk for the audiobook, a reading that allows for no skimming at all. And I can say I’m as happy as can be about how it came out: It is, of course, imperfect, but I think the goals have largely been met, and I hope what you’ll find if you choose to read it is an important, interesting, compelling, even novel story that you’ll think about and discuss.

— Mark


How American Burgers Dominated Food Culture

Illustration: Alex Testere

Using yield as the only metric, American agriculture was a roaring, overflowing success. The American farmer was growing a superabundance of wheat, corn, sugar, rice, cotton, and, later, soybeans. And yet, despite producing this surplus, farmers still continued to bear tremendous risk.

Then there was the question of what to do with this bounty. Such levels of surplus all but guaranteed cheap food. But more increasingly, the surplus was used to invent new versions of foods: Industry learned to process and manufacture almost everything, from butter and cheese and ketchup to breakfast cereal and bread and burgers. It was a new, revolutionary way to make money, and one that fundamentally changed the dinner table and how we eat.

For eaters, the results were a mixed bag. The new foods were time-savers in the short run — in this new era, almost no one was a farmer, and few had time to make pickles or milk a cow, but store-bought foods were affordable and convenient. In the long run, however, they caused ill health and brought with them hidden costs, like pollution and resource exhaustion, that negated the evident savings. As usual, the system most benefited the middlemen: traders, millers, equipment and chemical dealers, processors, wholesalers, and retailers. 

Nevertheless, the surplus, and the production techniques that came with it, resulted in a wondrous slew of new offerings. Take the symbol of 20th-century American eating: Topped with a flap of reduced and dyed milk paste (“American” cheese) and a generous drizzle of over-sweetened tomato jam (ketchup), then sandwiched in a sad simulacrum of bread, replete with painted-on “crust” (the bun), the all-beef patty became the cheeseburger

We have all said — or at least heard — “There is nothing like a burger.” In my pre-adolescence, I ate 25-cent burgers. Better still, two burgers — fresh patties, juicy, crisped on a grill — fries, and a Coke for 55-cents. I remember sacks from White Castle in that same period. Several years later, in high school, I drove 90 miles with some friends in an old Ford to my first McDonald’s, listening to the Beach Boys on AM radio. 

It’s likely that you have similar stories — the best, the local, the most memorable, and so on. Burgers replaced “Mom and apple pie” as central to American life. 

And yet, there is nothing intrinsically fabulous about a burger. Many are, in fact, disgusting. But that doesn’t reduce their significance: The burger is fundamental to our national consciousness, the embodiment of that huge area of beautiful, well-watered, nearly virgin land that allowed for ever-increasing production, discovery, invention, cunning, and a ruthless, ignorant exploitation of resources. Those resources yield 50 billion burgers a year in America alone, around 150 per person. 

The story of how that all happened is the story of American beef itself. 

The mid-19th century cattle drives were slow and risky. Drought and winter were deadly obstacles. By the 1880s, rail expansion and barbed wire fencing began to reduce the number of drives as cattle were shipped in railroad “stock” cars. 

These shipments made the railroads a fortune, but the process was inefficient. The yield from a live cow was about 40 percent, which means that for every hundred pounds of cattle that were crowded into a car and shipped, only 40 pounds of meat could be sold after the cow was slaughtered and butchered. What’s more, each cow had to be tended to, fed, and kept alive — not always an easy task, as disease spreads quickly in crowded cattle cars. 

At first, there was no way around it. A slaughtered carcass didn’t keep well during shipping, a constraint that was handcuffing the entire beef packing business, keeping it local and small, and limiting profit. Fresh pork kept a little better, and many of its popular finished products, like ham and bacon, were already preserved. Thus, beef accounted for only 3 percent of the meatpacking industry as a whole. 

These challenges were profound, but demand and the potential for profit were nearly unlimited. There had to be a solution. The breakthrough came in 1880 when Gustavus Swift built a fleet of refrigerated railcars that could reliably transport freshly butchered (“dressed”) beef from Chicago to New York. What had once been many discrete, local, and decentralized beef industries became a unified national business with no limits on growth. 

Swift quickly built his own stockyard and slaughter facilities in Chicago, St. Louis, and other critical rail junctures in the Midwest and a new network of distribution centers all across the country. By 1900, the dressed-meat business, controlled by just a few farms, was the second-largest industry in the country, after steel. The leaders formed a trust, fixing both prices and freight rates, while the railroads gave the monopoly preferential pricing. 

Teddy Roosevelt famously attempted to bust the trusts, but the industry was so heavily capitalized and infrastructure-based that there was no hope for a new competitor. As a result, though their names have changed since 1900, there are still only four major meatpackers in the United States. 

At the time — the early 20th century — the boom doubled the country’s cattle in 20 years, to the point where there were almost nine cattle for every 10 people in this country, a proportion as high as we’ve ever seen. (The ratio is about a third of that today.) Some of this meat — maybe 10 percent, but not more — was exported, which left a lot of beef for domestic consumption, about a pound per person per week. And about 40 percent of the yield from a typical cow is ground beef. 

That meant there were a lot of burgers. 

Guessing when and where the hamburger was invented is a fool’s game since it’s likely that spiced ground meat on bread was eaten wherever bread and meat first intersected, thousands of years ago. (It certainly wasn’t in Hamburg.) Although there’s some evidence that the first dedicated burger joint in the United States was Louis’ Lunch, in New Haven, Connecticut, founded in 1895 and still there, the burger became popular in late-19th-century New York and elsewhere. The zeitgeist really caught on just after World War I. 

The White Castle System of Eating Houses was founded in 1921, and its first hurdle was convincing consumers that ground beef was safe. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle was published in 1906, and its tales of poisoned rats being tossed in the meat grinder were, er, unsettling. 

But ground meat was suspect even before The Jungle. No one knew what was actually being ground, and people generally believed that ground meat was about-to-spoil meat. White Castle’s founder, Edgar “Billy” Ingram, addressed that by grinding fresh beef directly in front of customers. He also made his buildings out of stainless steel and white enamel, and even his choice of name was a tactic since the color white symbolized purity and cleanliness in a society tainted by racism.  

Ingram created a standard of architecture, menu, and quality, as well as a standardized form of takeout: the sack. These strategies, combined with a 5-cents-per-burger price, made his first restaurant an instant success. White Castle saturated the Wichita market in less than two years, and by the end of the decade, it was national. And profitable: Managers used company biplanes to cover their massive territories. 

Hundreds of copycat entrepreneurs followed, building small, white buildings in which burgers were cooked and sold and coining names like White Tower, Red Castle, and White Palace. Meanwhile, Ingram continued to innovate: He created a proto-Betty Crocker, hiring a woman he renamed Julia Joyce and sending her out to promote White Castle to groups of women. He also foreshadowed the movie Super Size Me, by funding an experiment in which a medical student named Bernard Flesche ate nothing but hamburgers — an average of more than 20 a day — for 13 weeks. Flesche was pronounced in good health at the experiment’s conclusion, but he reportedly tired of the diet and never ate a burger willingly again. He died of heart issues at the age of 54.