Spending the afternoon at the Portland food carts with New York Times food writer Mark Bittman was a dream come true. His talk later that evening on his new book — The Food Matters Cookbook — was also entertaining, informative and inspiring. The most intriguing part of our visit, however was the way he bit into and savored his grilled Gruyère cheese sandwich.
Here's a guy whose writings, recipes and cooking videos are about as unapologetic and opinionated as they come. When Mark walked into the lobby and bemoaned the coffee machine malfunctioning to the hotel staff — "They should include directions in those things!" — I knew I was in for some fun. This food cart tour was going to be a bit like hanging out with my dad — another straight-up, no frills, New Yorker. Only this isn't my dad in the passenger seat of my too-small Mazda protégé, this is my food idol. Good God.
First stop? Coffee at Stumptown in the Ace Hotel. The coffee is great, but the seating area, well let's just say watching a 6'4" tower of a man crunch into a very low-backed strange couch was a bit like watching a maple tree attempt to fold itself into a lawn chair. Impossible at best. I winced, cursed the hipster seating arrangements and wished for a proper table, but Mark rolled with it and then some. He stretched out, as relaxed as a sunbather, and dove into his café au lait. He asked as many questions of me as I to him. This was a conversation we were having, not the interview I sketched out beforehand.
I learned more of his start as a journalist, dad and home cook. As a young writer, his articles on politics didn't get much attention, but 30 years ago when he started to write about food, people started to notice.
The rest is history — cooking to feed his family and himself, then writing about the results, and in reverse, writing about interesting new ideas and cooking to find out if they'd work. His writing, home life and food, all feeding one another.
Next up, the food cart pods of downtown Portland. We talked about a few vendors, and I ordered for the two of us: A chocolate, olive oil and salt baguette sandwich from Addy's, tomato fennel soup and a grilled cheese sandwich from Savor. Mark took his time asking questions of all the cart operators, peeking inside with curiosity and a smile. We munched away — talking about Portland, the new book and life in New York, the city he loves and adores.
And this brought us to the highlight of the afternoon: Mark Bittman biting into a sumptuous Gruyère and slivered apple sandwich. He took such big bites, offered up the half a sandwich for me taste and declared it "the best thing we've had all day." He pointed out nuances in the accompanying soup's seasonings (rosemary) and affirmed that Gruyère was a much better choice than the goat cheese option originally listed on the menu.
It was like talking to Frank Sinatra about his favorite songs, he practically sings with cooking experience, a worldly and refined palate and zest for learning more about where, how and why this meal in a downtown Portland parking lot came to be. He so obviously loves food, and loves that he gets to write and think about it. The bite becomes the metaphor for his attitude to all things — take big bites! — I learned a lot from watching him eat that thing — to literally take big bites in my sandwiches, my life, in all that I do — and do it with humor, abandon, joy, an unwavering point of view and charisma to spare. Mark Bittman is a larger than life character — intelligent, and wry, but he's also inquisitive, soft-spoken and kind.
By the time his lecture on Food Matters: The Cookbook rolled around, I was in a full Bittman-as-wise-Yoda-Sinatra-Food-God induced daze.
It would be hard to top the insightful afternoon, but the his talk was up there. More than 200 other Portlanders crowded around a podium and were subsequently held in rapt attention, huddled in Mark's palm for a little over an hour. He spoke about the problems of junk food consumption and industrialized meat production, and he explained some potential solutions. These include subsidizing small farmers rather than big corporations, taxing soda, getting grocery stores into all neighborhoods, allowing everyone access to fresh fruits and vegetables, eating primarily organic plant food, rewarding sustainability, free water, honesty in labeling, fixing the school lunch program and incentivizing eating better.
Mark still remains optimistic during this critical time and offers many ways of making a personal contribution to tip the scales towards a more sustainable direction with creative recipes and different choices – changes that are small and can have a big impact. As we stand now, the typical American diet is "killing us individually and strangling the planet," he said. We can heal the Earth and ourselves by spending a higher percentage of our income on real food, eating salads, broccoli, rice and beans, riding our bikes, reviving indoor produce markets, and eating less meat. One of my favorite suggestions for us was to quit eating UFOS, "unidentifiable foodlike objects".
Food Matters Cookbook outlines all this and more. It has innovative and healthy recipes, written in the same straightforward tone that permeates all of Mark's books. It's a fabulous addition to any home cook's collection. There's no recipe for Meaning-of-Life-Gruyere-Cheese Sandwiches (for that visit Savor in Portland!), but everyone can benefit from Mark's way of doing things — peek into a kitchen where your meal is being made, ask questions of our chefs, and take big hearty bites of simply enjoyable food.
(Images: Leela Cyd Ross)