Mark Bittman is driving around rural Massachusetts and he’s lost. Then he figures out a shortcut and our phone conversation is back on track. I assume he’s on assignment — after all he has just launched a video series shot around California precisely, he tells me, because he wanted an excuse to get out and about across the state and “talk about food” — but I am told that’s not strictly the case. “My eldest daughter is getting married,” he explains. “Why else would I be in rural Massachusetts?”
The New York Times writer and bestselling cookbook author has been on an assignment of a different nature recently — for the past semester he has been a distinguished visiting fellow at the Berkeley Food Institute at UC Berkeley.
And he has enjoyed his time teaching at Cal and living in North Berkeley so much he has decided to stick around. He says he has committed to staying another year, working at Cal, probably in a couple of different roles “that have university affiliations.” He hasn’t signed on the dotted line yet, so is reluctant to say more.
“I have been lecturing all over the school in many different classes in different departments, and it’s been great — really fun,” he says. In late April he joined Cal journalism professor and author Michael Pollan to give the final lecture of the semester in the popular Edible Education 101 class. It was titled, “The Future of the Food Movement.”
Bittman says that his work at the Berkeley Food Institute, which was founded in 2013 after five different UC Berkeley schools joined together to “galvanize the transition to a more resilient and just food system,” has involved both fundraising and research.
It has also involved creating the “California Matters” video series, launched this week. Bittman said the team chose topics both hard-hitting, like the plight of farm workers in the Central Valley and the use pesticides, and lighter in tone, such as the history of Chinese-American food.
The first episode in the 10-part video series has Bittman heading to West Oakland with UC Berkeley’s Philip Stark and Tom Carlson to find food sprouting from cracks in the pavement and corners of vacant lots.
Bittman made it plain early on in his Berkeley sojourn just how much he was enjoying the Bay Area’s balmy weather and bounty of local food. In a paean penned for the New York Times titled ‘Spring’s Opening Act: Mark Bittman Revels in California Produce,’ he waxed lyrical about fragrant Meyer lemons, eating at Chez Panisse and Camino, and the “fruit-and-vegetable paradise” he encounters regularly at Monterey Market. But he also acknowledged in the piece that his unadulterated enthusiasm might prompt mockery from his friends back East: “I struggled over whether to even write this; you may hate me for having drunk the kombucha. My only defense is that it’s all true, and thankfully, people here think I’m a cranky New Yorker — you can take the boy out of New York, etc. (And by the way, I don’t drink kombucha.),” he wrote.
Asked if living here has changed his perceptions of the West Coast, he says no. “I don’t have the prejudices you experience on the part of a lot of East Coasters.”
He adds that he spent a lot of time in the Bay Area before moving here. “I came because I wanted to. If I had any expectations, then I would say [the Bay Area] is meeting them.”
Since he moved west, Bittman has been asked repeatedly where he likes to dine out locally, but — perhaps not surprisingly given the number of cookbooks he has written — he says he is more interested in being in the kitchen than in trying new restaurants. “I’m more fascinated by ingredients. I do a lot of cooking.”
He has been writing about food policy and food systems for the New York Times opinion page since 2011 (a recent piece, ‘Fear of Almonds’ addresses the issue of what to eat in a drought), so coming to Berkeley, arguably ground zero for activism, is unlikeley have made Bittman an even more zealous campaigner. However, he does acknowledge that he’s enjoying being in likeminded company: “It’s nice to be around so many people who are also engaged,” he says.
The next California Matters video will be released the week beginning June 22. Subscribe to the California Matters YouTube channel to watch the full series. Mark Bittman’s latest book, ‘A Bone to Pick: The Good and Bad News About Food’,’ is a compilation of his most thought-provoking New York Times columns.