Photo by Sally Stein
Mark Bittman, the New York Times columnist and cookbook author, is probably best-known for teaching people how to cook simply. His How To Cook Everything books have more than a million copies in print. He’s also fan of Mexico: Bittman has written about Mexico City woman chefs and the Condesa tianguis, and his columns occasionally include Mexican or Mexican-inspired recipes like tlayudas and Mexican chocolate tofu pudding. (The latter is insanely good with churros.)
Last week Bittman was among three American speakers invited to Puebla’s International Mole Festival. I snagged five minutes of his time, where he explained more about his love of Mexico.
Q: When did you first start traveling to Mexico?
A: I don’t know, 30 years ago. But seriously, really seriously, it’s been five years. In the past five years it’s become a priority.
A: It should’ve been a priority all along. I saw the error of my ways. Look, you can’t go everywhere. It’s important for me to see as many things as I can see, globally. But my early loves were European and Asian cuisine, and I’d say I was first Eurocentric and then I spent a great deal of time in the late 90s/early 2000s traveling in Asia. I don’t have to apologize for this, but I mistakenly put Mexico not at the top of the list. But it’s worked out fine. It’s still here.
Q: What first captured your attention in Mexico in terms of the food?
A: It’s a really interesting question because the first couple of times I came here, I went to the Yucatán. Without being cruel, I would say that it ’s not — the way Yucatecan cuisine is presented to visitors is not the best. Yucatecan cuisine is spectacular in its soul, but it’s very hard to find that. Very hard to find it. Because Yucatecan cuisine is Mayan cuisine, and what’s sold in most restaurants in the Yucatán is not that. But I only learned that recently.
I think what really attracted me was street markets and street food in Mexico City. I have friends who’ve been kind enough to schlep me around and show me, probably starting eight or ten years ago.
And I have been nowhere. Let me say, I know more about Poblano food than about anything else, and I don’t know anything about a lot of them. So I’m totally a real beginner.
Q: Yeah, I was originally surprised to see your name on the list of speakers. I’d seen in some of your columns that you’d visited Mexico, but I didn’t know you had such an affinity that you’d actually come here to talk in Puebla.
A: Well. I’d go talk in Bhutan where I’ve never been, because an opportunity to talk to a big audience is an opportunity to talk to a big audience. You just get there early enough to not be an idiot about the food. And I have to say I’m not an idiot about Poblano food.
Q: You repeated yourself in your talk, when you mentioned innovation in Mexican food. You said twice that Mexican food does not need to be tinkered with. Why?
A: Because it’s really good. I mean that’s an easy answer. How are you going to make this food better? By adding soy sauce? By adding more cheese? By what? By turning it into pizza? If someone’s going to tell me I’m having a mole poblano pizza, that’s nice, but let’s not have that be a symbol of Puebla. What’s going to make it better? GMO corn and mass-produced masa is not going to make it better.
For further reading, check out Mark Bittman’s “The Minimalist” column in The New York Times or his books on Amazon.