The Changing Face of California Agriculture

This is the ninth episode of “California Matters,” a series of videos about sustainable agriculture and healthy eating that I produced in collaboration with the Global Food Initiative at the University of California.

Jennifer Sowerwine’s work at the University of California, Berkeley, centers on bringing largely unrepresented voices to the table for discussions around food security and food systems change. Much of her time is spent working with Hmong and Mien farmers in California’s Central Valley, some of whom I visited a couple of years ago for a story I wrote about that area in The Sunday Magazine.

Many of these farmers, or their families, came to California from Southeast Asia, usually Laos, mainly as political refugees in the ’70s and ’80s. Sowerwine looks at how they got into small-scale farming, how they find and keep land, how they make farming economically viable, and how they’re adapting and changing their practices to meet new challenges. In looking at these things — along with labor and crop diversity — she’s found that these farmers have had little access to government resources.

Read the rest of this article here.

A Watchful Eye on Farm Families’ Health

This is the eighth episode of “California Matters,” a series of videos about sustainable agriculture and healthy eating that I produced in collaboration with the Global Food Initiative at the University of California.

C.H.A.M.A.C.O.S. stands for the Center for the Health Assessment of Mothers and Children of Salinas, and also means “kids”in Mexican Spanish. It’s the name given by Brenda Eskenazi, an epidemiologist at the University of California, Berkeley, for a group studying the effects of exposure to agriculture chemicals on children born in Salinas Valley between 2000 and 2002. The longitudinal study has followed more than half of the research population since birth.

Eskenazi and her team have focused primarily on three aspects of health that may be affected by these exposures: neurobehavioral development, which, if disrupted, can affect a child’s I.Q.; respiratory health; and growth, including weight and metabolism. This population sees higher rates of exposure to organophosphate chemicals, which are found in pesticides, than the general population, so there are possible implications of this study for farmworker communities and Californians at large.

Read the rest of this article here.

The Roots of Organic Farming

Visiting the farm at the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems at the University of California, Santa Cruz, was a personal high point of this series, though I couldn’t say exactly why. It could well have been because there’s an experimental blueberry plot there, and when I went in the spring, it was raining, and the green leaves were sparkling and the wet berries were offset perfectly, and here was this glistening working farm on an otherwise more-or-less normal college campus, which just happened to be on a hill above the Pacific.

Or it could have been because the Santa Cruz campus has a series of beautiful, renowned, well-run gardens and farms, unlike on any other campus in the country.

Read the rest of this article here.

What’s the Buzz About Wild Bees?

Among all the pollinators, honeybees get the most publicity, deservedly, because of the problems around their survival. Claire Kremen’s research at the University of California, Berkeley, looks at diverse pollinators — not just bees, but also birds, moths and many insects — and the issues affecting them as emblematic of the broader problems of the food system. Pollinators are critical to global food production and about 75 percent of crop species depend on them to produce food that is more abundant and nutritious than it would otherwise be.

Monoculture — a single crop in an open field that may measure many hundreds of acres — increasingly depends on importing thousands of hives (by truck, usually) for the pollination of crops, especially in places like California. For example, the state produces 80 percent of the world’s almonds, which has concentrated the need for bees way beyond the capacity of native pollinators.

Focusing on a single crop reduces the biodiversity pollinators need to survive, and the timetable they best work on. It’s also a risky endeavor to rely on one species, especially when there are diseases, management problems and the inherent risks of transportation. Yet the large single-crop farms require the large apiaries to get the job done.

Read the rest of this article here.

Looking Back: Eating Outdoors on #BittmanTopics

Whether you’re cooking it, eating it, growing it, or reading about it, food brings people together. Welcome to #BittmanTopics: a place where we can all share ideas about a different food-related topic each month. In case you missed the first installment, here’s how it works—and check the archives for past months’ conversations.

This month’s topic gave an inspirational glimpse of how many of you are enjoying your meals al fresco: at cookouts and food trucks, on picnics and in gardens, from NYC to the south of France. No- and low-cook meals seem to be the perfect food in this sweltering heat—that is, when your grills aren’t fired up for searing local produce and pizza.

Here’s just a handful of my favorite ideas from July; keep tagging your posts with #BittmanTopics so I can follow along, and check back here tomorrow for August’s topic:

Happy 4th of July! A photo posted by @lizpotasek on


Where—and What—You’re Eating

Alpine provisions {tarte du champsaur} + route planning near Col du Lauteret …

A photo posted by julia spiess (@dinnerswithfriends) on

“Champlain Valley, Vermont. Grilled king salmon, roasted corn, fresh tomatoes with cucumber and balsamic vinegar, baby summer squash.” –@cckinvt

“Central Park’s Great Hill; fresh fruits, homemade hummus, pretzels, pearl couscous salad, wild rice and grape salad, lemon cookies.” –@reinamaureen

“Gazpacho andaluz, made with fresh farmers market ingredients, garnished with melon and micro mustard greens!” –@lornina

“On our courtyard, watching the sunset over Santa Monica Bay, with great food, great wine and great friends!” –Ann Carley Johnson, Facebook

“My garden. Eggplants, zucchini, tomatoes and peppers every possible way from around the Mediterranean. Lots of feta and lots of fruits. It’s that time of year.” –Clio Tarazi, Facebook

“Aix en Provence, South of France. Watermelon and feta salad !” –@kadee_jah

“Lobster roll on Nantucket” –@sjadad27

“Neighborhood food truck – woodfired pizza in our backyard! #ilovepittsburgh #driftwoodoven” –@leahnorthrop

“LOVE summers in Truro, eating outdoors as the grill master (usually me) finishes the last touches, Chicago-style hotdogs, several amazing summer salads and delicious local craft beer! Throw in some local seafood = Grand Perfection! Cheers, Mark Bittman!” –PiaDora PiaDora, Facebook


Cold Soups

Dinner #alfresco at the Lake House #bittmantopics #yyc #amazing #SummerWeather A photo posted by City Palate (@citypalate) on

Lots of interest in this genre—no surprise—during the #BittmanTopics tweetchat:

“what is your favourite summer cold soup? I love de gazpacho of course & vichychoisse.” –@riucafe

“i gotta go off-topic. just made this gazpacho: almonds, almond milk, cukes, grapes, mint, oil, lemon… sorta ugly. but really delicious. and drinking it outside so it counts.” –@bittman

“.@bittman Just had a version of this at @contigosf, but w white garlic & no mint. Very tasty. Do you blend almonds? Presoak?” –@PlantAndPlate

“.@PlantAndPlate forgot. i used a touch of garlic too. and roasted almonds. no soaking. but used almond milk.” –@bittman

@bittman I LOVE a cold cucumber soup- we make a Bulgarian version w walnuts a la Joy of Cooking” –@deb2525

“That gazpacho sounds perfect to take along. Many Bay Area picnic opportunities are in places where flames would not be good.” –@EyeEmEff

Sour cherry crisp made on the grill! 👌🍒 Great way to celebrate summer fruit

A photo posted by Civil Eats (@civileats) on


Low-Cook Summer Meals

Another hot topic during our tweetchat—very fun bouncing around ideas with all of you:

Discussing the shape of the chickpea. #picnicinthepark #chickpeas #garbanzobeans

A photo posted by reinamaureen (@reinamaureen) on

“.@bittman I don’t have a grill (apt dweller) – what are some ways to prepare my abundance of summer squash?” –@stephestellar

“.@stephestellar slice zucchini thin. saute in oil. toss with mint, raw egg (like 1 per 2 servings), parm. so great.” –@bittman

@bittman What is your go-to summer vinaigrette/marinade/sauce for all those salads and no/low-cook meals?” –@NeedleInHay

“.@NeedleInHay You’re all going to hate this answer. Ready? Olive oil, lemon, and salt. Maybe pepper.” –@bittman

coffee ice cubes and otherworldly rocks. go utah. #BittmanTopics

A photo posted by Rémy Robert (@remyrobert) on

What Oysters Reveal About Sea Change

This is kind of the good news/bad news department, as so many things are: The good news is that terrific oysters are being farmed in several locations in California; the bad news is that ocean acidification — the absorption of carbon dioxide into the sea, a direct result of high levels of carbon in the atmosphere — is a direct threat to that industry.

I saw both when I visited Hog Island Oyster Co. in Marshall, an operation north of San Francisco on Tomales Bay. (Actually, I’ve eaten at and of Hog Island dozens of times, and even shot video there for a PBS series more than 10 years ago.)

I went with Tessa Hill, who’s been researching ocean acidification at Bodega Marine Laboratory for eight years. Hill studies how changes in marine chemistry impact a variety of marine animals, including oysters, whose shells are getting thinner, smaller and more susceptible to predators. Her research looks at current conditions and develop a baseline for tracking the effects of climate change going forward.

Read the rest of this column here.

Alice Waters’s Perfect Aioli

Screen Shot 2015-07-15 at 10.14.28 AM

In Berkeley, where I currently live, ‘‘Alice’’ is a one-name celebrity, like Madonna. This is completely justifiable. In her lifetime, there has probably been no more important American in food than Alice Waters.

It was a matter of timing, of course — Alice is not a superwoman. She is, however, a dreamer and an uncompromising visionary. Some 40 years ago, when she settled in Berkeley — she had graduated from the university and then spent many summers in France — she had already recognized that good cooking was not about fancy French ingredients or techniques, but about taking the best local food you could find and not messing it up.

A Walk on the Wild (Edibles) Side


Illustration by Becca Stadtlander from “Salad From the Sidewalk,” the illustrated accompaniment to this column.

When I went foraging with Philip Stark and Tom Carlson for what became the first of the California Matters series of videos, I had an idea of what to expect. I spent a lot of time in Vermont in the ’70s and, armed with Euell Gibbons’s Stalking the Wild Asparagus, I learned about eating dandelion leaves, roots, and the base where they met, as well as crowns and even the little balls of unbloomed flowers (actually the best part, sautéed). I learned, too, about milkweed, a plant that can be eaten at several stages.

Most of the other ostensibly easy-to-find plants, however, remained elusive, largely because I found books inadequate for identification purposes and I had no guide – I was on my own. (I was finally shown wild asparagus by Lidia Bastianich in Istria, Croatia, 30 years later.)


Eating Outdoors: July on #BittmanTopics

Whether you’re cooking it, eating it, growing it, or reading about it, food brings people together. Welcome to #BittmanTopics: a place where we can all share ideas about a different food-related topic each month. In case you missed the first installment, here’s how it works—and check the archives for conversations from past months.

Photo illustration by the New York Times

Photo illustration by the New York Times.

For most of us north of the equator, it’s picnic season. I’m taking advantage with a perfectly packed basket and 101 20-minute-or-less dishes to eat outdoors. The best picnic foods get better as they sit, and since it’s summer, the less time spent in the kitchen the better—adventurous riffs on familiar foods are perfect. I bet in your neck of the woods the weather is nice enough right now that you’re also enjoying as many meals as possible outside.

There are plenty of ways to talk about food and the great outdoors: dining al fresco at restaurants, nibbling fresh harvests in the garden or market, having cookouts or going camping, and thinking and talking about the impact of our food system on climate change. Whether you’ve taken it to the streets, a boardwalk, or in a basket, I’d like to see.

Tom Willey among his eggplants. Photo by Jeff Minton for The New York Times.

Tom Willey among his eggplants. Photo by Jeff Minton for the New York Times.

Where and what are you eating outside right now? What’s fueling your adventures and vacations? Have you eaten anything good off a stick? How do you pack for a day the beach? Stay in touch this month—on FacebookTwitterInstagram, and in the comments below—and be on the lookout for details on the next tweetchat. Tag your photos, recipes, and reading with #BittmanTopics and I’ll feature my favorites back here in a few weeks.

Looking Back: Grow-Your-Own

Whether you’re cooking it, eating it, growing it, or reading about it, food brings people together. Welcome to #BittmanTopics: a place where we can all share ideas about a different food-related topic each month. In case you missed the first installment, here’s how it works—and check the archives for past months’ conversations.


“Inspiration today brought to you by #vegetables. Go to the #farmersmarket. Fall in love. Take something home you’ve never tried before.” –@melinahammer

At first, grow-your-own suggests gardening—and it seems we’re all either gardeners or one degree of separation from one—but this month, we also talked about foraging, raising animals, and eating locally in a broader sense. In response to my Times op-ed “Let’s Help Create More Farmers,” I heard from many who agree we need to create new policies that make small farms more financially viable and had great ideas about how to make that happen. Also this month, my web series, California Matters, launched with an episode about urban foraging, and you all helped ring it in with a tweetchat. We’ll be having another one next month, so stay tuned.

Here’s just a handful of my favorite comments and photos that you sent me in June. Even though the month’s over, keep tagging your photos, recipes, and relevant articles with #BittmanTopics so I can follow along:


“Leslie and Doug of Peach Mountain. Heirloom organics and garden starts. #bittmantopics #ysgram #mvohgram” –@thevillagegravy

“We need land and farmers, but we need markets and a form of shared risk. Anyone who contributes to a food hub should be eligible for the loan forgiveness-including those who market, distribute, promote, prevent loss, and process excess into value-added products that also support the local farmer. CSA member fees should be tax deductible. Small farmers have to be supported once they get the land.” –Carolyn Hennes, Facebook


“You guys! We got some goats! Very exciting day here at @skylinefarm ” –@halflighthoney

“I have been growing my own vegetables for decades. When we first moved here in the “country” area of San Diego County, we also raised our own animals- it was the time of people returning to Mother Earth (early 1970s). We chose to live here so we could give our children a taste of what this type of life where we were responsible for much of what we ate. We are still here and still have chickens for eggs in addition to a very large garden. I can much of our produce for winter in things like pickles, roasted tomato sauce, salsa, jams and marmalade.I am a college professor with a degree in home economics. I have run a culinary arts program and taught adults in cooking classes much of my adult life. Food is an essential part of my life. I try to pass on this love and caring to my friends, family and students. Currently I am teaching canning classes at Olivewood Gardens for women whose first language is Spanish. Over the many years I have tried to improve my gardening methods. I learned about composting from Olivewood Gardens and have had great success with that and using the manure from my chickens. Even in the drought, I can have my garden because I have taken measures to conserve everywhere else in order to grow this food.” –Cathie Roberson,


“@markbittman is doing a chat on foraging and gardening (and eating!) at 3ET. Here’s our herb garden. #BittmanTopics” –@ourdailybowl

I asked on Facebook what you’re all growing and you responded with full inventories of, really, everything under the sun: from tomatoes and herbs to cucuzza (“squash that looks like and grows as big as a baseball bat,” according to Marily Cura) and sea buckthorn. It seems to be growing season nearly everywhere—in driveways and studio apartments, on fire escapes and balconies, from the Bay Area to Scandinavia.

“[My garden] is not so much a ‘what’ but a ‘where’. While I fought it all the way, my husband convinced me to move the garden right outside the kitchen door here in Iowa. (It had been at the end of our lot.) I can’t believe how much it’s influencing what we eat. I get up in the morning and notice that the chard or a pepper or the dill or the beans are growing, and then I know what we’ll have for dinner.” –Kendra Hanzlik


“figs and herbs aplenty at @esynola. really hoping i manage to keep the garden this beautiful (and alive) all summer… #BittmanTopics #gardening #gardeneducation” –@remyrobert

“Delicata squash, heirloom tomato, microgreens, chard, sugar snap peas, nasturtium, lettuce, basil, parsley, hardy kiwi vine, blueberries. – All in a limited .04 acre proportion, tucked in among the perennials garden and in pots and trays. The more I try the more space I find. Maybe going more vertical next year!” –Eleni Triant LaSenna

“I dug up the front lawn of my rental home in a small town in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and created a large spiral garden. This year 4 families are enjoying the produce..Tomatoes, medicinal herbs, jing and burgundy okra, sunflowers, cocozelle, patty pan, kabocha and rampicante squash, scarlet kale, french gherkins, amaranth, shiso, rhubarb, japanese eggplant, beets, carrots, heirloom tomatoes, heirloom beans, cabbage, urfa biber peppers and so on…milkweed, bee balm and other flowers mixed in for the pollinators.” –Annette Abigail Wells

“Hakarei turnips. That and love are all we need.” –Elizabeth Meister


“Salad ready purslane #foraging #volunteer #bittmantopics” –@thevillagegravy