Wait, is that Mark Bittman in aisle two?

A bestselling food writer shows Maclean’s how to get the best out of grocery store shopping


Wait, is that Mark Bittman in aisle two?
Photograph by Sandy Nicholson


Mark Bittman needs a camera. He wants to document the four-litre bags of milk in aisle one at Fiesta Farms, Toronto’s largest independent grocery store. “I’ve never seen this before. Milk in a bag! Only in Canada.”

The long-time New York Times food columnist is in Toronto to promote his newly published recipe collection, The Food Matters Cookbook. In general, he is not a fan of supermarkets—“most supermarkets’ goals are to sell you processed food and junk food, that’s where they make their money”—but this one, he concedes, is “a nice store.” Bittman is a larger-than-life character, tall and curmudgeonly, albeit with avuncular charm, who walks and talks like he just stepped out of a Woody Allen movie.

Readers of his 2009 bestseller Food Matters—which details his plan for eating responsibly, among other things—will know that Bitt­man is no fan of the industrial meat and junk food complex he calls Big Food.

Spotting a display of dried salad dressing mixes, Bittman grabs a package and flips it repeatedly from back to front, disdainfully. “What is this?” He answers his own question: “It’s a bunch of crap in a bag that you have to add something to, yogourt or something, in order to make salad dressing. Anyone can make dressing in five minutes.” (Such as, perhaps, “My Favorite Vinaigrette” in his new book.)

WATCH: Grocery shopping with Mark Bittman in Toronto (VIDEO)

Next, Bittman inspects the processed cheese and no-fat dairy products, which by their very nature ought to contain at least some fat. He shrugs, extends his arms and turns up his palms. “I don’t know what these are.” It’s not easy, grocery shopping with the James Beard-award-winning author of How to Cook Everything, which has become a sort of plebeian culinary bible. But there in the middle of the store, eureka! The produce section. Fiesta Farms, unlike most supermarkets that relegate fruits and vegetables to a side aisle, displays produce front and centre.

“You don’t see this everywhere!“ Bittman says as he snaps a few photos. Then he does the shrugging and arm thing again, only this time he’s happy.

Bittman’s equation for healthy eating is simple: less meat, less junk and more fruits, vegetables and whole grains. You’ll not only lessen your carbon footprint but drop pounds, he says.

He’s his own poster boy. Three years ago, his doctor told him he had to lose weight and advised him to go vegan. But cutting meat and dairy aren’t an option for a man who makes his living writing about food. So Bitt­man devised his own plan: “I try to eat vegan pretty strictly until dark and then I eat whatever the hell I want.” His health improved—his cholesterol went down, his sleep apnea was cured—and he lost 35 lb.
“I’ve kept it off except for five pounds,” he confesses in aisle three, where he spots some canned tomatoes: the brand name is the same as his daughter’s. Time for another picture.

Though Bittman’s food philosophy is similar to Michael Pollan’s, he is a little more forgiving: “Everybody’s got to figure it out for themselves. You can say, ‘I’m only eating meat three times a week and the rest of the time I’m going to eat healthy.’ That’s a big change for a lot of people. And it’s not that hard.”

Bittman wanders over to the squash. “Look! Cultivé dans l’Ontario,” he says in the accent you’d expect from a lifelong New Yorker. “There’s a lot of produce from Ontario. At this time of year, that’s how it should be.” A display of Ontario cauliflower stops him in his tracks. “These are gorgeous,” he booms, “and they’re only $1.49. In fact, you should probably buy 10 for yourself.”

Healthy eating, he says, is tantamount to saving money. “You get in this argument with a lot of people who say that fast food is so cheap and real food is so expensive,” he explains, examining a large bag of $5 red rice in aisle six. “But you could make a cauliflower curry and serve it on this rice and it’s going to cost you $5 to feed your family.”

Bittman wanders over to a freezer, where his eyes alight on a bag of frozen fava beans. “If I were going home tomorrow, I would buy those. They’re not easy to find where I live.” He sounds almost wistful.