DICED has been sharing our interview with influential food writer Mark Bittman from the Winter 2012 issue of The Main Course, our school newsletter. 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. We’ve already looked at his career and his outlook on the food system and our current diet. Today, we are sharing his answers on how he brings his philosophy on food into the kitchen and into his work as a writer.
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.
For more interviews with food luminaries, check out the archives on our website.