It’s an old and ongoing question: If we can’t expect much initiative from either government or industry nowadays, how can we effect change? In terms of food systems, Mark Bittman has three words for you: “Do it yourself.”
This general call for individual action could be interpreted (as it often is) as encouraging us to “vote with our dollar,” reach out to our political representatives, or engage in public protest. All well and good to be sure, but according to Bittman’s talk at Edible Institute (above) earlier this year, or this piece in the current “How to Eat Now” issue of Time, he’s actually getting at something closer to home. The Minimalist himself insists that the most radical thing that you can do for your health, if not the world at large, is cook.
The idea of a home-cooked meal is just that for most Americans: it’s more often fantasy than reality. Bestselling author Mark Bittman has known this for decades while focusing his life’s work on “helping people figure out how to [cook].” And he’s done his darndest as a writer for the New York Times, frequent guest on TV and author of over a dozen books including this month’s most recent, How to Cook Everything Fast (basically his best-selling classic How to Cook Everything set on fast forward).
Many recognize Mark Bittman as being an important voice in defense of real food including the James Beard Foundation, which has awarded him a 2014 JBF Leadership Award “for using his international platform as a respected journalist and author to educate consumers about healthier food choices and to advocate for a better food system.”
We reached out to Bittman to learn more about his “cook it yourself” philosophy, three action items that should be at the top of the food movement’s agenda and his own cooking inspiration:
Edible Manhattan: At Edible Institute, you described cooking as the “most radical thing” that we can do for our diets. Can you explain what you meant?
Mark Bittman: It’s tear-jerkingly hilarious that we’ve reached a point where cooking could be considered “radical.” It used to be the exact opposite; mundane, conventional, banal. Everyone did it because few people had the choice not to. Now that it’s not only conceivable but common to avoid cooking, it feels all-too normal to leave our food choices — and by extension our health — in the hands of restaurants, fast food places, big food companies, fad diet evangelists, etc. Cooking real food is the most radical thing that we can do for our diets because it does more to improve and sustain health than any trendy diet ever could and because it allows people to find answers about their diets in their own kitchens. It also takes power away from the giant food corporations and restaurant chains that have so much of it, and puts us back in control over what goes into our bodies. When you think of it that way, it sounds like an honest to goodness coup.
EM: One of the critiques of the so-called food movement is that it has yet to achieve any significant change in policy. If you were to propose three specific items for the top of a political food system agenda, what would they be and why?
MB: 1. Get antibiotics out of the food supply. Not only does the routine use of antibiotics in industrial animal agriculture pose a serious and direct human health risk — far greater than GMOs, which get way more attention — but if you take them out of the food supply then the system of raising 10 billion animals a year in deplorable conditions becomes far more difficult.
2. Ban the marketing of junk food to kids. There have been some attempts to move on this issue, but as is often the case when it comes to common sense food policies, we’re lagging way behind (especially compared to some European countries). It’s not overstating the case to say that kids are being brainwashed with products that are going to make them sick. We’ve got to give them a fighting chance.
3. Probably the biggest issue in food isn’t directly related to food at all. It’s campaign finance reform, without which too few of the seismic changes we’d actually like to enact have much of a shot.
EM: Can you identify any examples of positive social change in the food system that you’ve noticed, whether on a local, national or international scale? What seems to be advancing?
MB: It’s the realization among people who really care about food that you can’t have a sustainable food system without fair labor practices for workers all along the food chain (farmers, processors, packers, supermarket and fast food workers, etc). Even five years ago, the sustainability conversation focused almost exclusively on animal welfare and agriculture; those things are obviously crucial, but you don’t need to know anything about food to realize how backwards it is to be more concerned with the provenance of a tomato than the treatment of the worker that picked it. Not only is labor now firmly a part of the equation, but there is important work being done by food workers, NGOs, unions, and others surrounding the minimum wage, paid sick leave, and other key labor policies both nationally and locally.
EM: The recipients of the James Beard Leadership Awards are an impressive cohort. If you could choose an additional individual to receive this award, who would it be and why?
MB: My vote would go to Saru Jayaraman (currently the head of the UC Berkeley Food Labor Research Center), for being at the forefront of the labor struggle described above, and for understanding better than anyone how critical it is to think of food policy and labor policy as two sides of the same coin.
EM: Through your writing about food systems and cooking, you’ve been an inspiration to many. Who would you identify as having influenced your ideas about food, cooking and eating?
MB: It’s a very long list. Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan, who demonstrated that Americans would read serious writing about food. Ricardo Salvador, a previous recipient of this award, who may know more about how our food system works than anyone. All the great cooks who preceded me, especially the ones I loved or love – let me single out Marcella Hazan, Julie Sahni, Alice Waters, and Jean-Georges Vongerichten. There are many more, including my mother.
Featured photo credit: Clay Williams