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Mark Bittman Interview

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By Malcolm Jolley

Mark Bittman's Food Matters: A Guide To Conscious Eating With More Than 75 Recipes is the food book success of the season. Part survey of our bad food habits, part environmental manifesto, part diet book and part vintage Bittman cookbook, Food Matters brings the bestselling authors singular style, which he perfected in the  to the food advocacy genre. I caught up with the New York Times columnist on a recent visit to Toronto to find about how he became a top food writer and columnist, a "vegan 'till six" and a leading proponent of eating less meat and processed foods.

Gremolata: Your latest book is climbing up the bestseller lists, where you've been before. I know your work, but I don't know your biography. How did you become this big bestselling cookbook author? Is your background in cooking?

Mark Bittman: No, journalism. I mean I always liked to cook and I started writing about it and one thing led to another. I wrote a book about fish [Fish: The Complete Guide to Buying and Cooking]. But I never went to school or anything. I just learned form other people. I started writing for the [New York] Times, and would call people up and ask if I could cook with them, and who's going to say 'no' to the Times? While I've always believed that you learn from everybody, I had this great advantage of being able to travel and cook with great cooks from all over the world and stay in New York and cook with the greatest chefs in the United Stares. Or go to California... And then what really brought all home was cooking at home. I raised my kids cooking. And then in the late 90s How To Cook Everything became "The New Joy of Cooking". And please note that I made air quotes around that! I didn't say it, some one else called it that.

Gremolata: But it is! That was my first introduction to you. People are devoted to that book and are always pointing to it on their kitchen shelves or asking me if I'd heard of it. I was just over at a friend's place. He had it open to make a roast and called it his "bible".

Mark Bittman: I get that a lot.

Gremolata: How did that book come about?

Mark Bittman: The publisher that I wrote the fish book for actually lost the rights to The Joy of Cooking. They had a very forward thinking, completely non-food guy publisher who made his name with a computer book. He said to me, "You know we lost that big thick white cooking book. What do you call it?" And I said, "The Joy of Cooking." And he said, "You know, we should really do another one of those." So, I was sort of a golden boy then, and when he asked me to do it and I said, "Sure."

At that point, Joy of Cooking was written in a collegial style, with lots of writers. But when I started on The New Joy of Cooking (no air quotes, this time), I said, "I don't want to do it like that. I want to do it like the old Joy of Cooking: one voice. Either you like it or you hate it." And they said, "Ok."

I worked on it for two to three ears, and then we had some other people work on it for another year. It was raw - far from perfect and they helped with that. So there it was...How To Cook Everything.

Then, about five years after it came out, 2003 or so - this is recent - I had this idea for a vegetarian book.

Gremolata: Is this before or after your personal conversion?

Mark Bittman: No. There's no conversion here.

Gremolata: Well, I know but...

Mark Bittman: No, really. I want to make that clear. I wrote a book about vegetarianism because I saw it was impossible for people in the Western world to continue to eat the way they were eating. I sort of saw the writing on the wall. And I saw, frankly, an opportunity - I mean I do this for a living. If I could do a new Joy of Cooking, why not do a block-buster vegetarian book? There were other ones out there, but I have my own style. So How To Cook Everything Vegetarian it turned out to be a success.

So then, we went to do a new edition of How to Cook Everything, we also had the vegetarian book (which is in turn based on Everything), and now I get it: it's a brand, it's a franchise. I have great people working with me now and we have the Completely Revised 10th Anniversary Edition and it's absolutely spectacular.

Meanwhile, in the middle of all this, while I was writing How To Cook Everything Vegetarian, I didn't have a conversion, but I did have, let's say, a new relationship with plants. A better understanding of plants, but also a few more years of talking to chefs who understood how to use them. I remember a very important story for me that I wrote for the Times - it seemed quite minor at the time - about a macro-biotic chef from Japan. A completely crazy woman, she weighed about 80 pounds. I asked her, "Do you eat this way?" Her restaurant was vegan.

She said, "No, no, no. I eat everything."

And I said, "Then, why a vegan restaurant?"

And she said, "Do you understand the concept of brush and ink?" She meant Japanese calligraphy.

I said, "I know what it is."

She said, "No, but do you understand it? The concept is by shrinking your universe to something that is infinitely explorable, you can really try to learn everything about this little tiny world."

So by shrinking the universe of cooking down to veganism, she felt she could better explore it. I thought that was really cool.

Gremolata: Ok, but how do we get to Food Matters?

Mark Bittman: A lot of interesting things happened over those years, including my realisation that we couldn't keep eating meat the way we have been. Including a new look at all the numbers, like the report from the UN that indicated that over 18% of all greenhouse gases come from industrialized food production, second only to energy, by the way. And including a bunch of personal health things that were not crises, but put together were a little scary. I was thirty pounds overweight. Having high cholesterol for the first time ever. Having high blood sugar for the first time ever. Having sleep apnea and then knee surgery, which was the result of running with excess weight.

I put all that stuff together, and I talked to a couple of colleagues and friends, and I thought: there's a pattern here and I better address it. Plus I'm a journalist, I write about this, so if I'm going to change my diet I have an audience that wants to know this, it's important to say it.

In the same way that when I started writing about it I became a much better cook, when I started thinking about what I ate, and what people ate, I became much more literate and articulate about it. I gave a talk about a year ago, which you can go see if you want at TED.com, about how it came about that we ate too much meat and processed food. Then, I pitched this book and, of course, in the process of writing the book I learned much more. And here we are. If it's not the right book at the right time, it's a right book at a good time.

Gremolata: It seems to me that the book is, in some ways, taking Marion Nestle and Michael Pollan and kind of  making it practical.

Mark Bittman: Yeah, both! There highly influential people.

Gremolata: Right, and you cite them. But Food Matters also seems to say, "Ok, you know this. Now, here's what you do about it."

Mark Bittman: Right.

Gremolata: So that works for a reader like me. But what about those who have, let's say, a less sophisticated world view on what they eat?

Mark Bittman: Well, I'm not going to just sit around quoting Michael Pollan because he has a huge audience, but it's not everybody and I don't want to be, in our little world, too referential. So, let's back out. Yes: there are people who are not in tune with what they eat. But are there people who are unaware that too much meat and processed food is bad for them? Probably fewer than you think. Are there people who think, gee I wish there was something I could do about the way I eat? Probably many more than know the precise stuff that's in the book.

When I say to somebody, "Guess, the number one source of calories for Americans," no one can guess that. I mean one in a hundred know that the answer is soda - 7% of our claories come from soda.

These foods, like soda and hamburgers, that aren't so good for you comprise, probably 70% to 90% of the calories the average North American eats - forgive me, I'm assuming Canadian statistics are about the same.

Gremolata: Right.

Mark Bittman: So, we eat an average of about three pounds of food a day. We eat about a half a pound of meat. We eat a pound and a half of dairy. That's two pounds. So, then you look at the list of foods we eat by calorie, and most of it is not meat or dairy: cake, potato chips, French fries...

Two and a half of the three pounds of the three we eat a day is not plants - some of which is utter crap. And it's calorie heavy food: meat, dairy and crap. Do most people realise that? Probably not. It's a pretty crappy situation.

Then, you look at the global warming situation. And you have diet related diseases - diabetes, coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, colon cancer, high cholesterol, all these things that are being linked... we know these things are bad for us. We know it's better to eat less, I mean fewer calories. Plus you have the economy: meat is cheaper than it should be but it's still more expensive than plants. And processed foods are more expensive than simple ones. Look at a box of breakfast cereal it's six times more expensive than oatmeal.

So I came to all these realisations and started eating differently.

Gremolata: You became 'vegan 'till six', eating only plants in the day but whatever you want at night.

Mark Bittman: Yes, but I'm not advocating vegan 'till six. That's what I do. I'm just advocating that we change the proportions of plant to non-plant food that we eat. I'm advocating that everyone eat more plants. And that is very Michael Pollan-esque - I mean it's not a novel thought. And he said it well, and said it often. But the idea is if you take that 70% to 90% of calories foods and reduce it, ideally to 20% but every bit helps, and you change this ratio between animal product and junk food and plants, even incrementally, even by 10% a year, it would be good for you and good for the planet. So, that's what I'm advocating.

My own particular dietary weirdnesses are not really that relevant.

Gremolata: But when you started this journey were you eating a lot of junk food?

Mark Bittman: No. Not a lot of junk food. But a lot more bread than I do now, for instance.

Gremolata: But you do eat bread now?

Mark Bittman: Yeah, I'll eat good bread at night. And I still eat meat. If I'm tired tonight, I may get a cheeseburger from room service. Look, I can't think about this all the time and I'm not even that strict. I just try and eat plants all day - plants, plants, plants - you got to eat a lot of them, non-stop. But I feel great.

Gremolata: So you do feel better?

Mark Bittman: I didn't feel that bad before, to tell you the truth. But, I did lose 30 pounds. I went from 220 to 180. My blood sugar went from bad to not bad, whatever the numbers are. My sleep apnea went away. And I'm running again. So, all of that stuff, all of those problems have been solved.

Gremolata: And you enjoy what you eat?

Mark Bittman: For lunch today I had stir-fried vegetables with shredded beets and tofu with some kind of green sauce from a Chinese restaurant around here, and it was a little weird but I really liked it. So, yeah. I'm totally enjoying what I eat. It can be hard. But if you get these cravings for pizza or McDonald's, it's great while you're eating it. But if after you eat it you feel like crap, plus knowing that it probably isn't very good for you or the planet, is that a good experience?

Mark Bittman's websites include MarkBittman.com and HowToCookEverything.tv



Comments


Great interview Malcolm! I'm envious. There are lots of other questions I'd like to have had the opportunity to ask him, particularly around the interface between his philosophy of food and his statements regarding 'wilderness' which are quite different here in Canada than they are in the U.S. Nonetheless, he's one of important food people of these few decades and certainly, one of the most courageous. Good work!
Anita Stewart
Post Reply By Anita in ELORA on 2/6/2009 6:41:16 PM

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