Eating Animals in the Evening

» May 23rd, 2013

Mark Bittman’s new book, Vegan Before 6:00, deserves considerable credit for advocating a substantial reduction in the consumption of animal products. That’s good. It also earns praise for its trenchant condemnation of the standard American diet. Although this is a target fatter than the average American, enough darts cannot impale its expanding bullseye. That’s good, too. In terms of accolades, though, that’s about all the good I got for this ultimately disappointing book.

The primary flaw in Bittman’s advocacy of part-time veganism is that (you know exactly what I’m going to say) there’s no such thing as part-time veganism. The book could just as easily and more accurately have been called “Eating Animals in the Evening.” The problem with my suggested title is that Bittman would, albeit in a noble nod to accuracy, have lost his catchy (and sort of goofy) little slogan (VB6) to hang his part-time plant-eater hat on. He would also have lost the cultural power inhering in the word “vegan,” a power many true vegans, through the cultivation of authentic compassion, have helped embolden. All of which serves to remind us that the kingpins of foodie literature are as much about marketing as they are about making changes in the food system. I guess that’s why they’re kingpins.

Bittman’s bold highjacking of veganism is especially insidious not only because being vegan before 6 is like being pregnant before 6, but because VB6 is essentially more about the timing than the content of our diet. This is ultimately a book about what to eat when. And most of that advice is arbitrary. If you took that slice of bacon the VB6-er guiltlessly ate after six and crumbled it over her afternoon spinach salad, you suddenly  have a person who is now eating the same food as a VB6-er but, due to when rather than what she ate, can no longer qualify as a member of the VB6 club. Which is just plain silliness.

Bittman’s defense of half-assed veganism is some seriously tepid swill.  And I’m tempted to say he knows better. He’s got to know better. What really gets me about it is that Bittman is usually so freaking good. Here, though, he generally reduces his vast and highly informed culinary scope–one educated over the years through the construction of dozens of often brilliant columns— to focus narrowly on human health. To which I say: yawn.

Sure, eating fewer animals is better for us. We’ve know this for decades. But what’s especially disappointing about this constricted emphasis is that it fails to explore in a meaningful and systematic way the issues of animal welfare and rights, topics that Bittman has covered with growing poignancy in his columns.  As for an explanation of why he would cheat his otherwise generous vision in such a way, one might go backwards three paragraphs, count down five lines, and note my sentiments about marketing.

As with most analyses that dip a bit too often in the well of gimmickry, Bittman’s explanation for why he is not a real vegan eventually train wrecks into a contradiction. Now look, as readers know, I’m okay with contradiction if the contradictor can explain, or at least attempt to explain, his contradiction. Bittman, however, not only fails to do this, but I’m fairly certain he’s unaware of the telling inconsistency, one that hinges on the distinction between atomistic and holistic thought.

On the hand, when it comes to how we should think about diet, Bittman is rabidly holistic. He urges us to think not in terms of specific quantifiable nutrients and calories—that is, atomistically—but in terms of a holistic approach that cosmically balances and blends an array of healthy and whole real foods into a cohesive and indivisible way of life. He hints at this liberating mindset, one that I support, in his last column (linked above) when he writes, “you’re better off eating a carrot than the beta-cartene that was once thought to be its most beneficial ‘ingredient.’” Note the q-marks around “ingredient,” thereby designating its implicit and self-defeating suggestion of atomism.

But, on the other hand, when it comes to his conceptualization of veganism, Bittman chops and dices it into a million little pieces. To wit, he writes (in the same defense), “A vegan meal has no implications about what your next meal may be; you can be vegan for the better part of a day, or for a number of days of your life.” This logic is atomistic hair-splitting that puts the most inveterate calorie and nutrient counter to shame. Where did the indivisibility go? The cosmic balance and blend? Naturally, a true vegan knows that veganism is much more about a holistic mindset rooted in compassion than it is about the precise content of plant-based food on our plates at certain time of day.  If you are a vegan and not a little insulted by Bittman’s trivialization of the ethical choice upon which you structure your life, you are more patient than I am.  If nutrients should not be atomized, neither should ethics.

The greatest shame of this book is that Bittman, who claims to seek radical changes in the standard American diet, marginalizes the very voices that offer the most effective means to achieving that change. Activism before 6, anyone?


20 Responses to Eating Animals in the Evening

  1. Lori says:

    “…The emerging dominance of a morality that asserts that we have no right to “exploit” our fellow animals for our own benefit…”

    Bittman states this as one of the “unlikely” reasons to go full-time vegan. I’ve heard him on several radio and TV shows, and the rights and the ethics of animal slaughter are conspicuously lacking in any of the conversations. Of course it would have to be as he is promoting and marketing an idea that is at odds with considering the rights of animals.

    What’s more disturbing to me than Bittman’s VB6, are the conversations I’ve seen online and heard in radio call-ins from omnivores who have even less consideration for animals than Bittman. If I hear or read, “nature is not vegan” or “life exists at the expense of life” one more time, I’m going to either break down crying or go apoplectic!

  2. patricia tallman says:

    brilliantly written, james!

  3. A bunch of vegans and non-vegans have been intensely discussing this very topic on my FB page and G+ vegan community – set off by Bittman’s recent article in the NYT ‘Why I’m Not a Vegan’ Thank you so much for your post, which Bryanna Clark Grogan just shared with us. You summed up both discussions beautifully, especially in this bit, “Bittman’s defense of half-assed veganism is some seriously tepid swill. And I’m tempted to say he knows better. He’s got to know better.”

  4. Abby Bean says:

    Thank you for this; he is infuriating: the humane myth incarnate. He waters down veganism by reducing it to a health diet for hipsters, but dismisses the real implications of the lifestyle.

  5. Ellen K says:

    Bravo, James.
    I bristled also at the quotation marks in the original article around the word “exploit” as though our appalling treatment of farmed animals is in doubt.

    I share everyone’s frustration and bewilderment at the glaring inconsistency of this writer who is indeed, on many things, “so freaking good.”

    And I feel utter astonishment that he can seriously assert as his only credible defense of what even he calls “deplorable” practices: that “we like to eat them [animals]” and doing so is “pleasurable.”

    So all morality and ethical considerations are entirely trumped by narrow, immediate purely personal sensory pleasure? Glaring gluttony.

    Imagine how he or his devotees would react to the following parallel: “Cheating on my partner to have sex with confined, abused, trafficked minor prostitutes is deplorable and destructive. But it feels good and it’s traditional so it’s ok, especially since I only do it on nights and weekends, and only with humanely captured and organically fed happy kids.”

    • Dawn says:

      well put Ellen, well put.

      “Imagine how he or his devotees would react to the following parallel: “Cheating on my partner to have sex with confined, abused, trafficked minor prostitutes is deplorable and destructive. But it feels good and it’s traditional so it’s ok, especially since I only do it on nights and weekends, and only with humanely captured and organically fed happy kids.”

  6. Die Bremer Stadtmusikanten says:

    I’m torn on Bittman. On one hand he could be said to be popularizing a diet that raises awareness on reducing animal products and eating whole foods, but on the other hand, the notion that veganism is a part-time endeavor is dismissive to vegans who take the ethical principle to heart. (Raises hand.)

    Bittman is co-opting the vegan moniker where he could just call what he’s doing something else, because it’s not veganism. What’s wrong with Plants Before 6? (PB6). Or something similar? It’s far less confusing to a lay person than “vegan before six” because you don’t have to explain what vegan is and why he just isn’t one all of the time if it’s such a good idea to do half of the time.

    What’s annoying is when Bittman acts dumbfounded that vegans criticize his approach. No, your approach is great for the audience you are trying to reach, just come up with your own language. Bittman isn’t stupid, it’s easy enough to research that veganism is historically a socio-political-ethical concept and is still quite active today as such. Terms like flexitarian exist, but there are no organized flexitarian groups because nobody really cares about it as a concept. Go ahead and co-opt that.

    If he doesn’t want to be vegan than stop using the word.

  7. Die Bremer Stadtmusikanten says:

    Ugh, just read his NYTimes piece.

    Bittman writes:
    “Why I’m Not a Vegan”
    “I’ve been semi-vegan for six years”


    Okay, I’m done.

    But maybe Bittman popularizing of veganism, even in a corrupted form is a good thing? I don’t know. I just don’t want vegan to become as meaningless a term as vegetarian. We already have more than enough gray areas of “is this vegan” that we don’t really need to discuss “I eat animal products everyday vegan” as a category.

    And apparently Bittman regularly cheats as a vegan before six, while somehow I manage not to “cheat” while doing the full-time gig. Funny that. Look, really, I don’t care what Bittman does or what he advocates, sounds mostly positive, so great. I just wish he could be sensitive on this issue and not co-opt the vegan label. Many people, vegan or not, have pointed this out well before he wrote this book. I cannot fathom why he continues to be so obstinate.

    Bittman writes:
    “I can see… scenarios that might lead to universal, full-time veganism… the emerging dominance of a morality that asserts that we have no right to “exploit” our fellow animals for our own benefit… All seem unlikely.”

    Not sure why exploit is in quotes, because that’s what it is. We exploit animals. Very rarely, we do so kindly. Most times, cruelly. Here’s the thing. We don’t need to wait for “emerging dominance of morality,” if you agree with the ethic, just go ahead and do it. It’s just as tenable after 6 o’clock. Waiting around for the rest of the world to catch up in order to define one’s personal ethics is weak reasoning and not how moral progress has ever worked.

    Also, and I’m speaking for myself, it’s not so much that we have no right to exploit animals, it’s more a matter of questioning why we exploit animals. I frame veganism as a perpetual inquiry, not a mandate. If I don’t have a good answer, then I cease with the exploiting as best I can. I don’t really need a framework of rights. I don’t even need to care about or help animals per se.

    My thinking is, “What does it say about me when I control the lives of animals for frivolous reasons?” I can still consider the idea of animal exploitation for human benefits that hold some necessity (as speciesist as that may be). But eating animals falls under frivolity for the vast majority of people living within distance of a decent supermarket. I live in the same city as Bittman, so I know how easy it is to be vegan 24/7.

    • James says:

      Thanks for your thoughts. Keep in mind, Bittman’s bread is buttered by the post 6 pm diet his readers want him to keep legitimating.

    • Sailesh Rao says:

      The consumption of animal foods isn’t just about the exploitation of animals. It’s also about destroying and desecrating the cultures of indigenous peoples who live in the 20 million acres of tropical forests that we burn down each year in support of that consumption. This is why a wise Native American elder told me that achieving global sustainability is all about reconciling with indigenous people and respecting their cultures.

  8. km says:

    Many valid points & I agree that there is no such thing as a part-time vegan, but I am thankful for his VB6 message. The reason being is the huge number of people he is reaching and planting seeds of veganism.

    Ex) I have 2 friends that adopted his VB6 suggestion who have now progressed on their own behalf to vegan M-F & VB6 on weekends. Perfect? No, but it’s progress from the omnivore diet they were consuming. Every vegan meal that someone consumes is preventing an animal from being harmed & killed, which is ultimately what I am concerned about.

    I also appreciate that he advocates for veganism vs vegetarianism based on logic & consistency: vegetarians are most likely participating in supporting factory farms & deplorable living conditions for animals. In terms of health, vegetarians are still most likely consuming antibiotics & hormones. I perceive Mark Bittman as an important force in pushing people down the A – B, B – C path heading hopefully to the Z. Breaking the goal of veganism into attainable goals vs the sometimes overwhelming A – Z alternative.

  9. Elaine Livesey-Fassel says:

    THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR THIS!!!!!! I hope and trust Mr. Bittman reads your consistently enlightening comments!!

  10. I love my cat before 6 p.m. After that, I can abuse her as I wish.

  11. Gary Smith says:

    Brilliantly written. I’ve been asked by a few people to write about Bittman for The Thinking Vegan. You’ve saved me the time.

  12. Bea Elliott says:

    To be or not to be? I realize this is a very minor but still annoying point… Since Bittman insists of ignoring nonhuman concerns and wants to focus entirely on the food/health aspect then he shouldn’t recommend people “be” vegan before six but rather that they should “eat” plant based/vegan meals. If you’re deliberately consuming animals/secretions on a steady schedule you are not “be”ing vegan. He and others should quite using that badge of deceitful compromise and just wear the tired, sad “omnivore” one. It’s a more honest and accurate fit. :/

  13. [...] to start? Well, several others, including James McWilliams, have already begun the conversation with excellent commentaries. In case you have been really busy [...]

  14. I love how he closes by saying that his choice will “improve animal welfare.” I’m sure the animals he consumes after 6 pm will appreciate that.

    • Mountain says:

      The animals he doesn’t consume before 6pm will appreciate it.

      There is no such thing as a full-time “pure” vegan. Every vegan has, at some point in his/her life, eaten animal products or worn leather or used animals in some other ways. Even children raised as vegans will have rebellious periods or reject it as adults.

      The fact that Bittman divides up time into hours of the day, rather than phases of one’s life, is strange and aesthetically unsatisfying to me. But I don’t see how being “vegan” for part of the day is meaningfully different from being “vegan” for part of one’s life.

      • I understand what you are saying, Mountain. Many people are “part” vegan in the ways you described. My objections to him are based on a)the use of the term “vegan” to describe himself and b) his patting himself on the back because he might skip a turkey sandwich for lunch while diving into a prime rib at dinner. I was not vegan for 33 years – now I am. Those are discrete times in my life. My vegan choice is a present and future event. His future still involves killing. While I am all for any dietary changes that reduce the number of animals killed, and while I agree with you that some saved is better than none saved, Bittman touting the “improved animal welfare” meme while continuing to contribute to the horrific suffering of animals is, to me, an ethically untenable position.

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