Get Into the Kitchen: An Interview with Mark Bittman

Darryl Campbell talks to Mark Bittman, New York Times columnist and author of How to Cook Everything and the recently released The Food Matters Cookbook.

Mark BittmanMark Bittman is mainly known for his recipes: he published How to Cook Everything in 1998 and writes a weekly column, “The Minimalist,” for The New York Times.

Lately, though, he’s become interested in the entire food system, not just what happens in the kitchen. In his new book, The Food Matters Cookbook, he explains how “sane eating” — no processed food, less meat, a lot of plants and whole grains — can have a profound impact not just on people’s waistlines, but on “all the plants, animals, and humans that share our planet.”

I spoke with him before his talk at the University of Washington bookstore last week.

The Bygone Bureau: In the age of celebrity chefs, you seem to be the complete opposite of that whole phenomenon. Is this a conscious decision?

Mark Bittman: Thank you for that question — seriously. I’m not conscious… but if you had asked me if I was a celebrity chef I would have been pissed off. (laughs)

I’m not a chef, I’ve never been a chef. Chefs run restaurants. But you could say I’m a minor celebrity. There’s nothing you can do about that. I’m interested and intrigued and excited by being able to draw bigger crowds than I used to, and being able to say what I’m thinking instead of demonstrating how to cook scrambled eggs. So I think that I’m really happy about the developments of the past four years, of my increased ability to talk about issues instead of just cooking. I do think cooking is important, but there’s a big difference between me and all those other people.

Do you think that celebrity chef-dom harms public perceptions of cooking?

I don’t think it helps it particularly. I think all the infighting, the whole competition thing, I really think all of that is bullshit.

I don’t know if you can say bullshit…

We can say bullshit. We’re on the web.

There’s more important things to talk about. Those people do what they do, I do what I do. There’s plenty of other people doing what I do, so we can talk about Michael Pollan, we can talk about Marion Nestle, we can talk about a number of people who are doing important work about how food actually works and is delivered, and how it could be better. Those guys are doing competitions and fun things, and that’s fine, it’s just not really my world.

Speaking of Michael Pollan, last year he wrote about the decline of cooking in The New York Times Magazine, and he came across as pretty pessimistic. Do you think that there’s as much cause for alarm as he does?

I’m not a seer, so my optimism or pessimism kind of depends on my mood. I can’t tell. I can give you an argument about how things are going to get better, and I can give you an argument about how things are going to get worse. I do think about these things a lot, which is why I’m able to discuss it, but that doesn’t mean that I know anything anyone else doesn’t know.

Michael’s pessimism in that piece was well-founded. I certainly think it’s a bad thing that people don’t cook. But maybe enough people realize that so they start cooking, and then that’s a good thing. But I can guarantee that in your lifetime, if not mine, things are going to change in the food world. They have, radically, already. Whether they change for better or worse, I don’t know, but they’re going to change.

To the extent that we can take control over what’s happening, it’s for the better. To the extent that we sit passively by, and let things develop, and let big food do what it wants to do, it’s going to get worse. After it gets worse, it might get better, but it would be better if it got better. (laughs)

Earlier on your tour you were in St. Louis. Do you think that there’s a difference in the way people receive your talk, and perceive issues with food, in the Midwest as opposed to in the Northeast, or the West Coast?

St. Louis was great, a very diverse audience — probably the most diverse audience I’ve had on this tour, and probably the audience that comprised the fewest Mark Bittman fans, because I was the guest of this guy, Charlie Brennan, a radio show host. He’s a great guy, and a lot of people were there because they go to Charlie’s stuff. So they didn’t know who I was.

But it was a completely receptive audience. You know, the Tea Party gets a lot of press, but the Tea Party doesn’t have a monopoly on anger or frustration or outrage. And I think what I’m saying makes a lot of sense. I think everybody knows that the food system is really screwed up.

Do you think there’s been a transition in the way you write, that you’ve become less of a general food writer and more interested in particular issues in the last few years?

Yeah. I want to talk about the issues. I still want to develop recipes, I want to write cookbooks, I’m going to write more conventional cookbooks than The Food Matters Cookbook, although there’s a way in which How to Cook Everything is the chef d’ouevre of my life. I’m not going to do anything much better or bigger than that.

But there are ways to approach this. People want fast recipes, I can work on that; people want to concentrate on baking, I can work on that; there are other cookbooks that I can do. I think that my style of cooking, as it has been for 30 years, is to encourage people to get into the kitchen. I still strongly believe that one of the three or four most important things I can do or say is that cooking solves a lot of your problems. So I’m not going to stop doing that. And I think my recipes encourage people to cook, because they’re really, really simple. I’m not a chef, I’m not even a great cook. I can make pretty good food on demand and write great recipes.

But to be able to get up here and not do a cooking demo, and instead to give a talk that has a real message, which includes why people ought to cook, it’s totally exciting for me. It’s not a new career, it’s an extension of my career. It’s exactly what I want to do.

I started… I did community organizing, I did political work, I ran a little newspaper in Massachusetts when I was in my twenties, and when I started to write I really wanted to write about politics. No one was at all interested in what I had to say, and the fact is that I didn’t know shit. So I started writing about food. And I thought, well, writing about food — that’s not bad. And then ten years later, I thought, writing about food, well, I’m doing good. And now, I’m writing and talking about food and politics. It’s gone full circle, and it couldn’t have worked out better.

Now, if I could have an impact, then it would really work out great. (laughs) I feel like I don’t have much of an impact, but at least I’m saying something that I think is important for people to hear.

And you have a platform on which to say it.

And I have a platform. I had a few hundred people last night in San Francisco, and three hundred in L.A. the night before, and three hundred in Portland the night before that. So it’s a good week. Directly talking to a couple thousand people, plus some number of millions seeing you on TV, hearing you on the radio every week, saying these important things — it’s going to change some people’s minds.

Darryl Campbell is the managing editor at The Bygone Bureau. He once got called an "elitist young author" by John Stossel, which he considers one of his top-ten lifetime accomplishments so far. Others include writing for The Christian Science Monitor and the Chronicle of Higher Education, paying off his car loan a year early, and getting a Twitter account. Send him an email.