Interview with Mark Bittman, Appearing in Providence for the RI Community Food Bank

by David Dadekian
Mark Bittman, photo by Sally Stein

Mark Bittman, photo by Sally Stein

This being a site dedicated to food and drink, Mark Bittman should need very little introduction. A food writer for over thirty years, Bittman is probably best known for his massive cookbook, How to Cook Everything, and “The Minimalist” column for the The New York Times. Bittman now also writes opinion pieces for The New York Times “Dining” section, focusing more on his current message of eating well, which he explored in his recent books Food Matters and The Food Matters Cookbook. Bittman will be speaking at an event hosted by the RI Community Food Bank on Thursday, May 5, at the Johnson & Wales Culinary Arts Museum. For more information and to purchase tickets to the event please see the Food Bank’s site. Eat Drink RI had the opportunity to speak via phone with Bittman earlier this week.

Eat Drink RI: What’s your feeling on the current food environment and the things you’re seeing?

Mark Bittman: Certainly things could get better, but I think that the first choice that people need to learn to make is between fresh food and ultra-processed food. If you include most animal product in the ultra-processed food department, then it becomes pretty simple. Then if you’re worried about the safety aspects of fresh food, or the pesticides on fresh food, or the carbon footprint of fresh food, those are separate things worth thinking about. Whether your concern is about nutrition or your concern is about global warming or your concern is about animal rights or any of that stuff, the first step is really to move away from junk food, ultra-processed food, animal product and toward something that’s more like a plant-based diet.

EDRI: Does that encompass local food?

MB: Local food isn’t the solution by any means. When I talk about people eating better I don’t talk about local that much, I talk about what kind of food they’re eating. Look at how much ultra-processed food and how much animal product people are eating and trying to think about ways to eat less processed food and plants instead, and if that’s local well so much the better, but if it’s not local it’s still an improvement.

It’s all one thing. You can’t produce more and more nutritious food without paying attention to the environment. It’s all about sustainability, but the sustainability is about human sustainability as well as environmental sustainability. But it’s all tied together.

EDRI: Do you feel this message is accessible or if we’re preaching to the converted?

MB: It’s out there, I don’t know if the average person buys it or not. My work is to try and popularize them. That comes up all the time and all you can do is hope you’re expanding the number of converted. If the converted go out and talk to the unconverted who are their husbands or their wives or their cousins or their neighbors or whatever, that’s how things change, that’s how the word spreads. It’s clear that the group of us who are enthusiastic about it is bigger than it was five or even two years ago. Totally clear. So you can say that progress has been made.

EDRI: You’re involved in several different mediums now, from The New York Times to books and online writing to apps. Do you feel that makes your message more accessible?

MB: It’s hard to know. I’m trying to have a consistent message that I believe in and that I think is smart and works and put it into every channel that I can muster. It’s hard to measure the impact. The Times work is reaching different people than I reached with “The Minimalist” column. It’s certainly a different message than “The Minimalist” column.

I have three apps and that’s a little easier to measure feedback because they sell. They’re selling great. The verbal and email feedback is really positive. They’re fantastic products. They took what I think is a solid base of How To Cook Everything and then some real tech wizards and careful editorial people turned it into something fantastic.

EDRI: Do you feel there’s room for both the apps and traditional cookbooks?

MB: I would say there’s room for both. It’s very hard to say where all this is going to end up. I still tend to think in pretty traditional publishing terms, but clearly ebooks and apps and all these other kinds of new forms of putting things out there are important. But again, if the material is consistent and the message is consistent, it’s challenging, but there’s a way in which it can all be put together.

EDRI: So how often do you get to cook now?

MB: It depends where I am, but when I’m home it’s once or twice a day.

EDRI: Do you miss it?

MB: I totally miss it when I’m not home. I was away last week and the first thing I did when I got home was cook. I do miss it when I’m not home.

EDRI: What do you like to cook at home?

MB: The stuff that I’m cooking is pretty much the stuff I write about. Obviously the way I eat has changed over the last few years and that’s what Food Matters is about. What I cook is pretty much what’s in the refrigerator. I shop at regular supermarkets for the most part. You don’t have to go out of your way as much as you used to and Manhattan’s a pretty good place to get whatever you want. [Especially] compared to thirty years ago. The suburban supermarket has practically everything.

EDRI: How do you feel, health-wise, eating as a “lessmeatatarian” (taking the term from a newsletter)?

MB: It worked for me. I stand behind it. I’m still eating and cooking and living that way. I think it makes sense. It’s sort of part of the same message.

EDRI: How much meat do you think you eat on a weekly basis and do you miss it?

MB: Not much. Generally not [regarding missing it]. You can recognize when you’re craving something and whether that craving is something you really need to respond to our not. That happens much less often than it used to.

EDRI: What do you think you’ll be talking about at the RI Community Food Bank event next week?

MB: There are many issues in the so-called food movement but obviously one of them is access and one of them is getting good food to people who have trouble getting it otherwise. I’ll be talking about how we might move forward in ways that build on what the Food Bank is doing, in ways that hopefully not anyone has thought of yet.

Food Matters: An Evening with Mark Bittman – Thursday, May 5, Patron Reception: 5:30 p.m., Main Event: 6 – 9 p.m. The Rhode Island Community Food Bank will host Food Matters: An Evening with Mark Bittman. The event begins with a Patron reception at 5:30 p.m., featuring an intimate setting to meet Mr. Bittman. The main event kicks-off at 6 p.m. as guests enjoy delicious Mark Bittman recipes prepared by Pinelli’s Cafe at Night. Mr. Bittman will also give a presentation on food and its role in American culture and health. A book signing will follow. Patron Ticket: $250 per person – includes 5:30 p.m. Patron Reception, admission to 6 p.m. Main Event and a signed copy of Food Matters. Main Event Ticket: $100 per person. See the RI Food Bank site to purchase event and raffle tickets. Johnson & Wales Culinary Arts Museum, 265 Harborside Blvd., Providence, RI 02905.

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