Mark Bittman, author of the wildly popular How to Cook Everything, is known for making food preparation as simple as possible, so it's no surprise that his new book has the plainest title imaginable: Food Matters. The content is equally straight-forward. Part eating theory and part recipes, Food Matters has something Bittman's earlier writings don't: A clear moral message on how meat over-consumption hurts the planet. TIME talked to Bittman about why buying local food isn't paramount, what his new wardrobe says about his eating habits and why sustainable agriculture advocates have reason to hope. (See the top 10 food trends of 2008.)
The subtitle of your book is "A Guide to Conscious Eating." What is "conscious eating"?
What I'm advocating is that people eat fewer animal products, less junk food and less super-refined carbohydrates. And in their stead, they eat plants. That's the simplest, most basic way to put it.
A lot of what you say sounds like [Omnivore's Dilemma author] Michael Pollan's edict eat food, not too much, mostly plants. It's a very basic idea.
Yeah, and don't eat things your grandmother wouldn't recognize and don't eat things that have more than five ingredients. There's very little Michael says that I disagree with. Not to take anything away from him, but he doesn't do recipes.
If it's so simple to understand how to eat better, why aren't people doing it?
I guess you could say brainwashing, habit, tradition. I guess you could say people are so confused and desperate for magic bullets and tricks that something as simple as this is sort of hard to swallow.
People in the United States eat something like 200 pounds of meat, fish and poultry per year on average and something like 600 pounds of dairy products. People are getting 80 to 90% of their calories from animal products. Think about eating 70% instead. I don't know how to make anything simpler than that. It all goes back to eat your vegetables.
Barack Obama just nominated former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack as his agriculture secretary. What reform would you like to see in the USDA?
I'd like a re-examination of the Farm Bill. I would like to see the Department of Agriculture clarify its message, so that it was saying eat more plants and fewer animals. I would love to hear that blared from the rooftops. I'd like to see stricter enforcement of antibiotic and hormone use in animals. In this country, you can't blame people for figuring out clever ways to make money, but if you charge industrial livestock producers for the environmental and health damage they're doing, meat becomes more expensive and so they can't sell as much. Eventually, everybody will be happier and healthier.
You talk in the book about losing weight when you cut meat out of your diet. How did you feel before you started this new way of eating versus how you feel now?
I don't think there's like a spring in my step. And I'm not going to give you some line about how I'm a new man, but I lost 15% of my body weight. I've been a runner practically my whole adult life and when I got heavy, my knees started to go and I started to feel slower and slower. When I run now I feel 15 years younger. And I do sleep a lot better and I did have to buy a new wardrobe, so that was very cool. Another sort of hidden benefit is that my eating has become even simpler. Yesterday I made vegetable soup. It took like 10 or 15 minutes to throw it together and it was really good. It's not that I wouldn't have done that before, but I would have thrown in a sausage or some bacon or a bunch of croutons and now it's like five ingredients: Carrot, potatoes, fennel, onion and split peas, plus barley and water.
How important is it to have really great ingredients when you're cooking simple food?
This stuff was completely not great ingredients, trust me. The split peas and the barley came from the cupboard and the vegetables are just from this place that's not very good and is a rip-off, but I walk past it on the way home. I'm not too cheap to go to the farmer's market, I'm just too lazy.
But isn't buying local touted by the sustainable food movement?
I just don't think it's realistic. We should be eating as locally and seasonally as possible no argument there. But someone who says we should eat only foods from within 100 miles - that's stupid. I don't want asparagus from Peru in December; I want collard greens from North Carolina because I consider that local. It can be better without us being extreme in our demands.
Why did you scale back the meat recipes in your new edition of How to Cook Everything?
I sat there thinking, do we really need 200 chicken recipes? Maybe 125 to 150 is enough. A really key moment was also a report I read that said 18% of climate changing gases are directly or indirectly caused by industrial livestock production. If you take it seriously, it's mind boggling. Do you want to torture animals? Do you want to spew filth into the environment and into the air? Do you want to eat in a way that's really unhealthy?
How much influence can cookbook authors really have over the way people eat in America?
I've always thought if you could get people to cook, they would eat more sanely. That's kind of where it's at for me. To me it's incredible that something like instant oatmeal exists when normal oatmeal takes six minutes to cook. Starbucks is now selling what amounts to instant oatmeal for four bucks. People can make oatmeal for 20 cents. Just getting people to make themselves oatmeal in the morning I think that's a pretty noble goal.
Do you think we're on the cusp of a revolution in how we eat?
My gut tells me we're in the best place we've been in my lifetime. For the first time, the pendulum has been moving the other way. I have watched the world of restaurants and cooking and chefs for 30 years now. And at the beginning, I was a decent journalist and I could write, but basically [editors ] wanted me to interview chefs and write about food as art and all this other crap. I've seen the move to simplicity. I'll be disappointed if five years from now, we're not having this discussion in a different way.