Salad at Your Feet
The New York Times columnist Mark Bittman finds culinary possibilities in the East Bay—even in cracks in the sidewalk.
Courtesy of the Regents of the University of California
A little after noon on a recent Wednesday, Mark Bittman, author of more than a dozen cookbooks and food columnist for The New York Times Magazine, is standing next to Sav-Mor Liquors in West Oakland. And in the true spirit of a locavore (though in this case, loco-vore might be more apt), he is going to eat weeds.
Best known for a smart, stripped-down cooking style (his most recent book is How to Cook Everything Fast), Bittman is in the East Bay as a visiting fellow at the Berkeley Food Institute, which is committed to food issues related to social justice. Today is the first video shoot of a 10-episode series produced by the University of California titled Mark Bittman: California Matters, covering issues that range from ocean acidification, to Chinese-American food heritage, to today’s topic, the possibility of foraging in food deserts.
“This is an incredible story,” says Bittman, chewing on a wild radish leaf. “I wouldn’t call this area desolate, but it’s certainly not a happening place. And we’re going to walk down the street and find a ton of food.”
This West Oakland expedition is led by two faculty members from UC Berkeley, where Bittman spent spring semester giving guest lectures and cohosting a class and speaker series. Titled Edible Education, the classes—which can be streamed from the institute’s website—tackle topics in food policy and sustainability, and roped in best-selling and award-winning authors such as Michael Pollan, Marion Nestle, and Eric Schlosser.
Back outside the classroom, Bittman’s foraging and filming just happen to be taking place at lunchtime. The trio sets out on Peralta Street, heads west on 14th Street, and soon comes upon an abundance of Bermuda buttercup, a type of sour grass with a soft yellow flower.
“That is really good,” Bittman says, as he takes a bite. “You could put it in a mesclun mix.”
The ultimate goal of today’s trip is to understand the abundance and safety of wild edibles in urban areas and food deserts, where the plants can be eaten as an occasional supplement to a diet that all too often lacks nutrients and fiber.
After foraging along cracked sidewalks for several blocks, they stop at a patch in front of a graffiti-riddled brick wall. There, they find half a dozen tasty invasive plants, including cat’s ear, dandelion, sow thistle, and a surprisingly sweet chickweed that Bittman calls “delicious.”
From the time he was 23, when he first planted tomatoes in a patch “much like this,” to now (he just turned 65), Bittman has come across almost everything food related. Yet chatting today, with a wild nasturtium corsage in his pocket, he’s simply blown away by what he finds.
“West Oakland has such a staggering array of edibles,” he says. “The fact that what we think of as weeds can also be food for the picking is a really cool thing.”
For more on Edible Education, visit food.berkeley.edu/edible-education-101.
Sound Bites: Mark Bittman
Q: Your TED Talk compares the dangers of the overconsumption of beef to a nuclear explosion. Does the carrot or the stick motivate people to change their eating habits?
A: You have to have all the weapons in your arsenal. Promoting junk food to two-year-olds should be criminal. Good food should be enjoyed by everyone.
Q: What “weapons” have you found in Berkeley?
A: Monterey Market has more than 30 kinds of citrus and 30 kinds of greens. That’s a carrot. This is the first city in the country to have a soda tax, and it won’t be the last. There’s your stick.
Q: You like the word “flexitarian.” Is that why you wrote Eat Vegan Before 6:00?
A: Look, we know what a good diet is. We’ve figured this out. But it’s not about setting standards that are unimpeachable. To think you’re going to eat perfectly all of the time is a mistake. You have to do the best you can.