Find your cullinary voice

Interview with Mark Bittman

Mark Bittman shares his culinary perspective with the Institute of Culinary Education.January 2012

Mark Bittman is the lead food writer for the New York Times Magazine and an opinion columnist for the New York Times, for which he began writing in 1990. Before his current duties, he authored the weekly “The Minimalist” column for the newspaper, launched in 1997. His opus, How to Cook Everything, has sold more than 1 million copies. He is also the author of How to Cook Everything: Vegetarian, Food Matters, The Food Matters Cookbook, The Minimalist Cooks Dinner, and a slew of other books, including the upcoming How to Cook Everything: The Basics (March 2012), which contains 1000 photographs to accompany step-by- step instructions for everything one needs to cook, including how to boil water. He has won several awards from the James Beard Foundation and the International Association of Culinary Professionals for his writing and his television series, Bittman Takes on America’s Chefs. He frequently appears on The Today Show, and was the host of PBS’s Spain: On the Road Again with Mario Batali and Gwyneth Paltrow. The Main Course met with him at the New York Times to gain his perspective on today’s food world and the changes required to our food system.

Michael Pollan recently anointed you one of the most powerful voices in food—one of seven. What does that mean to you? Obviously, I was honored to be on the list, though it is after all just a list. I would have put together a different list if someone had asked me to do it, but Michael knows a huge number of people in the food world, he’s really a central figure, and that makes his his choices meaningful. Obviously, you’d rather be on a list like that than not. So it was great.

How do you think you ended up on a list like that?
I think it’s the [New York] Times. I like to think that How to Cook Everything has been an influential book, and it would be falsely modest to say it hasn’t been. But I’m the only regularly-appearing opinion writer in a major newspaper in the United States writing pretty much exclusively about food, and as it happens, the paper that I’m doing it for—it’s not a coincidence—is the most important paper in the country and one of the most important papers in the world. So it’s as much about the platform as it is about me. Again, it would be falsely modest to say I didn’t work hard to get here, and I lobbied for this position and got it. I’ve been lucky; I’ve worked hard; I’ve been in the right place. Those are three of the things that make you successful: hard work, being in the right place, luck.

What is your exact title here at the Times?
I guess you would say I am the lead food writer for the magazine and an opinion columnist, or you could just say I’m a food columnist.

You write about food obviously, but it’s not just recipes; you write about the food system, it seems, more than anything.
Yes, but I’m writing about food. I would say that for the first 22, 23 years of my food writing career, I wrote almost exclusively about cooking and things related to cooking. Some about eating because I did travel writing, but now in the last few years, I’m writing much more about food, about everything that it means, which includes cooking. I haven’t abandoned cooking at all, and I love the stuff that I’m doing for the magazine, but it’s a much broader world for me now. And much more fun as a result.

You talk a lot about the need to eat less meat and you are a vegan before 6 PM yourself. Is meat the biggest problem the food system has right now?
It’s one of the biggest problems. The easiest way to describe the situation is to say the two biggest problems are animal products and junk food. If I had to say what’s the single biggest problem, I could say “big food,” I could say the stronghold that big food has on America, but it doesn’t answer anything. If I had to pick two things to change, they would be CAFOs—concentrated animal feeding operations—because I think that if we had stricter laws on the treatment of animals, and better controls on the use of antibiotics in animals, better waste disposal systems, better environmental controls, it would make meat much more expensive, and if we made meat much more expensive, then sustainable meat and meat raised non-industrially would be more competitively priced. As a result, I think we would start to move in the direction we need to move anyway, which is that we would eat less meat and pay more for it. If we ate 90 percent less animal products than we do now—which we may do in 50 or 100 years, it’s not going to happen in a year—that would be a really good thing from every single perspective, except of course the perspective of the people who profit by us eating as much as we do now.

Statement number two is the soda/obesity/diabetes issue—and you might add, soda/obesity/diabetes/heart disease/gout, maybe cancer, issue. The way I see of solving that is taxing soda, followed by taxing junk food. And I’d like to see that money used to subsidize public health measures like making fruits and vegetables cheaper and more widely available. That’s as simply as I can put that.

But I want to add this because I’m really happy about it: I was in Pittsburgh the other night; I spoke before 1,800 people, and said, ‘I think the two most important things are regulating CAFOs and taxing soda,’ and they applauded. A year ago, no one would have applauded. The soda tax is going to happen, and it’s going to change things.

You are very vocal about the need for change in your writing.
Yes, and will continue to be. That’s my job and my passion. I’m lucky that they intersect.

But what is the true feasibility of changes like that? Because it’s easy to feel powerless. You think of big ag, you think of lobbyists, you think of politicians, etc.: the changes seem to be hard to actually come.
Well, it’s early days. We’re impatient. We’ve seen good things happen and, let’s remember, in my lifetime, we’ve seen great strides for minorities; we’ve seen the establishment of Medicare; we’ve seen tremendous strides for women. How long have people been advocating for change in food? You could say Rachel Carson, Frances Moore Lappé, absolutely they were. But how long has it been since food has been in the news every single day? How long since people began talking about it all the time? Since The Times gave somebody an op-ed column on food? Twenty years ago, it would have been a joke. Five years ago, it would have been inconceivable. Things are changing.

So you pitched the idea of your op-ed column?
I pitched it and the answer was yes in five seconds: ‘Yes, that’s a good idea; what would you do with it?’ There was a discussion, it took us a couple of months to figure out the logistics. But it was a done deal, almost immediately. Not to single me out: there are now more than half as many farmers’ markets in the United States as there are McDonald’s, that’s a big change. Young people are getting involved in farming, that’s a big change. I could sit around and tell you why things suck—it’s very easy. And mostly I sit around griping, I don’t sit around saying things are getting better. But there are signs that things are getting better. It’s not like the whole thing starts moving gradually towards the better; little pieces are being pulled out and moving forward, little pieces at a time. The obesity thing, the environmental stuff, the healthcare, the results of obesity, the results of raising—what is it, six billion animals a year in the United States? The impact of that stuff is incredible! It’s just awesome. So you have to chip away at it. You can boil it down to one issue: you have to discourage the consumption of bad food and encourage the consumption of good food. Disincentivize bad food; incentivize good food: that’s the single issue. Everything else comes out of that.

‘Good food’ sometimes feel like a two-tiered system, where there are still the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots.’
Right. Five percent of the population, or maybe 10 percent, has moved on to another kind of diet and is eating well and eating pretty healthfully. That kind of diet is probably affordable by the majority of Americans; it’s just that most people don’t know how to do it. But yes, it’s the best-educated people and in many cases, the people with the most money who have moved on to a better diet. And that’s too bad, because it’s seen as a privilege. But it doesn’t have to be a privilege anymore than education has to be a privilege. Of course the more we de-fund things, the harder it’s going to be. As we de-fund public education, then people have less of a chance of learning how to deal with food in good ways; there used to be home economics, for example. Everybody should know how to cook. The problem is that it’s become, ‘Oh, if you’re going to learn how to cook, it’s because you want to be a chef,’ which is ridiculous.

The first lines of your bio state “I’m not a chef, I’ve never been.” You are very adamant about that.
It’s a bit of a holdover. When I first started doing public stuff, they’d introduce me as Chef Mark Bittman and everybody was like, ‘Oooooh, chefs, wow, how exciting.’ It was the days of Emeril and it wasn’t like now when there are 50 billion chefs out there. So they didn’t know how to deal with somebody like me. I’d get signed up to teach cooking classes, or I’d get signed up to give talks or whatever, and they didn’t know what to do with me because very few people were doing it who weren’t chefs, so they called me Chef Mark Bittman. I’d get up there and I’d say, ‘I’m not a chef,’ and then I would talk about why everybody should cook; that chefs do one thing, but home cooks do another, and that it’s really important to be a home cook, and that there should a 100 million home cooks in this country.

In the time that you’ve been talking about cooking and telling people they need to learn how to cook, have you seen an increase in the number of home cooks?
There’s no way to track it. I think that certainly in the ’80s and ’90s it was going down, and I think that now, it’s going up. It’s hard to measure, but it’s also hard to believe that so many young people could be interested in farming and food co-ops and CSAs and all of that stuff and not be cooking. So anecdotally, it seems like it’s on the upswing.

Who is your audience?
I have four or five different audiences, so it’s very hard to say. Obviously, there’s a devoted New York Times following: people who’ve read me for years and complain that I’m not in on Wednesdays anymore; people who are like, ‘Oh, it’s so great that you’re on Sundays’; people who are reading the opinion columns; and people who are saying, ‘Ach, you should stick to recipes.’ How to Cook Everything has sold over a million copies, so there’s an audience of fans who really love How to Cook Everything. I think there’s an audience of fans who appreciate the political, who go beyond the Times, who’ve read Food Matters, who’ve seen me speak. And there’s a bunch of people who watch me on The Today Show, or who saw me travel in Spain with Mario [Batali] and Gwyneth [Paltrow] —I run into those people all the time. So I don’t know. I can tell you that I get stopped on the street, and I get stopped by all kinds of people: by doormen, by professionals, by people in the subway, by people on Central Park West. It doesn’t seem that I can’t say that I have a bigger following among women than men; it’s not clear which way that goes.

But when you sit down to write, whom do you think about? Whom do you try to reach?
I only cook one way; it’s really simple. Occasionally I go cook with a chef and I replicate their stuff, but for the most part, I’m really not coming up with that much that’s new. I’m coming up with new ways to show it and new ways to teach it and new ways to talk about it. Actually, I will take that back. The Food Matters Cookbook was a departure.

What about for your op-ed pieces, rather than the recipes?
More and more, I’m moving in the direction of doing recipes with less meat, recipes with no meat, exploring vegetarian and vegan traditions. The op-ed column, that’s straight from the heart; that’s what I want to say. I see it as an advocacy position and I see it as a call to action. It’s not just describing a problem; I try to say what needs to be done about it. It all is geared to that thing that I just said, of discouraging the consumption of bad food—there’s a lot to write about that—and encouraging the consumption of good food—there’s a lot to write about that. So it all stems from that tree, if you will. If you think about food, and then you think ‘bad/good’ and all the little branches that grow off each of those sides, that’s my work. And cooking and recipes is still a huge part of that.

In terms of discouraging and encouraging behaviors, is it a personal responsibility? Is it a policy issue? Is it a matter of corporate responsibility?
There are two ways of describing the problem and there are two ways of fixing the problem. One way of fixing the problem is you fix it yourself. And we’re lucky in food because you can go change your diet. But on the other hand, changing your diet doesn’t affect too many other things. It affects you in a very positive way, and certainly if 50 million people became semi-vegans or flexitarians or less-meatarians or vegan-before-sixers, or whatever you want to call them, that would change things, but to change policies is generally a different story. And how do you do that? It either has to happen because so many people do individual actions that it’s a de facto change, which I don’t think is going to happen, but as much impact as that has is important impact. At the same time you get a decent Congress elected and you make some changes that way, and you try to make it unprofitable for big food companies to sell bad food, to make it unprofitable, for example, for McDonald’s to use industrially-raised beef. How do you do that? Do you boycott? Do a public relations campaign? If you make it so that CAFOs are more heavily regulated, you make it more difficult to sell bad food cheap, and if you can’t sell bad food cheap, people are going to say, ‘You know, I knew it wasn’t good for me, but it was so cheap, it was irresistible.’ Now if it’s not cheap, if that 99 cent or $1.49 or whatever it is cheeseburger costs $4.50, and you get some falafel next door that’s halfway decent for the same price, you might think twice.

The ingredients in falafel may not necessarily come from better sources.
Okay, chopped salad. How’s that?

Well, you could argue that there are issues with so many food groups.
Yes, but I think that’s the wrong way to look at it, because the issue is not the source of the vegetable versus the source of the meat; the issue is the vegetable versus the meat. So I would say that if the choice were between a non-organic salad and an organic cheeseburger, you’re better off with the salad. And I think that that’s important to remember, but that’s rarely where the choice is. The choice is really not between a good hamburger and a bad hamburger; the choice is between a hamburger and a stir-fried vegetable dish, something like that.

What types of meats do you eat after six, and do you always—in restaurants, for example—ask where they got it from? Meaning, is there any hypocrisy in these choices?
I’m not saying I’m perfect and I’m not saying that what I do is ideal. I’m saying that what for me has worked has been to be vegan before six. For other people, what’s important is that you move your diet towards a more plant-heavy diet. If that can be local, great; if that can be organic, fine. But the most important thing is to go more plant-heavy, and I’ve done that. Do I tend to eat sustainable seafood and meat that’s raised by real farmers? Yes, 80-90 percent of the time. Do I make a fetish of it? No. The thing is to choose your restaurants. So if you’re going to go into McDonald’s, you’re going to eat bad food. If you’re going to go into—I don’t want to plug anybody—but if you’re going to go into a restaurant in New York where you know that they’re doing good stuff, you’re going to eat good food. But I don’t sit around and say, ‘Where’s this chicken from?’ When I cook by myself, the stuff that’s in my freezer or the stuff that I buy in the store, I generally know where it’s from. But when you’re eating out, putting yourself in someone else’s hands? All bets are off.