Mark Bittman

The minimalist

October 18, 2010

“It’s simple.” This has been Mark Bittman’s mantra since he began as a food writer in 1980. A self-taught cook rather than a professionally trained chef, Bittman demystifies cooking in his New York Times column, The Minimalist; in his easy, accessible blog; and in his cookbooks, including his much-lauded 1998 opus How to Cook Everything and its 2008 companion, How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.

While venturing into vegetarian cuisine, Bittman began seeing the connection between America’s massive meat consumption and the toll it takes on the environment and on our health. In the last few years, he ate jamón in Spain with Mario Batali and Gwyneth Paltrow, but he also gave a galvanizing TED talk entitled “What’s wrong with what we eat?”

Mark Bittman in Florida recently.

In Food Matters, Bittman took up the rallying cry of Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food and added recipes focusing on produce, whole grains, and legumes. His new book, The Food Matters Cookbook, goes even further, offering 500 recipes that have the Bittman stamp of being healthy, easy, and unbelievably good. They also contain less meat — “much, much, much less.”

You started writing about food when much of the discussion was how exotic and stylish the food was. Now it’s all about how you source your food. How have you seen American food culture change since you began?
Back then, you’d go into a restaurant and the waiter would say, “We have green-lipped mussels from New Zealand,” and that was a great thing — the farther away it came from, the more exotic it was, the better. You go into a restaurant now and the guy says, “We have green-lipped mussels from New Zealand,” and it pisses me off.

In New York, for example, you go into an Italian restaurant and ask about the mozzarella and the waiter says, “We made it this morning.” You go to Toronto, which is not that far away, and you go into an Italian restaurant and they say, “We just flew it in from Italy.” It’s only five years ago that was the norm for most of the country. Mozzarella di bufala — now people can make it themselves.

You talk about the locavore movement — it’s easier to eat local stuff. People are making stuff, growing stuff. That’s going to be the real mark of prosperity — real food grown or made within a couple of miles or within a drive, with pride and skill.

How has your own approach to food and food writing changed since you began?
Until 2004, it was just growth and learning. I traveled a lot, explored other cuisines for 25 or 30 years, learning, learning, learning. I had no interest in anything other than the simplest stuff, other than cooking with Jean-Georges Vongerichten. In a way, he’s a great simple chef.

Food Matters was the biggest change in my life. Now I have some kind of philosophy: We should all be eating more like vegans — less meat, more plants. It’s the simplest thing in the world. You don’t need to know anything about health, phytonutrients, selenium, fat, salt — it’s all bullshit. The important thing is, you eat more plants and eat less of everything else. That’s what it all boils down to.

As a full-time vegan to a self-described “less-meatatarian” guy, I’ve got to ask: Is America ready for a meatless — or less meat — diet?
“Less-meatatarian” — no one likes that term. But I can guarantee I got 600 people in Philadelphia on Monday and 600 people in New York and nobody asking about Mario and Gywneth Paltrow. Now they’re saying, “How much of a crisis is this?” “What’s the matter with our food?” It’s a transformation, a younger, more aware audience. Not that older people aren’t more aware, too. Well, maybe they’re not.

I’m a funny guy, I’m a nice guy, but some of what I’m talking about is depressing. The key to survival is a plant-based diet. I don’t mean we have to be vegan, but we’re 90 percent nonvegan now. Begin by being semi-vegan.

What did you grow up eating?
My mother had a 1950s routine: meat every night. Hamburger, chops, steak, chicken. My sister says we had spaghetti and meatballs. Maybe. We’d have a potato, canned or frozen vegetables. And I ate street food. I lived in New York.

So how do you develop someone’s palate to appreciate a meal without meat?
I guess the answer is like anything else: you practice. We all appreciate meals without meat all the time; it’s not that challenging. There’s a great deal of things that don’t have meat, like pasta with tomato sauce. No one gripes about that not having meat. Vegetable soup doesn’t have meat. Rice and beans doesn’t have meat. It’s just a question of not seeing that kind of food as deprivation. It’s normal.

How about changes to your own palate?
When I wrote How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, I learned about more things and more options. Something about my sweet tooth has been minimized. I like savory food. What I like about it is salt. If I wake up vaguely not hungry, I’ll happily have a bowl of oatmeal with a little maple syrup. But this morning, I woke up hungry, and I had oatmeal with some soy sauce and mirin and a tiny bit of vinegar. I want that savory/salty thing that’s like bacon. I’m not saying I’m sitting here missing it, I’m not saying I’ll never eat a plate of bacon — it’s the chew, it’s the crunch. But it’s a lot about the saltiness, and if you like salt, you use salt.

I could go into the whole government salt-restriction thing.
You don’t want to go there. But if you did, most of our salt comes from eating too much processed food. If you don’t eat processed food, you’re probably not overdoing it. I don’t think it’s that much of an issue.

What’s the difference between creating a recipe and writing it?
I can cook, I know how to cook, but I’m very lazy. I do things very quickly and sloppily and it works fine. I’ve had a lot of practice over 30 years and many thousands of recipes. It may not be artful, it may not be Pulitzer Prize-winning stuff, but it’s still writing, and it’s gotta be clear, concise, and smart. You have to start with a good recipe but make it so other people can understand it. I do pride myself on doing that.

When you think of cooking, what sensory element first comes to mind? Smell, texture, taste, looks, sound?
It’s visual. Taste is the payoff. I want it to taste good, but it starts visually, looking at stuff and thinking how it’s going to work. That’s basically how I cook — I make sure I have a ton of stuff in the house. Sometimes I plan, but often I don’t. It’s like having a palette. You think how you’re going to put it all together. I don’t pay much attention to presentation. Real food is naturally beautiful. I think food looks good.

We seem to live at a disconnect. There’s a whole food-porn industry — celebrity chefs, the Food Network — but most of my friends don’t cook. So how does that sit with you, personally and culturally?
I think it sucks.

I used to make fun of my mother, but she put in the hours in the kitchen every night. A lot of people don’t.

The celebrity-chef thing is not about getting people to cook, it’s about getting people to watch television and spend money in restaurants. They and I have nothing in common.

You eat much better if you cook. You are taking control over what you’re eating. The only way to do that is to buy the ingredients and eat them raw or cook them. If you’re letting other people cook your food, you are not in control.

What’s the one dish everyone ought to be able to make?
Rice and beans. Beans and rice. Whatever. It’s the most important dish in the world. You can tell people if they start complaining about protein, “Shut up, it has protein.” It’s unbelievable. It’s vegan or not. There’s 20 kinds of beans, hundreds of grains, it just doesn’t stop. Cassoulet, franks and beans, all these sorts of meat dishes are beans and rice, anyway. It’s one of the fundamental dishes of Western cuisine.

Or do a stir-fry. Do one stir-fry, and you can make 10 different ones. Then a salad — there’s nothing to learn there.

Those three things, you could eat fine for the rest of your life. What’s the problem?

Florida-based writer Ellen Kanner keeps a website and a blog and contributes regularly to the Huffington Post.

There are 4 comments on this item
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1. by Margi Macdonald on Oct 19, 2010 at 4:25 PM PDT

“It’s the simplest thing in the world. You don’t need to know anything about health, phytonutrients, selenium, fat, salt — it’s all bullshit. The important thing is, you eat more plants and eat less of everything else. That’s what it all boils down to.”

I love that! I practice natural medicine - it’s unfortunately an industry which generates fads and products like no other.
Your observation is refreshing, overdue, and spot-on. Thank-you!

2. by Richard Pachter on Oct 19, 2010 at 7:32 PM PDT

Paltrow is a veg; She didn’t eat the jamón.

3. by Linear Girl on Oct 28, 2010 at 9:10 AM PDT

I love the comment about the visual element of cooking. It’s how I cook but I wouldn’t have been able to describe it that way until I read your answer here. Thanks for helping me understand how I envision new meals/recipes (see, I even use the term “envision” but I didn’t realize just how visual it is).

4. by anonymous on Dec 18, 2010 at 12:18 PM PST

“Eat more plants and less meat”. Sounds like the Bible’s “do not associate with those who gorge themselves on meat and drink excessive alcohol.” Is it necessary to restate what has been known for over 2 thousands years?

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