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Q & A: Mark Bittman, Best-Selling Cookbook Author

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 mono-cropping, 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 forward-thinking 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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