Mark Bittman visits a natural pest-control experiment on fava beans at the Oxford Tract Greenhouse Facility. (Photo by Jim Block)
Mark Bittman visits a natural pest-control experiment on fava beans at the UC Berkeley Oxford Tract Greenhouse Facility. Photo: Jim Block

By Ann Brody Guy

Headed to the UC Berkeley campus for a semester-long residency at the Berkeley Food Institute, best-selling cooking writer and New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman recently took a moment on a short visit to campus to talk about what lies ahead —  from the holidays to his upcoming college experience — with Ann Brody Guy, communications director at the College of Natural Resources.

You started out as a cooking writer. What catalyzed the shift from recipe guy to food systems commentator?

It wasn’t exactly a shift, it was an addition, because I do still do recipes; in fact, my new book, How to Cook Everything Fast, is a monster, and just came out a couple of months ago.

Why did I start writing about food as opposed to eating? There was an opportunity. I cared, and I saw an opportunity, and I took it. But it’s hard to give things up that you care about, and I do care about writing recipes. So, I work harder than I used to.

I talked my way onto the New York Times opinion page. I’d been writing about food policy and food systems for a couple of years, and I thought, “There’s every reason to do this as often as I can.” So, I proposed a weekly column, and I believe I was the first person to write a weekly food opinion-page column for a major paper.

You’ve described yourself as “not a chef.” Would you say you’re a foodie? If that label doesn’t fit, how would you characterize your approach to cooking and eating?

I write about food. That’s what I’ve spent my life doing.

I’m not a chef, because chefs run restaurants and other food establishments; home cooks are not chefs, and I’m a home cook. If we define the word foodie as someone who loves food, then I am. If we define it as someone who’s only interested in the newest restaurant, then I’m not.

I do think the word foodie needs to be redefined — I talked about that in a column, where I suggested we try to move the term to a place where it refers to someone who gets beyond fun to pay attention to how food is produced and the impact it has.

You’ll be a distinguished visiting fellow at the Berkeley Food Institute at UC Berkeley this spring. What led to your interest in this opportunity?

There’s bigger question for me, which is, “Am I interested in a life at a universities?” So, I have to answer that — I want to answer it before I get too old to answer it, or before it doesn’t matter anymore.

So, the order for me was: Do I want to think about a life at university? What university might be best? Well, Berkeley’s obviously good, and the Bay Area’s obviously appealing. And not only that, Berkeley has the Berkeley Food Institute, so it’s super-compelling. The interest was mutual, and I’m here.

What do you hope to learn and accomplish while you’re here?

Many things: I hope to learn about life at the university. I’ll be working on a few projects that are taking shape now, all food-related to be sure; the food scene here is so complex and deep that it’s almost scary, but that’s exciting.

Here on campus, we’re next door to famous food destinations like the Gourmet Ghetto, Berkeley Bowl and scores of well-known restaurants, and it’s also near many vibrant farms and urban gardens. Which spots are you eager to visit?

I’m interested in urban gardening, of course, but also in getting out to the heart of agriculture. Two of the big valleys are close  — the Salinas and the Sacramento — and those are important agricultural destinations. I’ve spent time in Fresno and Modesto and Bakersfield and the southern half of the Central Valley, but I haven’t spent as much time in the northern valleys. I said to Ann Thrupp (Berkeley Food Institute director), “We need to go on field trips.”

Mark Bittman with Cristina Cois, lab manager for entomology professor Nick Mills.
Mark Bittman with Cristina Cois. Photo: UC Berkeley

There are four things I’m really interested in: cooking, which I don’t need to come here to do (though I will!); agriculture; public health and justice. And I would say agriculture and the environment are inexorably tied.

This is an amazing opportunity for the part of me that wants to learn more about agriculture. You can’t see anywhere else what you can see here. You can go to Iowa and see all the corn and soybeans you want, but if you want to see fruits and vegetables, there is no place like California.

For many Americans, there’s a lot about California that’s symbolic. You may not feel this as much because you live here, but for those of us who don’t, California is symbol of many things, just as New York is symbolic to non-New Yorkers. There’s a saying in French that is translated as “the America of your dreams doesn’t exist,” which, of course, is true. And neither does the California of your dreams exist; but it does exist in your dreams, so to spend some time here is a really exciting thing for me.

The holidays are coming up. Any sage advice for people on how not to stress about food preparation and calories this season?

Don’t be too ambitious. Don’t eat too much.

Of course, holiday excesses are a “First World problem.” What are the greatest challenges across the globe when it comes to food, and how can Americans help?

The issue is that the United States in many ways remains a trendsetter. We remain a powerful force in world. What we do, other people emulate, but also we export our culture and our way of doing things. We have spent 50 years exporting a destructive mode of agriculture, so to the extent we can change the way we do agriculture here, and to the extent we can influence agriculture elsewhere, that’s the extent that we can do good instead of harm.

You had Olivier De Schutter here, and he’s all about this, and you have many people here who understand these things; and I’m eager to talk about it and learn about it and think about it.

From a personal perspective, when people say “You’re going to teach at Berkeley,” I say, “No, I’m going to be at Berkeley.” And I’m really happy about that, because I think I’m probably going leave here learning much more than I teach. It’s a very winning situation for me, as I hope it is for the university.

This article was first published by UC Berkeley NewsCenter on Dec. 11, 2014.  

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