Mark Bittman has quite literally gone on to greener pastures.
This past winter, the renowned New York Times columnist and author very sensibly ditched the icy hell of New York for the more temperate (if drought-stricken) climes of California, where he has been working as a distinguished visiting fellow at the Berkeley Food Institute.
On top of that, Bittman has recently launched a new video series called California Matters, in which he explores the culinary cornucopia of the Golden State—from the history of Chinese food in Southern California to the impact of ocean acidification on local oyster populations.
In the first episode, premiering today on the New York Times, Bittman joins UC Berkeley professors Tom Carlson and Philip Stark on an urban foraging expedition around Oakland.
I called up Bittman in advance of the first episode to talk to him about why we should be eating more weeds and wild foods, even if they happen to be growing in a garbage-strewn lot. Dirt don't hurt, right?
MUNCHIES: Hi, Mark. How's California treating you? Mark Bittman: It never ceases to fascinate me. I grew up in New York, and I get it when people come to New York and they're like, "Wow! It's amazing! Look at this, look at that!" and it's all the things you take for granted living there and think are completely boring and stupid. And maybe people from here feel the same way about the things I like about California, but I enjoy it. I like going to places that are off the wall, and much of what I've seen here is different than what I've seen in my life.
People will say, 'Well, a dog might have peed on that.' And I'm like, 'Do you know what happens to the food that's being grown in the Central Valley before it gets to you?'
Is that why you chose to focus on California for your new video series? I could have traveled around and written New York Times columns about California. But I feel like a lot of the stuff I do for Opinion is national, and I didn't know if I wanted to spend five months focusing my opinion column on California. I thought, Well, what can I do to get myself around the state? There's no agricultural place in the world, or certainly not in the US, like California. So I thought I'd pitch a video series to Berkeley where I talk to people who are doing research in food—you know, academics who have trouble getting their message out to the general public. It wound up being sponsored not by Berkeley but by the [University of California] president's office. It became university-wide, and the range of people I could talk to became really, really broad.
It's really scratching the surface, because if you start talking about the role of food and agriculture in California, you could turn that into a lifetime project.
Let's talk about the first episode, about urban foraging. What did you find when you were walking around with Philip and Tom in Oakland? We parked next to a laundromat next to a liquor store, and we walked across the street and there was this crappy vacant lot with empty paint cans and tires and junk everywhere. And Philip and Tom were like, "Oh, look at this! Here's cow thistle, here's sourgrass, here's mallow." And we just starting eating stuff, and it was hilarious, because I wouldn't know how to go into my yard and start eating stuff that I didn't plant myself. But they just recognize everything. As long as people didn't have landscaped or manicured lawns, if there were weeds growing in them, some of those weeds were edible. It's just an amazing little skill to have, to be able to identify those things. When I came home and was walking down the street, I noticed these things, too. If I wanted to make a salad from [the weeds on] my street, I could feed everyone on the block.
Rather than say, 'We're going to teach people how to forage the greens that they sometimes cook at Chez Panisse because they can't afford to eat at Chez Panisse,' let's reestablish the notion that there is a lot of food out there for the picking.
You mentioned that some of the plants were an acquired taste. Some of them were an acquired taste. You know, they weren't like, "Oh, I can't wait to go home and eat this," but had it been something you'd grown up on, it would be a different story. I really like mallow a lot, but I've been told some people really hate the taste of mallow. But a lot of it is wild lettuce, which tastes better than most lettuce. Mustard flowers, greens—they are all in the general vernacular of eating. Some stuff has prickers on it, or a very rough texture, which I think needs to be sautéed or poached to take the edge off for most people. And I think if you're desperate, being hungry changes the way everything tastes.
You bring up an interesting point. In the video, you talk about how chefs like Alice Waters are making use of these ingredients. But you and Tom and Philip were walking around Oakland, where there is a very entrenched food desert—where people don't have access to any fresh food, let alone can afford to go to Chez Panisse. How do you make foraged foods more accessible? I don't want to argue with Philip, but I think it's a little far-fetched and patronizing to say, "We're going to teach poor people how to forage, so they're going to have more food in their lives." But foraging and gardening are not that far apart. I think it's just important to get the concept that there is real food growing out there. It can be fun, but it's not a game, and the idea that you can go outside and find food and bring it home to cook is not a new idea. In fact, it's older than agriculture, right? These are honorable and smart traditions.
Rather than say, "We're going to teach people how to forage the greens that they sometimes cook at Chez Panisse because they can't afford to eat at Chez Panisse," let's reestablish the notion that there is a lot of food out there for the picking. And if we can make that something that becomes, for lack of better word, trendy or popular, let's make it so that parks don't spray herbicides on weeds. Let's just let them grow and be fair game for people who want to eat them, and let's just try to establish that tradition.
I think one of the problems in the way we see food as a society is that it comes from supermarkets. But foraging and gardening are obviously honorable, longstanding traditions, and it would be nice if they were both popular ones.
There's a very negative attitude toward foraging food in urban areas. I was talking to my partner the other day about seeing these gorgeous mulberry trees in Williamsburg, and he was like, "God, I would never eat something that grew on a filthy Brooklyn street." Which is exactly the wrong attitude!
Somehow, wild food is seen as dirtier than the stuff we get from these massive corporate farms. Right. People will say, "Well, a dog might have peed on that." And I'm like, "Do you know what happens to the food that's being grown in the Central Valley before it gets to you? Because you wish that the worst that happened to it was a dog peed on it." We're spraying herbicides, pesticides, fungicides. We're harvesting by machines, we're rinsing with chemicals—all this mechanical stuff, all this industrial stuff. So what if the stuff on your street has some dirt on it? You can wash the dirt off.
Exactly. Thanks for speaking with me, Mark.