Published by the San Jose Mercury News and its affiliates on August 10, 2015.
That familiar face with the New York accent in a resonant baritone seen popping into Berkeley’s esteemed markets in recent months — and frequently dining at his “neighborhood spot,” Chez Panisse — is food writer, author, t.v. personality and columnist Mark Bittman, newly transplanted from the Big Apple.
He’s the man who taught us “how to cook everything” in eight thusly titled books and has published quite a few more. After moving to Berkeley early in 2015 — initially for a year-long gig that will be extended through next spring — Bittman wrote in one of his New York Times pieces that “I’d arrived in cooks’ heaven” — but his agenda is about much more than reveling in superb California produce.
Teaming with the University of California and the Berkeley Food Institute, he’s been starring in a 10-part online video series called “California Matters,” which dives into food-related issues in the Golden State and raises smiles as well as consciousness. And he’s been a distinguished visiting fellow at UC Berkeley, guest lecturing and participating in a course called Edible Education 101: The Rise and Future of the Food Movement, which ended in April but is available online and will be offered again next semester.
Naturally, we had questions.
Q: In your video series so far, you’ve looked at edible weeds along the sidewalks in Oakland, traced the history of Chinese food in America, explored what Tomales Bay oysters might indicate about sea change and talked about labor justice for restaurant workers. How did you pick your topics?
Bittman: There were something like 45 really good stories we had to choose from and we saved nine or 10. They’re all important, hard-hitting stories, which is why I wanted to do this in the first place. We stayed in the populous core of the state, between Orange County and the Bay Area but I think we’ll wind up doing it again. And I’d like to do more on the south and southeastern part of the state; obviously, that’s less populated and less publicized but there’s cool stuff happening in all those places.
Q: Now that you’ve been here for seven months, what’s your view on California when it comes to food issues?
Bittman: I feel completely inadequate to the task, to tell you the truth. I really feel that one person can’t possibly understand all there is to understand about this. It’s daunting. I could spend all my time traveling around California looking at food stuff and never feel like I was getting near the finish.
Q: What makes it so complicated?
Bittman: You don’t need to look much past the fact that you have some of the most glaring and frightening examples of industrial agriculture you’ll ever see anywhere and you have some of the most beautiful and thrilling aspects of alternative agriculture that you’ll ever see anywhere. Included on that spectrum is everything! You see lettuce production on the Central Coast. You see walnut and almond production in the Central Valley. But then you have Full Belly Farm, one of the biggest, most diverse organic farms in the country. An amazing place. You really run the gamut of seeing the best and the scariest of industrial agriculture.
Q: You’ve been a prominent fan of California ingredients and you’ve shared a couple of your typically fast, fresh recipes with us. Now that you’re living here, what’s it like as a home cook?
Bittman: It’s impossible for me to think I’ve explored all the incredible food that’s available for cooking in the state. Every time I go to a market or farmers market, it’s different. This time of year, you can’t find better stone fruit anywhere. When I was out here in January, you couldn’t find better citrus anywhere. Those are both coming from the same state! It’s quite amazing. In June, I was in love with cherries. Now I’m in love with pluots. It changes; that’s the whole idea.
Q: So do Bay Area cooks have it the best from what you’ve seen or are we deluded?
Bittman: Both! I drank the Kool-Aid before I got here but I’d say there’s a self-delusional thing about the Bay Area but it is the best. It’s just unbelievable. The Bay Area gives you the illusion that a different world is possible. It’s not entirely delusional. That is something that Bay Area people — from the people at Full Belly Farm, for example; Alice Waters, many other people — have been working on for 40 or 50 years. Let’s make this the center of alternative food. And let’s show how food can be done differently.
Q: Your passion in the video series, classes and your recent books and opinion pieces in the New York Times has been making consumers more aware of food issues. What are three things Bay Area residents can do to help make a difference?
Bittman: I’d say, buy responsibly raised food, especially animal products but all foods. I would say lobby/agitate/work for the elimination of the marketing of junk to kids. That includes soda taxes or other forms of regulation that make it so it’s more difficult to market harmful foods to children. I think the third might be: cook!
Mark Bittman’s videos and classes are online.
California Matters video series – Can be viewed on YouTube at: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCl-FXGBB36Yd4xOFWSKc0Dg
Education 101: The Rise and Future of the Food Movement (University of California and Berkeley Food Institute) – Bittman will participate in next semester’s classes. To see archived videos of the 2015 program, go to: http://food.berkeley.edu/edible-education-101/