Once, I knew what to eat. As a child, I ate what my parents ate, which was more or less what their parents ate, which was more or less what their parents ate. As each generation became more prosperous than the last, the portions enlarged along with the ratio of meat to starch. But the menu of my youth featured the same Eastern European staples as that of my immigrant forbears: beef and roasted chicken; potatoes, applesauce, and overcooked vegetables. Plus a few American tweaks: mac and cheese, french fries, and hot dogs. Ketchup. Jello-O.
Then, in the 1970s, everything changed. I arrived at adolescence and my mother joined the workforce just as takeout options expanded beyond pizza and chow mein to include Sezchuan, Baskin Robbins, and gourmet, prepared meals. Grocery aisles overflowed with TV dinners, Hamburger Helper, and other “convenience foods” which purported to liberate American women from kitchen drudgery. Maddeningly, at the same time, women were urged to use Cuisinarts and other new gadgets to whip up elaborate recipes from The Silver Palate and Julia Child’s show. Oh, and we were also supposed to be thin.
Practically overnight, our family’s refrigerator and cupboards overflowed with confusing choices and mixed messages: Swanson’s Hungry Man Meals and Sweet ‘n’ Low; Haagen Dazs and diet soda; cartons of leftover sesame noodles and vials of saffron.
Four low carb, vegan, paleo, gluten-free, lactose-intolerant, organic, factory farmed, artisanal decades later, the choices remain confusing and the messages mixed.
Mark Bittman, food journalist, activist, and author, has tried as hard as anyone to bring clarity—and change—to these murky waters. In cookbooks including How to Cook Everything, How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, VB6: Eat Vegan Before 6 P.M. to Lose Weight and Restore Your Health for Good, and the just-released The Kitchen Matrix, he’s encouraged readers to cook more at home and eat a more plant-based, if not vegan, diet. Since 2010, in his Opinion column in the New York Times, Bittman has argued in favor of reforms in national food policy and for the rights of food industry and farm workers.
I spoke with Bittman recently, on the day his farewell column appeared in the Times. He’s announced that he’s leaving journalism for now to become an activist and entrepreneur. He’s producing a video series called “California Matters” with the Berkeley Food Institute, an advocacy organization that aims to make our food system more healthy, sustainable, and just. He’s also creating plant-based recipes for The Purple Carrot, a company that sells healthy, ready-to-cook-at-home meal kits.
Since Bittman is, like me, a baby boomer, I couldn’t help but begin by asking if he, too, entered a food wilderness in the 1970s, a wilderness in which many of us still wander.
The Rumpus: Was your experience anything like mine? Did you lose your way, food-wise, in the 1970s?
Mark Bittman: Up to a point. I ate what my mother cooked, but I also spent a lot of time on the street and I left home early and started cooking for myself. By the 1970s I was a pretty accomplished home cook. I saw the demise of American home cooking and the rise of so-called convenience food, but by then I was already cooking well. By 1980 I was even writing about food. So it was a little different for me.
Rumpus: That was unusual for a young person, especially a young man of that era, wasn’t it?
Bittman: You’re right. The women’s movement had something to do with that. I had something to prove. I was hanging out with a bunch of young feminist women and I was in the political movement and it was just a series of odd circumstances for me. It was remarkable. I mean, I don’t take any credit for it, but it was definitely unusual, I remember many, many years when I was literally the only man in a supermarket except for people who were working there.
Rumpus: But there are many, like me, for whom knowing what to eat became confusing at that time—and remains confusing. I think of a patient of mine who struggles with obesity and told me she was standing outside a grocery store crying because she couldn’t figure out what she was supposed to eat. What would you tell her?
Bittman: It’s so simple. I would tell her to ignore anything with more than five ingredients—the stuff that doesn’t qualify as food—and make plant-based foods the biggest part of her diet that she could. Those two rules: don’t eat stuff that’s not really food, and concentrate on eating fruits and vegetables. It can’t be simpler.
Rumpus: And yet, people are having a really hard time doing it. Why?
Bittman: We’re not teaching kids the right way to eat. And we all know that eating habits are formed early on.
Rumpus: Was VB6 a recognition on your part that most people can’t stick with a totally plant-based diet?
Bittman: Not only is a semi-vegan diet easier to sustain than a full vegan diet, there’s no reason to be one hundred percent vegan. There’s not really an argument for that except if you have an ethical argument. That’s okay. That’s fine. But there’s not a health reason. There’s not a practical reason. I think it’s just a matter of eating more plants, not a matter of eating only plants. That is what I was thinking when I created VB6: that this was a more reasonable, more moderate way to do this for people—and hopefully more achievable. But it’s not going to happen on a big scale until we teach kids how to eat right. It’s hard to teach grownups. We all know that.
Rumpus: You’re an advocate for teaching cooking in school?
Bittman: Of course I am.
Rumpus: Do you think people are fundamentally frightened of cooking? How did we get frightened about something so basic? Have you tried, with your recipes, to make cooking more simple?
Bittman: It is simple. It is basic. I don’t have to make it simple. I just try to demonstrate that it is simple. It’s like being afraid to learn how to play tennis. You’re not going to be a great tennis player right off the bat. You have to practice. It’s like driving. No one starts driving and is already a good driver. But we don’t need to cook anymore because there’s so much food everywhere. So it’s not essential any longer. So people need to be encouraged. People need to learn. But I think we’ve seen the bottom of the curve. I think things have gotten somewhat better. Look, we’re not going to see one hundred percent of women cooking all the time the way it was seventy-five or one hundred years ago. But if we can see a third of people in the United States—men and women both—if we had a third of people cooking, we’d have a much healthier situation.
Rumpus: In her recent article, “A Plea for Culinary Modernism,” food historian Rachel Laudan points out that the advice to “eat only what your great grandmother ate” is unrealistic, since our great grandmothers spent so much time in the kitchen. It sounds like what you’re saying is that home cooking may not be fully achievable, but at least partially achievable.
Bittman: I think that there’s going to be a mixture of better food available publicly and more home cooking. I guess I now think it was naïve of me to think “Oh, I can get all these people cooking again.” Because clearly it’s not happening. More people are cooking now than were ten years ago. But it’s a hard nut to crack. Especially as fast food and other food sold publicly becomes better, as, hopefully, school food and hospital food and so on become better, maybe there’ll be less reason to cook. If you don’t think cooking is fun, I have no moral reason people should cook. I just think people should eat well and cooking is one way to do that.
Rumpus: Here’s the kind of thing the person crying in front of the grocery store is perplexed by: is it better to buy organic apples from New Zealand or local apples that’s aren’t organic?
Bittman: It’s a minor question. It’s not an important question. It doesn’t matter. What matters is what I said before: Don’t eat junk and eat more fruits and vegetables. If your biggest problem is deciding whether to eat organic from New Zealand or not organic locally then you don’t have much of a problem. If your diet is already eliminating a lot of junk food and your diet is already focused on fruits and vegetables, then who cares? It’s not a big deal.
Rumpus: So we’re overcomplicating this?
Bittman: Totally! It’s overcomplicated by the people who are marketing junk, because they want you to be confused. They want it to be difficult. If it’s difficult you can say things like: “Well it doesn’t matter—I’m screwed anyway.” Or you can stand outside a supermarket and cry, because it’s all so complicated. But the fact is, it’s not very complicated. It’s actually quite simple.
Rumpus: You mentioned in your farewell column the contribution to this confusion of increasingly numerous food writers and bloggers who always need to come up with something new and sensational to say.
Bittman: Did you see that moronic story about why salad is bad? That’s just the stupidest thing ever.
Rumpus: It’s like the food journalism version of “if it bleeds it leads”?
Bittman: Yeah. (Laughs)
Rumpus: The other day, in an interview after chef and food activist Alice Waters received the National Humanities Medal at the White House, she said that she thinks we are finally moving beyond food as fuel to food as culture. Do you agree with that? Do you think we’re trending toward a better place with food in this country?
Bittman: I guess I think we have to be. Alice is a very hopeful person. We have to get to a better place and we will, eventually. I don’t know how close we are.
Rumpus: You’ve been disappointed with the Obama administration. What do you wish they had done?
Bittman: Made routine use of antibiotics illegal in animal production. That’s one thing they could have done easily and quickly and they failed to do it. I don’t need to go on. I don’t need to do other wishes because that would have been an easy executive order and they failed to do that. Once they had done that I would have said: “Okay here’s what’s next.” But they couldn’t even muster that, which I think is actually kind of pathetic.
Rumpus: Do you think change is going to come from the top down, in the way that, for example, tobacco use in this country has been drastically reduced in the last thirty to forty years, largely because of legislation?
Bittman: Well, two years ago I would have said yes. Now, having failed to see any of that really happen, I honestly don’t know where the change is going to come from. I just know that it’s essential.
Rumpus: You’ve written a lot about working conditions in the farming and food industries. Why has that issue gotten so little traction with the public? Why do people seem more interested in where their chickens roam than where the people who raise the chickens work?
Bittman: I don’t know why. If there’s one thing I might have actually had a concrete effect on it might be that. Because it was something I started writing about when I first started writing the opinion column and I never stopped. I strongly allied myself with people who were working on that. Maybe there was a little effect. Because I’m a bona fide foodie so me saying that had other people interested in food listening.
Rumpus: In addition to increased awareness, are there specific changes in how farm and food workers are treated that you’re encouraged by?
Bittman: We have seen a number of cities and states raise their minimum wage. We have seen a number of companies saying they’re going to start paying more. So movement is in the right direction. It’s not enough, it’s not fast enough, but it’s better than nothing.
Rumpus: You said in your farewell column that you’re moving on because “there don’t seem to be significant new issues, just the same intransigent themes.” Why is the American diet and food policy so slow to change?
Bittman: That’s the marketing question. The fact that billions of dollars gets spent on trying to convince us that Coke and McDonald’s are more fun than real food, that’s a tough argument to counter when food companies spend four times as much as public health agencies on what food is better to eat. It’s just difficult.
Rumpus: Last question: what are you making for dinner tonight?
Bittman: It’s a great question, but I can’t answer it. I’m about to get on a plane for New York, and I just don’t know what will happen.
Author’s Note: “The Big Idea” features interviews with writers, artists, scientists, activists, and others who take a long and broad view of an issue, problem, or concept and pursue it over many years.