Bittman began his writing career covering many subjects, from politics to bicycle repair. But his early readers only had an appetite when he turned his attention to food.
"I started cooking in college," he says. "When I decided to try to make a living writing, no one was interested in anything I wrote about until I started writing about food. That's the truth."
He began writing restaurant reviews for the New Haven Advocate, an alternative newsweekly. "But there were so few good restaurants within striking distance that I converted the restaurant review column into a cooking column," he says. "And then I became a food writer."
All these years later, in his farewell column for the Times, Bittman explained he was leaving now because he had largely raised the topics he had wanted to raise. But he tells NPR's Michel Martin that there might be more to the story.
"I said that I had said what I had to say, but I haven't said what I had to say. I have more to say, and I imagine I'll find a way to say it," he says, laughing.
On why some respond angrily to suggestions that we change the school lunch program or move toward a more plant-based diet
We have created an environment that encourages the consumption of bad food. So you're swimming in that environment, and as the fish is unaware of the water, we're unaware of the fact that everywhere we go we are encouraged to eat junk food and ... industrially raised animal products.
We always want the illusion of choice, but it is an illusion. If you go into a supermarket and some large percentage of the things in that supermarket really don't meet the dictionary definition of food ... the good choices are not the easy choices. It's the harmful choices that are the easy choices.
On how he began writing about sustainable agriculture and public health
It did take me a long time to see how food fit into the big picture. ... I saw the writing was on the wall, that we were going to have to eat a more plant-based diet. I saw that the sort of standard American diet was nutritionally problematic, that it was unfair in many ways and that the food system was flawed in many ways. As these thoughts started to gel and come together, I thought, well, I should write about this stuff. And who better to write about it for than the Times.
On how the United Nations' 2006 report, Livestock's Long Shadow, documenting the livestock sector's contribution to environmental problems, influenced Bittman's column
To go one step further and say we're actually having a huge impact on climate, that gave me pause. That made me think I need to go in this other direction. This is really important — this is a calling, in a way. This is the place where agriculture and nutrition, diet, health and so on all come together.
On the current state of the U.S. food system
I am optimistic. Things have gotten better. We have passed the low point. More people are paying attention. More people are eating better. More people know about eating better. I hope that that will snowball, and we'll see that our health improves as a result, and our negative impact on the environment decreases as a result, and that we'll see that a better food system is a great thing for all of us.