Mark Bittman’s departure from Times puts food writing in perspective

One of my favorite food writers has put down the pen. Earlier this month, Mark Bittman, arguably the biggest contemporary name in food journalism, announced he was leaving the New York Times to take a role at a food start-up company in the Bay Area.

Bittman has been writing about food and cooking since 1980. My battered recipe box still holds a stash of recipes from Bittman’s “The Minimalist” column that I clipped as a teenager when I had no idea that he was a heavy-hitter among food writers. I just knew the recipes appeared easy to make and sounded tasty. They still are. As an adult, I’ve enjoyed reading his work in the Times’ weekly food section, its Sunday magazine and, in the last five years, the opinion pages. I even had the distinct pleasure of sitting down one-on-one with him at a restaurant when he came to St. Louis in 2010 to promote his “The Food Matters Cookbook: 500 Recipes for Conscious Eating.” I doubt he remembers that hour; I always will.

“The world of food writing has changed,” Bittman remarked in his farewell letter published in the Times on Sept. 12. “Dozens if not scores of food writers are expressing opinions about food, often daily. That, combined with the competition to be distinctive, leads to tremendous pressures that sometimes result in hasty, often exaggerated positions along with ridiculous stances, like expressing disdain for salads or arguing that increasing the minimum wage for food workers is harmful.”

I understand his frustration. When you care very much about something – in his case, Bittman has been opening readers’ eyes to important issues surrounding food politics, be they agricultural, nutritional or environmental – you put intense effort into it and hope that your work makes a difference. Perhaps you roll your eyes when you see that the controversy pitting foodie against foodie is whether peas belong in guacamole. Yet, I think anyone who attempts to stay informed about the state of food will agree that Bittman has made a difference – informing us of problems and progress alike and changing the way some Americans eat.

Bittman noted that “other people can and will carry the torch in the food world.” When I read that line, I paused to consider my place as a food journalist. Was Bittman only talking about up-and-coming watchdogs and food advocates, the next gen Michael Pollans and Marion Nestles? Would it be presumptuous to include myself in this collective of torchbearers? No and no. As the AJC’s food and dining editor, I bear the responsibility of making sure that we at this newspaper look at food from every angle, and dare to bite into the offal of this city’s food community or the dirty bits that have fallen from the table that would be easier to disregard much less put a fork into. But the way we’re going to go about it might be different.

In last week's column, I noted that food was something we consume for sustenance but that it could be fun as well. Perhaps this is where Bittman and I disagree because I think the pleasurable and the serious can and should come together at the table and on the pages of a newspaper food section. If we preach to you the ills of drinking too much sugary soda or eating at McDonald's, after a while you'll find even the stock market listings way more entertaining. But if we offer recipes for making healthful drinks – kombucha, kefir, a (not kale, please!) smoothie – or tell you about a vendor at a farmers market who is selling local, sustainably raised alpaca and water buffalo meat (Look for Grant Wallace Farms at the Brookhaven Farmers Market on Saturdays and Grant Park Farmers Market on Sundays.), you just might be piqued enough to check it out. And those outside-the-comfort-zone experiences have the potential to change the way you shop, cook and eat, hopefully for your betterment and that of the food community in which you live.

Many of us are at a point where we question everything about food: What is safe to put in our mouths? Where does such-and-such restaurant source its vegetables, fish, poultry, beef and pork? Not that long ago, few people were asking those questions. Now, I periodically hear folks at the table next to me pepper their server with these same questions. Or I’ll run into other people who, like me, raise chickens in their backyard or are members of a community garden. Often, I learn that, like me, they are doing these activities not just because they are concerned about their health or the environment but also because they are pleasurable. The enjoyable and the serious can intersect.

“Food affects just about everything, and vice versa,” Bittman wrote. Quite so, which is why in next week’s column, I’ll share stories of my food explorations as a newbie in traffic-heavy Atlanta – by bicycle. Spoiler alert: I survived and am still smiling about it. So can you.