Really Cooking Now: Mark Bittman on Food Politics, the Importance of Cooking, and His New Book

Really Cooking Now: Mark Bittman on Food Politics, the Importance of Cooking, and His New Book
©Fred Conrad -- The New York Times

If you dabble even casually in the food world, you likely need no introduction to Mark Bittman, the New York Times op-ed columnist who covers both cooking and food policy -- he's one of the best-known and most prolific food writers of our time. He landed his first regular gig with the Gray Lady when he was asked to write a cooking column called "The Minimalist" in the mid-'90s; he now contributes recipes to the Times magazine, and he's published a raft of cookbooks, including the How to Cook Everything series. A few years ago, fueled by a desire to write about food in a deeper way, he also picked up a spot tackling the political ramifications of how we eat, discussing everything from childhood obesity to global warming to the farm bill.

Bittman grew up in New York City, and his mother, he says, "was an indifferent cook. There was always dinner on the table, but she didn't care much about how things tasted." Outside of the home, though, he was exposed to the city's vibrant mesh of cultures via street food and other restaurants; when he went to Boston for college, he was dismayed to find that kind of diversity didn't exist. And that's when he started cooking. It became a hobby as he improved, and after college, he'd cook for his roommates in exchange for not having to clean toilets.

After a stint as the editor of a radical community newspaper in the 1970s, Bittman turned full time to food freelancing. Over the course of the next decade, he contributed to the Times magazine and became the editor of Cook's magazine, the predecessor to Cook's Illustrated. He also sold his first cookbook, Fish; when it came out in the 1990s and won a James Beard Award, it made a major impact on his career: He was asked to write How to Cook Anything and the "Minimalist" column, and had the opportunity to spend two years cooking with Jean-Georges Vongerichten as he researched another cookbook, which gave him a new baseline of skills and added new depth to his column. "I never had a formal cooking lesson in my life, but I cooked with Jean-Georges for two years, and he's a really good cook," says Bittman. "That was really an amazing experience."

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, he became interested in understanding vegetables better, and thought the moment was right for a vegetarian cookbook. "The writing was on the wall; people were interested in moving toward a plant-based diet," he says. He released How to Cook Everything Vegetarian and, later, Food Matters, the foundation for "Vegan Before 6," which he characterizes as a strategy for eating less meat and more plants.

In January of 2011, his op-ed column launched, and he began exploring climate change, nutrition, and agriculture as it relates to food. He's kept up the cooking, too, and just released another installment of the How to Cook Everything series, How to Cook Everything Fast.

Why is it important to cook? I used to say that if I could get everyone in the U.S. cooking rice and beans once a week, my career would be a success. And I was saying that before there was any question of sustainability [in food]. All I meant was that I wanted people to be able to take the simplest thing -- beans, rice, and spices -- and make a meal, and it costs 30 cents or maybe $1. People don't know how to do that, and it's really tragic. Then you add the sustainability thing, and being able to make food that doesn't take as many resources as meat and junk food is important. It gives people control, they can eat what they want, they can control portion size, and they can make a political statement, which is, "I want to eat real food." It's hard to cook with fake food. You can't really cook chicken nuggets. Even making french fries -- you're not going to do it as often as you go buy them. So we tend to cook more sustainably. We tend to eat more healthily. And we tend to eat less. There are social aspects of it that are good. I love restaurants, but I think cooking is important for all those reasons.

You recently wrote a column about the importance of finding one's home-cooked comfort food. Why is that crucial? For months and months, I'd talk to my wife on the phone, and we'd talk about dinner, and I'd say, "Pasta and salad? Pasta and fish? Fish and pasta and salad?" It was always some variation. That column was truth -- that is my life. I don't know if it's a phase or if I've settled in and it's what I do. I think that people find foods they like, and I think it's fine to go through life knowing how to cook 10 or 15 things. If you can cook one vegetable, you can cook any vegetable. Once you learn the basics, it's impossible not to know how to cook everything. So you find what's easy, and that's what you do. I love that people cook as a hobby, but that's kind of like building model airplanes. It's much more important to put food on the table.

Talk to me about the impetus for How to Cook Everything Fast. When How to Cook Everything came out, people said a few things. One was, "We don't want to know how to cook everything, just something." Other people said, "I'm a vegetarian; this book has too much meat." There were people who said, "I want pictures." And then there were people who said, "This takes too long." I've knocked all those complaints off gradually. If everyone says, "I don't have time to cook," then doing a book where recipes take 15, 30, or 45 minutes is playing to the crowd. So...we had to figure out what "fast" meant. We decided to take things that take a long time and make them faster. I'm never going to do bottled tomato sauce -- the idea is to stay true to the spirit of the recipe and do everything from scratch, but rethink things so they match the rhythm of experienced cooks. We thought things through, deconstructed recipes, and put them back together. Take the chicken Parmesan recipe: You turn on the broiler and put the baking sheet in, so you're getting your pan hot before you do anything. While that's happening, you slice tomatoes and cut the chicken; when you put chicken on the hot pan, it's already browning. Meanwhile, you're doing the breadcrumbs while that's cooking. I don't know if you call that revolutionary, but it's not a recipe to take the chicken out of the fridge, dredge it, take it out of the pan, cook some tomatoes, take those out of the pan, assemble with mozzarella, then put everything in the oven and finish it with basil breadcrumbs. This recipe is as good, but it's rethought.

Has it gotten easier to put out a volume like this? How to Cook Everything came out 20 years ago. That's a long time. It's written in a very classic style. There were things about How to Cook Everything that were innovative. And the book was basically what I knew at that point. It was a 1,500-page manuscript, and the editor changed five times while I was writing. The last editor calls me and says, "So I have your manuscript. What are we doing?" I say, "I want to delay publication for a year to figure out what I really have." She says, "Done." We threw out 150 recipes that were too esoteric and highfalutin, and we put in grilled cheese, popcorn, a hamburger -- recipes people should know, but didn't. The first radio talk show I did, the guy said, "Thank you for putting grilled cheese in there, I always wanted to know how to make that." So the recipes are not innovative -- the style is extremely traditional. The second edition -- the red one -- came out in 2008 for the 10th-year anniversary. It was cleaned up and much more progressive. We changed probably a third of the book, and took out the old-fashioned recipes for more contemporary stuff.

I wrote How to Cook Everything in total isolation and lockdown. I got up, cooked for the kids, and I usually made them something related to the book. Then I wrote and wrote. I cooked lunch for my wife, which was usually from the book. Dinner was always recipe-testing. [How to Cook Everything Fast] was like, "OK, how do we do this project?" I work a little more like a chef now -- I have people working for me, and they're happy to help me think things through. So this was well thought out and well conceived. It's still personal, it's still me, but it was more about, let's figure out how to do it better. How many hits will we get if we look up chicken Parmesan? Hundreds. And most of them will suck. So the goal of this book was to make it better and make it good and make it fast.

You've become known for "Vegan Before 6" (VB6) -- tell me a bit about your philosophy behind that and how you got there. There's a tie-in between food, agriculture, nutrition, and climate change, and that's very powerful. The nice thing is that if your primary concern is environmental and you change your diet so that you eat less meat, you're helping your health, too. If your primary concern is health, you still benefit the environment. There are not a lot of things that are such win-wins as changing your diet. So beyond seeing the links between industrial monoculture and global warming, I started to have the typical health problems of a man in his 50s -- I had high blood pressure, sleep apnea, high cholesterol, I was overweight, even my knees hurt. I went to this old doctor friend, and he told me that if I became a vegan, it would straighten everything out. I said, "I'm not going to become a vegan." He said, "You're smart. Figure something out." I like challenges and rules and new stuff, so I made this rule for myself that I would eat vegan before 6 p.m. A woman who works for me said, "That sounds fun, I'll do it too." So we checked in every day and talked about breakfast, snacking, and what we ate for dinner. Six weeks went by, and I lost 15 pounds. I thought, "OK, I'm going to do this for another while." Another six weeks went by, and I lost another 15 pounds. And all of my blood work was better. I thought, "There's something to this, and it makes perfect sense."

It works -- you won't lose 21 pounds in 21 days, but this is how you should be eating: more plants, less junk, and less animals. So I wrote Food Matters, then started calling it VB6, and that's how that happened. The part-time vegan diet is really where it's at. Vegan is a terrible word -- it's not useful, but it's the only word we have. Eat real food; eat unprocessed food. Eating animal products is OK, but it's about a shift. I fight with vegans all the time. There's this division in the vegan community between people who believe that any move toward eating fewer animal products is good. Those are my friends. Then there are the people who think eating animal products is like being Hitler -- I just can't go with that. Vegans could live on Oreos and Coke, and I'm not OK with that. But the philosophical discussion is not important -- what's important is that people eat more plants and less everything else. VB6 is a good strategy for that.

What are the most pressing issues facing our food industry? Right now, I have two big ones. Antibiotics in the food supply -- that should change immediately. And marketing junk to children -- that should change immediately. Both are being fixed in other countries. Both would have wider impacts than it sounds. Take routine use of antibiotics out of the food supply, for instance, and it's harder to raise animals in disgusting conditions.

How do we work on those issues? You get to the point where you say nothing changes in this country without campaign finance reform. So is that the biggest issue in food? You could say that. If you look at any of the big issues, you can't crack them open without big change in our society. Regulating antibiotics is not going to change that much. Or labeling GMOs. You change food by changing the Senate -- because we're not going to fix this stuff with the way the system is set up. We need big significant change, and that comes with raising consciousness, getting people voting better, and yelling more. Things do change. Look at gay marriage -- 10 years ago, no one believed gay marriage was going to be commonplace by 2014. And then suddenly there was an opportunity and the whole thing cracked open. So maybe that'll happen. Food affects everything.

Talk to me a bit about the evolution of the food industry. Are there any changes that you feel particularly responsible for? I'm not taking responsibility for anything, good or bad. I'm lucky enough to have an amazing platform that any food writer would kill for, and that's the power of the Times. But the biggest change that I've seen is that people who are concerned about food understand that labor is an issue. Five years ago, you heard more about the welfare of farm animals than farm workers. And that's nuts. And it's changed. It's food workers and their supporters in the media and in unions and NGOs who are spearheading the $15-an-hour minimum-wage movement. The $15-an-hour movement has serious, much more wide-ranging effect in the food world. It's coming out of food. There's been movement on the antibiotic front, too. The FDA is always a day late and a dollar short -- the USDA, too. They're slow and not powerful and beholden to industry and very cautious. Even when they do the right thing, they do it in such a cautious manner, and it takes forever. When my father went into the hospital, I thought, "He's going to get MRSA and die." And sure enough, he got an infection and died. They're pumping us up with antibiotics -- so many people die of antibiotic-resistant bacteria each year, and that's because there are antibiotics in the food supply. And it could get worse.

How has food media evolved? Blogging changed everything. When I got into this, there were a lot of people who were not that professional who had jobs at newspapers, which is to say, they weren't journalists. Food writing grew out of the women's pages, and it's come a long way. It's taken more seriously and it's become more professional. There are fewer people with jobs at newspapers but there are more people who are food writers. That's only part of the answer, though. The other part is that there are a lot of people writing about cooking, but there are also a lot of people writing about policy. The stuff that I do is mostly notable because it's in the Times -- there are people doing that stuff every day. [Helena Bottemiller Evich] at Politico. Lindsay Abrams at Salon. Tom Philpott at Mother Jones. They write great food stuff several times a week. And Bill Marler, the lawyer for food-safety cases -- he blogs all the time. If you want to know anything about the history of listeria in cantaloupes, he's written it. At the same time, old media has sort of fallen down on the job. New media is doing a better job of writing about food policy than old media. So I'm lucky to have gotten to this place.




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