’Tis the season for green bean casserole, marshmallow-topped sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie and heaps of food-related guilt—which makes it the perfect occasion to reevaluate where we buy food, whether in big-box stores or at local farm stands. This Thanksgiving, save a place for advocates of thoughtful eating, like Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman and the Food52 recipe bloggers, and learn to make smarter, greener, healthier and tastier choices. Consider it an early New Year’s resolution!
In the world of revolutionary food writing, Michael Pollan is the utopian Marx and Mark Bittman is the pragmatic Lenin. Pollan is perhaps the more outwardly intellectual, turning to both historical precedent and the latest data to trace sweeping societal ills, from factory farming to the rise of processed food. He zooms way out to diagnose what’s wrong with contemporary American food consumption, with the goal of replacing it with a premodern diet filled with locally grown, minimally processed foods. His books are replete with easily repeatable party slogans (such as “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants”). It’s no coincidence that his 2008 best-seller In Defense of Food is subtitled An Eater’s Manifesto. Bittman, meanwhile, is more prescriptive, essentially representing practical applications of Pollan’s theories. He’s less concerned with telling you why you’re eating wrong than showing you how to eat right. In his New York Times column, The Minimalist (1997–2011), and his How to Cook Everything book series, Bittman’s recipes are models of elegant simplicity, easily replicated by the hungry masses.
For eaters jonesing for their next Twinkie-and-Diet-Coke fix, Michael Pollan prescribes the farmers market as a sort of rehab, the best place to escape the lure of highly processed food. In his 2008 book In Defense of Food, Pollan places much of the blame for America’s alimentary ills on supermarkets that market packaged foods (substances like industrial, preservative-filled bread and margarine) as healthful alternatives over real food (say, fresh bread and butter). Shopping at a farmers market, Pollan asserts, automatically removes several undesirables from your dinner table, including high-fructose corn syrup, “unpronounceable ingredients” created in a lab and “old food from far away”—meaning produce grown in some distant land and shipped, sometimes halfway around the globe, to your zip code, where it’s often not in season. At good farmers markets you’ll find the freshest seasonal whole foods picked at the peak of ripeness, which, as luck would have it, is also when food tastes best and is most nutritious. Pollan points out another benefit to buying food at farmers markets: The seasons naturally diversify your diet.
Though the tone of discourse between them has always remained gentlemanly, Michael Pollan and Whole Foods CEO John Mackey began a months-long public pissing contest in 2006, upon the release of Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma. Pollan complimented Mackey’s attempt to expand the organic food mission in the U.S. but asserted that Whole Foods had neglected independent farms in the process. By aligning with what he terms “industrial organic”—large-scale international organic farms—Whole Foods could label its products organic without actually promoting local, sustainable agriculture. Shoppers end up with beef from New Zealand and, in Pollan’s reckoning, “jet-setting Argentine asparagus” that tastes like “damp cardboard.” The accusations spilled over into a series of enlightening open letters between the two men, laying bare discussions of food sourcing that are typically unavailable to average consumers. Ultimately, Mackey agreed to increase the chain’s purchases from small and local producers. When Mackey’s criticism of the Obama administration’s proposed health care reform in 2009 led to a Whole Foods boycott, Pollan came to his defense: “So Mackey is wrong on health care, but Whole Foods is often right about food, and their support for the farmers matters more to me than the political views of their founder.”
Green bean casserole is the coelacanth of Thanksgiving, a living fossil that has somehow managed to swim into the 21st century while other popular 1950s side dishes have all but gone extinct. Created in 1955 in the Campbell Soup Company’s home-economics department by Dorcas Reilly (dubbed the mother of comfort food), the original “green bean bake” relied on the shelf-stable foods that were fashionable in postwar days: green beans (often canned or frozen), Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup and French’s french fried onions. The recipe harks back to a time when convenience foods from Spam to TV dinners ruled the grocery aisles. In his 2012 book How to Cook Everything: The Basics, Mark Bittman put a fresh spin on the classic dish by making a few notable adjustments—eliminating the gloppy mushroom soup, blanching the string beans then shocking them in ice water to retain their crispness, and preparing homemade crispy shallots. Bittman’s version cuts back on the preservatives and ups the whole-food appeal, but his simple recipe will likely never reach the iconic heights Reilly’s did. In 2002 her original recipe card was added to the National Inventors Hall of Fame archives.
Just as Fannie Merritt Farmer’s Boston Cooking-School Cook Book (1896) and Irma Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking (1931) offer tremendous insight into historical American eating habits, the crowd-sourced recipe blog Food52 says a lot about how we consume food today and how we aspire to eat better in the future. The website’s active community of contemporary home cooks helps vet the dishes and select the best, like the 2010 recipe for homemade green bean casserole that a contributor posting as “brooke’s kitchen” created as a more healthful version of her husband’s favorite Thanksgiving side dish. The update has a lot going for it. First off, it signals our current love affair with all things comforting and retro, from macaroni and cheese to meatballs to deviled eggs. Next, it takes advantage of the move toward minimally processed ingredients (French green beans, shallots and shiitake or cremini mushrooms) and away from preservative-filled packaged foods (Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup and French’s french fried onions). Finally, reviewers testify that the sophisticated yet simple cooking methods yield “fresh, tender haricots verts in a seductive wine-and-shallot-laced mushroom béchamel”—quite unlike the droopy beans drowning in canned soup from the 1950s version.
When Gourmet magazine ceased publication, in 2009, Cook’s Illustrated publisher Christopher Kimball opined that expertise had been exchanged for the “democratic economics of the internet,” which he called a “ship of fools…where everyone has an equal voice.” The implication? Without professional arbiters of good taste, there’d be a wikification of the food world, tantamount to opening the gates to the barbarian hordes. Created in 2009 as something of a compromise between the two models, Food52 is a crowd-sourced recipe website curated by its expert founders, former New York Times Magazine food editor Amanda Hesser and Cook’s Illustrated alum Merrill Stubbs. The concept is simple: Every other Monday the editors call for recipes, often tied to a seasonal theme. They choose top entries, invite the site’s users to sample and comment on those recipes, test the most highly rated and whittle the choices down to two finalists. After a community vote, the winning recipe is declared and often later published in, well, an old-fashioned cookbook. The process may not keep out the barbarians, but Hesser, Stubbs and a legion of dedicated foodies at least give them a shave, a shower and etiquette lessons before inviting them to the dinner table.
As foodies increasingly turn to local produce and healthful foods, the classic sweet potato casserole may vanish from Thanksgiving menus—mass-produced marshmallows all but disqualify the dish from whole-food status. But even the sweet potatoes may prove problematic if you’re a locavore, as the orange tubers are found most abundantly in warm-temperate regions. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, North Carolina produced a whopping 41 percent of all domestic sweet potato yields in 2010—compared to 27 percent in California, 15 in Mississippi and 10 in Louisiana. Within North Carolina, which has gone so far as to declare the sweet potato the state vegetable, a strip of the inner coastal plain accounts for the vast majority of the crop, with only three counties producing half the state’s supply. If you live in a different part of the country, there’s a good chance those sweet potatoes in your grocery aisle had to cross several state lines to get there. But if you happen to live in North Carolina, you’re in luck: The sweet potato harvest peaks in the fall, just in time for the holidays.
With its bubbly caramelized-marshmallow topping and creamy interior, sweet potato casserole has become a Thanksgiving favorite. But this root vegetable hasn’t always been part of the celebratory meal. Native to Central and South America, the tuber attracted the attention of Spanish colonists, who began shipping it back to Europe around 1570. At the time of the first Thanksgiving, at Plymouth Colony in 1621, the vegetable hadn’t yet migrated to such northern latitudes. But during the colonial era, sweet potatoes became popular in the South, particularly among slaves who found in them a resemblance to the yams indigenous to their African homelands. In the 1800s sweet potatoes caught on in the North and soon became associated with Thanksgiving, as recipes for pies and candied side dishes gained popularity. Marshmallows entered the picture in 1917, after the confection started being mass-produced. The Angelus Marshmallows company commissioned a cooking pamphlet that included the first recorded recipe for marshmallow-topped sweet potatoes. Northerners embraced the newfangled creation, while traditionalist Southerners thought the recipe unnecessarily gilded the lily. Today, if you shun commercial marshmallows, Whole Foods will sell you all manner of natural versions—vegan, coconut-flavored, you name it—though they may give you sticker shock.