Gushing over the Meyer lemons growing in his backyard was one of the first signs that Mark Bittman was falling for California. The celebrated food writer and New York Times columnist began what was supposed to be a semester-long stint as a visiting fellow at the Berkeley Food Institute in January 2015. But Bittman has decided to stay on for another academic year, at least. Besides continuing to lecture for the Food Institute, this fall he’ll have an official appointment at Berkeley’s Journalism School. He may also have an opportunity to create more programs for his new online video series, California Matters, premiering today, June 8, 2015.
Bittman came up with the idea for the video series as a platform for doing what he does in most of his writing these days: plunge headlong into a vast array of food-related issues and decipher them for the public. Whether exploring injustices and innovations or unpacking science and policy, he generally does it with equal frankness and gusto. One of the most outspoken advocates for overhauling many of America’s food systems (I’ve heard him referred to as the east coast’s Michael Pollan), Bittman’s rants can engender total devotion or harsh critique. Although being an on-camera host is not his usual medium, Bittman’s casual vibe and quintessential New York voice might play just as well on video as his words do on the page.
In each 4-7 minute episode, Bittman introduces viewers to different researchers, entrepreneurs, educators and thinkers from the University of California (UC) network who are working to better understand and improve the food we eat and the systems that support it.
“I wanted to find people who are doing interesting things and talk to them,” says Bittman. "I thought we could make their work more easily and widely understood. And I think we succeeded.”
It was also a good way for Bittman to get to know his new home state, and probably helped tip the scales in favor of extending his stay in the Bay Area. “There’s just nothing I’d rather do than travel around California looking at food-related stuff,” says Bittman. “There are a million stories out there.”
In California Matters, Bittman traipses up and down the state in search of those stories. In each episode he takes viewers behind-the-scenes at a different location; like a Chinese restaurant in L.A. where he discusses cultural traditions and worker wage issues, and the test gardens and farms of UC Santa Cruz, where cutting edge research into sustainable agriculture practices is underway. “There’s this amazing 33-acre farm on an academic campus – it’s unheard of,” says Bittman, shaking his head in disbelief.
Although he describes some of the episodes as heartrending -- like one that explores how pesticides affect neonatal health in Salinas Valley -- the series kicks off on a lighter note as Bittman heads out on a foraging mission with UC Berkeley ethnobotanist Tom Carlson and statistician Philip Stark.
“We went out with these guys in west Oakland in a neighborhood that doesn’t look like a park. There was stuff all over the place that you could eat,” Bittman recalls. “So you can imagine that in greener areas, if you knew what you were doing and carried a knapsack and a plastic bag, you’d never buy salad again. I’ll tell you that.”
What began as a weed hobby (think dandelions and calendula) for Carlson and Stark, has now morphed into an enthusiastic mission to make wild edibles a more practical, popular and profitable food source. Their current work includes testing urban weeds for concentrations of heavy metals.
“Foraging is nothing new, but it’s a fantastic opportunity,” says Bittman. “We talked to some farmers who understand that weeds are not necessarily the enemy—that they could be harvested and sold, or used to re-nutrify the soil. Look at the irony; you are using herbicides to kill something that you could be eating. You’re depriving yourself of free food and spreading the use of herbicides.”
In another episode, Bittman travels to Hog Island in western Marin County to meet with a Tessa Hill of UC Davis, who is studying the impacts of ocean acidification on oysters. As CO2 levels rise, it causes the ocean’s pH levels to become increasingly acidic. “Because of the acidity, the oyster shells get thinner, grow more slowly and are more prone to early death,” Bittman explains. Although the research may yield some clues about how local oyster farmers might employ new management strategies to help deal with the acidity, Bittman says he simply hopes to draw the public’s attention to the problem.
In one of the more solution-based programs, Bittman hits the lunch tables at a public school in San Francisco. Here, researchers are studying the effects of district-wide initiatives aimed at redesigning the school meal experience and making it more nutritious. “They’re trying to offer more choices, nicer eating spaces, outdoor and portable spaces and even grab-and-go stuff. They are just going to look at every option until they come up with a better system that they can afford.”
Surprisingly, one subject the series’ producers didn’t manage to cover in these ten episodes is one that’s most top of mind in California: the drought. Bittman says it’s on his list for the next season of programs (if there is a next season). In the meantime, you can get his take on the drought and allay any guilt you may have about eating almonds by reading one of his recent New York Times posts.
You can also read many of his other editorials about GMOs, diets, livestock welfare, farmworker wages and other hot topics in “A Bone to Pick,” a recently released compilation of Bittman’s popular New York Times columns.
Although the California Matters series is regionally focused, the stories being covered seem relevant to viewers across America. As Bittman pointed out in that same editorial mentioned above, “…because such a significant fraction of our food is produced in California, problems for California agriculture are problems for all of us."
Of course, Bittman’s life will be touched more directly and visibly by problems such as drought as he settles in for another year in the sun-scorched state.
I asked him if there was anything he has been missing about New York in terms of the food. My question was met with a resounding “Nah.” After a brief pause he added, “Maybe a couple of restaurants. Maybe the excitement of having new foods appear in the summertime. But I ate better this winter in Berkeley than I do most summers in New York. It’s really just paradise here when it comes to food.”
He seems to have no qualms about trading the Big Apple for a Meyer lemon.
Join Mark Bittman for a live Twitter chat on June 10, 2015 at 12:00 PM PST.