The recently published e-book Cooking Solves Everything is his latest foray into helping readers understand the transformative nature of the simple act of cooking.
Where Michael Pollan brackets the current crop of food system writing with his in-depth tome The Omnivore’s Dilemma and the common-sense brevity of the masterful phrase "Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much." (Bittman calls this “The greatest line ever.”) Cooking Solves Everything is Bittman’s wholesome, easily digested call for us to personally rediscover the power of using our kitchens beyond the microwave.
When we recently caught up with Bittman, he phoned in from Copenhagen where he was doing a roundup of restaurants “other than Noma” (which has two Michelin Stars and is already on most critics' lists) for The New York Times (NYT) and reporting on Denmark’s first-of-its-kind "fat tax." He filled us in on the trajectory of his writing career, politics, the cost of food and the things he truly thinks cooking can solve.
TreeHugger (TH): How do you deal with cooking and eating when you're on the road?
Mark Bittman (MB): Well eating is obviously different than cooking. I'm spending the weekend in Berlin, and I'm intending to eat into zero restaurants. Although I imagine I'll get dragged to one at some point. But here in Copenhagen I'm doing a roundup of restaurants, other than Noma, for the NYT.
So I'm not cooking obviously, but I do wear many hats in this world so sometimes cooking is just not possible. I really miss it, and this is a long trip, I'm gone for three weeks. I scheduled this Berlin thing intentionally to have some time to be able to cook because I really do miss it when I'm away. You know it's like traveling for business and my business is not always cooking.
TH: Did you have a moment where you said, "All I'm going to write about is food?"
MB: I really didn't, I had a moment when I sold my first food story and that was obviously important. That was now 31 years ago, so no longer so important. But, I did for years after that write about many things other than food and completely unrelated things.
Once I started writing cookbooks and once I started writing "The Minimalist" column it really became 95% food. And now that I'm able to range as far afield as works like this, which has effectively zero recipes in it, or one. (When I say "this" I mean Cooking Solves Everything.)
I'll still write about things that aren't about food because I do have the platform at this point of the opinion page or the opinion section of the NYT and food isn't the only thing I'm interested in. I think you can tackle almost anything through food and I'm happy to do that and I think, it's obviously not more important than it used to be, but people are more aware of its importance than they used to be and that makes my work more gratifying. And without being an egomaniac, more important, so it's really quite satisfying.
How Cooking Solves Everything Came AboutTH: The concept of Cooking Solves Everything is great because food is the thing that everybody has a connection to. How did you come up with the concept?
MB: First of all let me say this, while not derivative of How to Cook Everything, I would never have the nerve to call something Cooking Solves Everything if I hadn't been pushed into calling a cookbook How To Cook Everything because obviously neither of them is precisely the case.
So, having said that, cooking really does address quite directly, and also indirectly, a number of the problems that face us in our personal lives in terms of global environment, even global warning, obviously animal welfare, health, family stability. All the stuff that's outlined in here, it's not hyperbole, it's not bullshit, it's not nonsense, it makes sense.
When I wrote Food Matters a lot of this stuff was becoming clear to me. When I finished Food Matters and wrote Food Matters Cookbook I sort of felt like, yeah this does address nearly everything in the world of food and even beyond it that needs to be addressed.
Cooking doesn't resolve the fact that if you're in a family and you’re working, or you're a single parent, and you're working until 6 o’clock or 7 o’clock, or you have child care issues, or any number of these social issues that are hard to deal with on a personal level, hard to fix on a personal level, it's hard to say cooking solves that.
We need to address the fact that some people don't have the time or the ability or the skill or any of a number of other things to cook. And those are societal problems. If you're republican you can say, go fix it yourself because we're all born equal, but if you believe that we're to some extent responsible for one another then I think it's to our benefit as a society to figure out a way to enable people not only to cook but to have leisure time, to have time for exercise to have the ability to do the things that are good for personal growth and development that will make us ultimately a better society.
This is obviously a left-leaning point of view and not the ruling point of view. But, when you're in places where there really are 40-hour weeks and daycare is state supported, and if someone gets sick they have legitimate sick days, and even sick months, those things obviously have an impact on whether people are able to cook or not.
"Real Food is Probably Not as Expensive as it Ought to Be"TH: You touch on the cost of food in this book. Can you explain the concept of why cheap food isn’t really cheap?
MB: Clearly, writing Cooking Solves Everything really stimulated this whole bone in me. In the last couple of weeks I've written about why junk food is really not less expensive than real food. The fact is that junk food is not cheap, it's not even cheap on a what-you-pay-for-it basis, and it's certainly not cheap on a what it costs basis.
And real food is probably not as expensive as it ought to be, but in any case, less expensive than junk food. I think it's important to recognize when we talk about organic food and local food and all of that stuff we really are talking about the ideal and I think part of the point I want to make in Cooking Solves Everything is that I honestly think that the biggest difference is not between a conventionally grown head of broccoli and organically locally grown head of broccoli, the biggest difference is between a head of broccoli and a cheeseburger.
The important thing is to get people into the produce aisles of grocery stores and into the rice and beans aisles of grocery stores and into staples and into plants and into simple stuff and away from fast food. It's a much more subtle and easy change to then say, ‘you know, you're eating broccoli, really there's every reason to support the growth of organic and local and sustainable broccoli’.
Not to say that those things aren’t important, they're tremendously important, but I don't think it's nearly as important to argue for the production of organic meat, for example, as it is to argue for people eating plants. I'm in favor of organic meat, it's terrific. But, really, meat is not sustainable at the levels we're eating it and life is not sustainable if we don't eat more plants.
Is Getting the Government Involved in Food a Good Idea?TH: Do you see anything that governments can do to help us eat better, without people screaming about government intervention?
MB: (Laughing) Actually, you know, I don't. You very quickly get to a place where the question becomes, do you believe that society is about mutual benefit or not. I had this conversation in Denmark the other day, I'm here largely because they're instituting a fat tax. The first western country to do it, and it's not huge money-wise, but it's very significant.
They say people here actually don't mind paying taxes as long as we use the income for good things. And if we think that there is something bad for the population but not bad enough to make illegal we tax it to discourage its use. So they tax pesticides and now they're taxing saturated fats and so on and that is plain outright social engineering. We do that in the States but it's hard right now to say you're in favor of it because there is all this anti-nanny-stateism rhetoric, which I think is horrible and I hope we get past it, but it's very loud right now.
Becoming Aware of the Wide-Reaching Issues of FoodTH: Your work was more about cooking and food and with the burgeoning local food craze you switched to being more issue-based and actually connecting cooking to the wider issues. Did you have a moment where that was a conscious decision for you?
MB: Well, I did. But I want to say this also, in 1975 or 1980 when I was cooking, I recognized that food was an issue that was as important as the environment and many other things, although I couldn't articulate it really.
As the years went on, at first I thought, well, writing about cooking is certainly a do no harm kind of occupation, I'm doing a little bit of good. And then, as the years went by, I would still say, ‘If I can convince people to eat rice and beans one day a week I'd be doing historic work here’.
It was also true that around 2000, 2002, I thought the industrial food system had grown so terrible and the local food system had pretty much dissolved, and food was getting worse and worse and people were eating worse and worse and cooking was becoming non-existent and the environment was declining and global warming was becoming a known factor and on and on and on. It became clear to me that the current system was unsustainable.
Obviously I wasn't that far ahead of the curve on this. That's when I decided to write How To Cook Everything Vegetarian and in the course of writing that I read enough and learned enough and thought enough to think well, ‘I should take this further,’ and that's when I wrote Food Matters.
There was a sort of leap in there. Part of it is recognizing that I had the ability to say to publishers, ‘Look, I want to write about something that is not just recipes and I think it's important and I think people are interested’.
And so I was able to do that and then last year I went to the editorial page of the NYT and said, ‘I want to write opinion pieces about food’, and it was a five second discussion, it was so obvious that it was the right thing to do. And then the Byliner (the publisher of his e-book) people were really excited when we started talking about Cooking Solves Everything, which is also obviously much more analytical, it's practical, but it's not a recipe book. I've written How to Cook Everything, and How To Cook Everything Vegetarian, and recipe books, they're there, if you want 'em they're out there.