Legendary Food Author, TV Personality And Podcast Host Mark Bittman Discusses The Pros And Cons Of Food
Given the recent pandemic-related lockdown, it is no surprise that the category of food is soaring to new heights. Culinary-themed content, after all, occupies two cable networks, Food Network and The Cooking Channel. Food conversation and cooking demonstrations are a staple in daytime talk, amongst other dayparts. Streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Discovery+ and YouTube are rapidly investing in the genre (while the linear channels have housed the format basically since the advent of television). Home shopping networks (QVC and HSN, in particular) and retailers feature a wide range of items tailored to the genre. And the subject of food in literature continues to climb.
Of course, our endless obsession with food is nothing new. Across the globe, past and present, food is the universal language and a central role in our lives. Food is love. Food is satisfying. Food is inspirational. Food is educational. Food ignites us in our lives. And, in a world that can often seem quite challenging, there is no better escape than developing a relationship with food via your palate, for your health, and through both culinary entertainment and information. However, due to the alarming emphasis in our country on ultra-processed food (a.k.a. “junk food”), cuisine that contains non-food ingredients also can be a health risk.
“Basically, everyone thinks they are an expert about food. It’s important, it’s everywhere, it’s daily, you need it, and it is also fun,” noted Mark Bittman, the veteran food journalist, author, former New York Times columnist, on-air culinary expert and personality, and now host of podcast Food with Mark Bittman. The podcast, which originally aired on Airwave, was acquired by Acast this year.
“On the flipside, food has also pushed our planet to the brink and has damaged human health,” he warned.
When Bittman’s Minimalist column, which ran for 13 years, debuted in 1997 in The New York Times Dining section, he began exploring climate change, nutrition and agriculture as it relates to food.
“No one on the planet knows more about food and cooking than Mark Bittman,” noted Ben Mathis Airwave Chief Content Officer. “His enthusiasm and passion are infectious as he celebrates the joy of cooking while also drawing attention to important food issues that affect us and our planet.”
Recent or upcoming guests on the podcast Food with Mark Bittman include Emmy Award-winning actress Laura Linney; Tom Vilsack, the United States Secretary of Agriculture; Ricardo Salvador, the director of the food and environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists; Hawaiian chef Sheldon Simeon; writer, comedian and bloggers Samantha Irby and Lindy West; chef/restauranteur Asma Khan; Top Chef’s Kwame Onwuachi; food and travel writer Kayla Stewart; graphic artist Alison Bechdel; New York Times columnist and author Frank Bruni; and the Today show’s Al Roker, which Bittman himself has been a familiar face on.
“Our goal in the podcast is to include discussions about cooking, food and health, and food and the environment,” noted Bittman. “We do this as a general interest podcast where we also talk to people who are not so-called ‘food people,’ but regular people who might have something interesting to say about the topic. So, we are looking for politicians, entertainment people, sports figures, people in all types of industries, homemakers, and more. Basically, everyone is happy to talk about food.”
Bittman has also hosted three PBS series to-date: Bittman Takes on America’s Chefs, The Best Recipes in the World, and Spain: On the Road Again opposite Gwyneth Paltrow, Claudia Bassols and Mario Batali. He appeared as a guest judge on the Food Network competition series Chopped. He was featured as a correspondent for the Showtime/National Geographic Channel climate change documentary series Years of Living Dangerously. And he is the current editor-in-chief of The Bittman Project, an email newsletter and website focusing on all aspects of food.
Food in the Media
“The aspects of food that tend to get written about the most tend to be the parts of food that are the most enjoyable, and there is a lot of joy in food,” explained Bittman who as the author of 30 books to-date rose to prominence after penning what is commonly referred to as “bible of cooking,” How to Cook Everything. “Like other subjects, there is no stigma about talking or writing about food. But that is not necessarily to our collective benefit. Our rates of chronic health diseases are going up because of what food is currently readily available to us.”
How to Cook Everything was the winner of the IACP/Julia Child award, the James Beard award, and three international cookbook awards. Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian in 2007 was also the recipient of an IACP/Julia Child award. And other titles in the library of Bittman’s literary works include his first book, Fish-The Complete Guide to Buying and Cooking, The Best Recipes in the World, Jean-Georges-Cooking at Home with a Four-Star Chef, The Joy of Cooking, and the Minimalistic cookbook series.
“The calories that are accessible to us are not generally good calories,” warned Bittman. “So, you can be as health conscious as you want, but if what’s available to you is Papa John’s, McDonald’s, Annie’s, or any of the fast foods or the processed foods we see everywhere, then you are not going to eat well. That’s why cooking remains so important. The only way that you can really gain control over what you eat is if you buy good ingredients and cook them yourself. However, that is not a path that is available to every person, and certainly not of benefit to anyone who might be struggling financially.”
Bittman’s recent book, Animal, Vegetable, Junk: A History of Food from Sustainable to Suicidal, addresses the many cracks in our global food system, offering his potential solutions to improve how we grow, distribute, and consume our food.
“Over the years, food has become more corporate, there are fewer real ingredients, there is more hyper-processed food, and the quality in general has deteriorated. That’s all the downside,” he explained. “But the upside of food is people now know more, there is increasing availability of real ingredients, and they are paying attention to what goes into their food, where it comes from, and who produces it. They often also seem to care how the people who produce it are treated. While these developments are important and good, they also do not mask the reality that our food in general is much worse than what it used to be.”
“Food should be a source of nourishment and should do as little damage to the earth as possible,” he added. “But the food today is more international, it travels farther, it is processed more, and it is marketed more heavily. We are now all encouraged to eat lousy food all the time, and the majority of calories available to us are in the form of hyper-processed food.”
Too much meat, too few plants, too much fast food, and too little home cooking, among other culinary-themed topics, remain on the forefront of discussion on the Food with Mark Bittman podcast. Food begins with “controlling land” and it ends with “preparing it for you to eat,” according to Bittman.
“What we want to talk about as a team, and I want to talk about as an individual on the podcast, is all aspects of food. I just want people to think about the importance of food and what food is for,” said Bittman. “It’s not just to have a good time. It’s to nourish us, to protect and steward the land, and to provide employment for people.
“A good meal is certainly a wonderful and enjoyable thing, but it is not the whole story,” he added. “We need to increase the availability and affordability of real food. And we have to make sure that people have the income or are able to buy real food. Without change, we continue to put our country’s health at risk.”