Q&A: Mark Bittman

Best-sell­ing cook­book au­thor and food colum­nist wants to make food un­der­stand­able.

Successful Farming - - CONTENTS - By Dave Kurns, Ed­i­to­rial Con­tent Di­rec­tor

Mark Bittman has a clear point of view. His more than 20 books

– on the most ba­sic el­e­ments of food and cook­ing – have sold mil­lions of copies and are fa­mil­iar across Amer­ica’s kitchens. The How to Cook Ev­ery­thing book launched a fran­chise that still en­dures to­day.

Suc­cess­ful Farm­ing mag­a­zine caught up with Bittman in a con­ver­sa­tion from his home on a 200-acre non-profit teach­ing farm called Glyn­wood in Cold Spring, New York. He ad­mits he doesn’t get his hands too dirty. “I don’t have any skills; I just have ob­ser­va­tions,” he says.

He is work­ing on an­other book, af­ter re­leas­ing How to Grill Any­thing in early 2018. His goal: Make food, in all its as­pects, un­der­stand­able.

SF: What do farm­ers need to know about the way Amer­ica cooks?

MB: The up­shot is that the things we grow the most are not nec­es­sar­ily the best foods for cooks or eaters. Most of our big­gest crops are highly pro­cessed into foods that don’t do any good to the home cook. In fact, most crops get turned into junk food (or ethanol, or an­i­mal feed).

What farm­ers who want to ac­tu­ally sell to cooks should be look­ing at is multi- rather than monocrop­ping, grow­ing or­ganic or nearly or­ganic food to sell into lo­cal mar­kets, or do­ing high-qual­ity, value-added food, like good cheese. Un­for­tu­nately, that’s not a re­al­ity for the ma­jor­ity of farm­ers.

SF: Some be­lieve that you think ev­ery­one should go veg­e­tar­ian.

MB: Veg­e­tar­ian is clearly grow­ing. I, frankly, could not care less whether peo­ple are veg­e­tar­ian or not.

There are a lot of strong ar­gu­ments for an­i­mal prod­ucts, in­clud­ing meat, in the diet. I’m not an­timeat at all, but ev­ery­body knows that Amer­i­cans need to eat more veg­eta­bles.

That has noth­ing to do with be­ing a veg­e­tar­ian. Ob­vi­ously if peo­ple say the only way they can eat more veg­eta­bles is by be­ing a veg­e­tar­ian, fine. There’s lit­tle rea­son to elim­i­nate meat and fish from your diet, but there’s ev­ery rea­son to eat more food from the plant king­dom.

SF: What ad­vice would you give farm­ers to­day?

MB: My best sug­ges­tion would be some kind of set-aside. Is there a piece of land that pro­duc­ers can tin­ker with? Are there 2 or 20 acres in there some­where that they can find the time and the en­ergy and the im­pe­tus to farm in a dif­fer­ent way, where they’re try­ing not just com­mod­ity crops but a va­ri­ety of crops that em­pha­size bio­di­ver­sity, in­te­grated pest man­age­ment, re­duced use of chem­i­cals, or in­creased at­ten­tion to soil health? Are there a cou­ple of acres or more where they could do more sus­tain­able, more for­ward­think­ing kinds of farm­ing? And can they find the mar­ket for those things? Be­cause maybe they dis­cover they ac­tu­ally like it. Per­haps it turns into a sig­nif­i­cant busi­ness. Maybe they just learned some­thing that has an im­pact on the way they farm their 2,000 acres.

SF: What about farm­ers just get­ting started?

MB: The ideal is to grow a va­ri­ety of crops sus­tain­ably and to sell them lo­cally. Pe­riod.

SF: How do we in agri­cul­ture get gen­eral con­sumers more con­nected so they know where their food comes from?

MB: Trans­parency – es­pe­cially with rais­ing an­i­mals. I think if peo­ple were able to see what the in­side of most hog or chicken op­er­a­tions looks like, there would be a quick plum­met in sales of at least pork and chicken.

As for com­mod­ity crops, the is­sue is as much how these are be­ing grown as what hap­pens af­ter they’re har­vested, which is that they’re turned into non­food for the most part (ethanol, an­i­mal feed, or junk food). Those tran­si­tions are not things that peo­ple un­der­stand.

SF: Doesn’t the mar­ket dic­tate what farm­ers pro­duce?

MB: Mar­ket­ing has dic­tated peo­ple’s de­sires. No one wakes up and says, “Gee, I re­ally wish there was some­thing like Frosted Flakes out there so I could wake up ev­ery morn­ing and eat a bowl of nu­tri­tion­ally worth­less, sugar-laden, highly pro­cessed by the pound, in­cred­i­bly ex­pen­sive ce­real.” We have to be sold on that.

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