Food Matters Cookbook: Putting Your Values Where Your Mouth Is, An Interview with Mark Bittman

Mark Bittman has been cooking and writing about food for four decades, including creating simple recipes for his weekly column at the New York Times, The Minimalist. Simple, because they don’t require difficult-to-find ingredients (and if they do, he gives alternatives) or an elaborate process to get a delicious and often impressive meal on the table. He has challenged his readers to travel across cultures, try things they thought were really difficult to prepare, and to rethink the tools in their kitchen repertoire (last week’s Minimalist, for example, breathed new life into the food processor).

Bittman has also emerged as a sane voice in the discussion around food policy, penning excellent reporting on industrial meat production, sustainable fish, and organics, to name a few stories. In addition, he digests news on the food system, writes about his cooking exploits and publishes the work of other food writers (full disclosure: I’m one of them) on his site, markbittman.com. In his recent book, Food Matters, he discussed why we should cut out the junk food and cut down on the amount of meat we eat for our own health and for the well-being of the planet. Building on the success of that work comes the Food Matters Cookbook, with 500 recipes for inspired “less-meatarians.” I spoke with him this week about his new cookbook and the state of the discussion around food politics.

Civil Eats: Many of our readers might be familiar with your “vegan before six” diet. Why did you start eating this way?

Mark Bittman: I wrote How to Cook Everything Vegetarian in the mid-aughts because I saw the handwriting on the wall, that eventually we are all going to be eating way more plants than we are now. And it seemed like a good idea for me to get familiar with whole grains, legumes, vegetables, etc. more than I was. In the course of writing that, it became clear that animal products in general, and meat in particular, as well as processed foods and junk foods, were really doing us in. And at the same time it became evident that industrial livestock production was a big contributor, not only to bad health, but to global warming. So I decided to write Food Matters. I realized at the same time that my own health was suffering at age 57 after years of eating like an American. So while I was writing that book, I decided to put this whole thing into practice. I was unwilling to become a vegan, I didn’t think it really made sense for me, but I thought that a seriously modified diet would. So I decided to eat as a very strict vegan, that is no processed food–not even white rice, pasta or bread–no animal products of any kind, until dinnertime. But then at dinnertime I would do pretty much whatever I wanted to do, although I try to stay more moderate. That’s pretty much the diet I’ve followed for about four years, and I can certainly say that I am healthier than I was four years ago. It turns out it was a pretty smart thing for me to do.

CE: People often think that eating ecologically and healthfully is a sacrifice. How do you respond to that?

MB: People think that way because they think that [a diet] has to be extreme. To be completely principled about this, I think you’d be a vegan. But I think to suggest that people become vegans really alienates them immediately. I think some compromise is necessary, but I don’t think that it means that you have to start eating in a way you don’t want to eat. I think it means that you consciously start eating in a saner way, and if that means that you start with two salads a week–you know that is very significant for a lot of Americans.

CE: There are no sections in the Food Matters Cookbook dedicated to meat, poultry, fish, etc., and yet this is not a vegetarian cookbook. Can you talk a bit about the layout?

MB: There are two ways to eat less meat: you can eliminate it from a given meal, day, or your life if that’s your choice, or you can reduce the amount in a given dish. The Food Matters Cookbook is often about reducing the amount in a given dish. So, because we’re not putting meat in the center of the plate–as in “here’s a big piece of meat and a couple of things to go with it”–it didn’t seem appropriate to have meat chapters. It’s more a book that says “here’s a smart way of eating.” And a smart way of eating can include meat, but it isn’t about meat.

CE: In the intro you write that you are “confident that as your diet changes, so will the sorts of foods you crave.” Is this what happened to you?

MB: What I can tell you is that there isn’t a week that goes by that I don’t cook a pot of beans and eat it through the course of a week, there isn’t a week that goes by that I don’t cook a pot of grains, and/or make a whole grain bread–and these are things that I’ve come to enjoy and rely on more and more. When I go out for lunch and am confronted with sort of standard lunch fare at this point it really turns me off. Which has sort of led me to bring my lunch places more often than I used to.

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CE: You have been writing more on food policy in the last couple of years. How do you think the media is doing in covering food policy stories?

MB: It depends on what you call the media. I find plenty of interesting stuff every week, in the New York Times, Time Magazine, the Guardian in the UK. There are plenty of publications that do a good job, and I think you see the occasional decent story on television on things like Nightline. But I think the brunt of [this reporting] is on the web, on good sites like yours and in blogs. So is this stuff being discussed openly? Absolutely. Is it being covered as widely as it might be? No, I don’t think so. Even the people who are covering it I think are missing a lot of the picture–of how scary this is and how terrifying it might become.

CE: There has been a shift happening over the last couple of years in the way people are thinking about food. Would you call it a movement?

MB: I’m reluctant to call it a movement until I see some kind of leadership and some kind of purposeful direction. I think there are a lot of people doing a lot of great work, and I hope to count myself among those. I think most people, who are a part of what I guess I would call a nascent movement, are against the same things. But I’m not sure we’re for the same things, and I’m pretty sure we haven’t articulated it right if we are. What ever “it” is, it is moving in the right direction. But we need leadership in terms of publications, in terms of spokespeople, in terms of guiding principles. I don’t think we really yet have that.

CE: You don’t call yourself a chef, but instead a home cook. Why is the distinction important?

MB: Few things annoy me more than being called a chef. A chef is a person who runs a restaurant. I don’t think there is such a thing as a “home chef.” There are cooks, and cooks cook at home, and there are chefs, and chefs cook in restaurants. And there are a lot of differences between those two styles of cooking, and I think it’s important to maintain those distinctions. Aspiring to be a chef is something young people can do, they can go to school or apprentice themselves, but home cooking is really the most honorable tradition, and we should all aspire to be home cooks.

CE: What inspired you to learn to cook?

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MB: I grew up in New York, and we had pretty good food at home, and we had pretty good food on the street, and then I went to college in Massachusetts and the food everywhere was so disgusting that I was forced to learn how to cook. I wouldn’t say it was inspiration, it seemed like life or death at the time. So I started to cook and I really, really liked it. And when it came time to earn a living, I tried to write about a variety of things but no one was interested. But when I started writing about food, people were interested.

CE: Do you think people are more interested in cooking now than when you started?

MB: Its hard to say, because when I started cooking, which was forty years ago, there were still pretty normal mothers, for lack of a better term, cooking dinner for their families. And there weren’t young people who were interested in cooking the way there are now. There was obviously no food television–there was Julia Child and Graham Kerr, but there was really nothing beyond that–and people didn’t say “I’m really into cooking.” On the other hand, there were probably 50 million people in the United States that regularly cooked dinner and I don’t think we’ve returned to that number yet. I think that people are really into cooking, but if you are into cooking as a hobby that’s swell, but the goal is to have most people cooking on most days, and then we’ll be approaching something that ought to be considered normal.

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Paula Crossfield is a founder and the Editor-at-large of Civil Eats. She is also a co-founder of the Food & Environment Reporting Network. Her reporting has been featured in The Nation, Gastronomica, Index Magazine, The New York Times and more, and she has been a contributing producer at The Leonard Lopate Show on New York Public Radio. An avid cook and gardener, she currently lives in Oakland. Read more >

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  1. Bill McCann
    Thank you for the great interview with one of my heroes. Good honest food, that really does so much more to turn a group of people into a real culture, can't be something that is hidden in a shroud of mystery. A simple meal, prepared with care, and shared with people who understand it's importance, might just be the grace that saves us.
  2. Catherine
    Great interview. I own and use Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, which gives fantastic recipes with oodles of variations, making home cooking easier and delicious. I'm glad he has written another book!
  3. yay food
    Meat is way more sustainable and healthful than a vegan diet. It just requires moving beyond the cowchickenpig paradigm. A field of goats is more eco-friendly than that same field covered in soybeans and the protein is much better for human consumption and overall health.

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