Mark Bittman looks at changing food scene ahead of book fest visit

Mark Bittman is coming to the Texas Book Festival this weekend, where American-Statesman food writer Addie Broyles will interview him at 12:15 p.m. Sunday in the Central Market Cooking Tent.

He’ll be in town to talk about the 10th-anniversary edition of “How to Cook Everything: Vegetarian,” a book that came out as the longtime New York Times columnist was transitioning away from a meat-centric diet himself. He’s not writing for the Times anymore and left a high-profile position at Purple Carrot, a vegetarian meal kit service, last year, but he continues to write cookbooks and a column for Grub Street.

We chatted with him ahead of his book fest appearance about how cooking has and hasn’t changed in the past decade.

It’s been 10 years since the publication of ‘How to Cook Everything.’ How do you feel cooking has changed in that time?

I’d like to think more people are doing it, which is what I really think is important. It’s not so much what people are cooking but that people are cooking that’s important.

Once you start cooking for yourself at home, you take control over what you’re eating, you pay more attention to ingredients, your portion control is better, you don’t go out and buy junk food and cook that, you go out and buy ingredients, and that is the key to just about any good diet.

How has the American diet changed in that time span?

Anecdotally, people are more interested in food; they understand that it’s more important. We just have to help them get to a place where they respect real food more and are willing to make cooking a priority.

How did we get to be such a meat-centric society?

In the 20th century, the invention of fast food and the industrialization of animal production has led to unprecedented levels of meat-eating not only in the United States but around the world.

There is nothing wrong with meat, per se, but the way that we raise meat and the kind of meat we are raising is so far from the kind of meat our ancestors ate that we’d all be better off if we ate way less meat and, when we did eat meat, we ate really well-raised, well-bred, well-handled meat. That would make all of the difference in the world. I’ve never advocated for vegetarianism (as) particularly useful or important. I think eating more vegetables is useful and important.

And how do we turn that tide? How do we encourage and support a more plant-based society of eaters?

Teach children better about food, bring food education into schools, try to reduce the impact of food marketing, and so on. We all know it’s hard to make changes as an adult — that’s not to excuse anyone from trying to make changes, but we all know that we grew up with certain preferences: We were taught that sugary breakfast cereal was a part of a real breakfast, that cheeseburger and fries was the definition of a good lunch. It’s hard to break those habits for adults, so until we really start raising children with sound notions of what healthy eating is, it’s going to be hard to have a population of adults with sound notions of healthy eating. I think marketing junk food to kids should be illegal.

Do you have advice for cooks and eaters on how to incorporate an abundance and variety of vegetables in their diets?

Eat all the plants you can manage. Literally. Gorge on them. Salads, cooked vegetables, raw vegetables, whole fruits cooked or raw or even, in moderation, dried. There are hardly any limits here, though you don’t want a diet based entirely on starchy vegetables like potatoes.

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