Mark Bittman

In his varied writings on food, Mark Bittman has taught us How to Cook Everything (and How to Cook Everything Vegetarian), collected The Best Recipes in the World, shared the pleasures of simple cooking in his New York Times column, “The Minimalist,” and collaborated with star chefs Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Mario Batali on book and television projects. Speaking of television, Bittman is a regular on the Today show, and his 13-part How to Cook Everything series on PBS was named the Best National Cooking Series of 2005 by the James Beard Foundation. His new book shifts his focus from cooking to eating. Making an informed and eye-opening environmental case for responsible eating, Food Matters shows how being more conscious of what we put on our plates can provide an easy and effective diet plan as well. Bittman being Bittman, there are recipes, too — more than 75 that show how to put the Food Matters program into easy, tasty practice. Our email conversation with the author took place in two installments and was conducted for the Review by editor-in-chief James Mustich.

B&N Review:Food Matters comes wrapped for this reader in two surprises. The first is to find a manifesto on healthy eating from such a happy advocate of appetite (I have my food-stained copies of How to Cook Everything and Simple to Spectacular right here to prove how infectious your advocacy has been). The second is the very real and rather stunning global environmental context for the book’s argument, especially as it pertains to eco-stresses caused by the world’s demand for livestock. Would you explain the motivation for your change of focus, in print, from enthusiastic cooking to conscious eating?

Mark Bittman: I’m no less enthusiastic about cooking — or eating. I have simply spent the last five years trying to figure out what style of eating really makes sense for Americans. The motivations are many: I became aware of (and was appalled by) the impact that the production of livestock, and junk food for that matter, has on the environment and global warming. Two, about 95 percent of animals in the U.S. are raised industrially — i.e., with no consideration for the animals themselves. Three, too much meat, junk food, and overprocessed carbohydrates have combined to cause a health epidemic in this country. And four, because after years of being a food writer and food lover who eagerly devoured pretty much anything, I was faced with some personal health problems.

BNR: How exactly does the worldwide demand for livestock contribute to environmental stresses?

MB: Just one example, though perhaps the worst possible one: industrially produced livestock, according to the UN, generates nearly 20 percent of greenhouse gases, more than any other sector save energy production. Greenhouse gas production will rise in direct proportion to production of more livestock. And by the way, grass-fed beef is not a favorable alterative; the only way around this is to produce less meat for human consumption.

BNR: One of the most striking sentences in the book to me is this one: “Our soil, once this country’s most valuable resource, is not only becoming depleted, it’s literally vanishing.” Could you explain that?

MB: Sod is “virgin” soil. Once you break it, it is more vulnerable to being washed away. Add monoculture, chemical fertilizers (which do nothing to build the soil physically, only chemically), and unnatural levels of irrigation, and you have soil being washed into (mostly) the Gulf of Mexico. There are places in the Midwest where the land is several feet lower than it used to be as a result.

BNR: Let me set the stage for the next question with a couple of quotations from the book:

In recent years, Americans’ life expectancy became the second-worst in the industrialized world, just ahead of Latvia.

We have not been moving in the direction of “improved nutrition,” though, and consequently have seen the situation get worse. Since 1990, those diagnosed with diabetes have increased 6.1 percent; since 1991, the prevalence of obesity has increased 75 percent; and heart disease is not only the number one killer of adults: frighteningly, it’s also the second leading cause of death for children under 15.

Why, with so much attention paid to nutrition over the past decade, have things been getting worse?

MB: Because the attention is being paid to the wrong things — magic bullets instead of commonsense eating. If a quarter or a third of the country has pre-diabetes, doesn’t it make sense to reduce the things that cause it (and cause obesity, too), which are not only sugar but simple carbohydrates? If rates of heart disease and cancer are refusing to yield to drugs and “low-fat” diets, doesn’t it make sense to look at the bigger picture? We’re just eating the wrong way — it’s not much more complicated than that. And not that difficult to change.

BNR: You write quite tellingly about the futility of governmental action on these issues. Indeed, you describe a large part of the FDA’s efforts with regard to Nutrition Labeling and Education as “a large-scale scam that allows packagers of processed food to toss, say, a little calcium or soy in with their largely nonnutritive food and claim that these foods ‘have the potential to prevent osteoporosis’ or ‘reduce the risk of heart disease.'” At the same time, you make it clear — and this is what’s refreshing about Food Matters — that, on an individual level, action is simple, uncomplicated, and not even especially onerous. How would you reduce the knowledge contained in the book to a simple action plan, and why can’t the government or other agencies do the same?

MB: To answer the second question first: the USDA has a deeply conflicted role. There are well-intentioned and intelligent people there, as there long have been, and they know what comprises sane eating. But the agency’s role is also to promote the food grown and produced by American farmers: corn, soy, sugar, flour, and meat.

As to the simple action plan: eat more vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole grains; eat less of everything else. Really, it doesn’t have to be more complicated than that.

BNR: Is governmental ineffectiveness an intractable part of the problem, or can something be done to re-focus national resources of information and communication? Do you have any hope for the new administration in this regard?

MB: Oof. What a question. I think if I were so pessimistic as to say governmental ineffectiveness is intractable I’d give up. I do have hope for the new administration, though I’m taking a wait-and-see attitude. I do believe, though, that pressure by citizens is always the key to real and lasting change. If we want to eat better we can do so.

BNR: Can you take us through how you make Food Matters work for you on a day-to-day basis?

MB: My case is odd, because I’m weird; I like rules. You don’t need the rules — just do what I said in the above question — eat more plants, less meat, junk food, and overprocessed carbs. The more you do that the better.

For me, I’m a maniac from dawn until dusk — I eat only vegetables, whole grains, fruits, and legumes — no white flour, no sugar, no dairy, etc. Then at night I eat whatever I want to, including bread, meat, wine, etc. It works for me.

BNR: Let’s step back outside the book’s specific parameters to look for a moment at some broader social and cultural — perhaps even philosophical — concerns. You write: “Everything I’ve discussed so far — the overproduction and consumption of meat, the omnipresence of junk food, our declining health, the contributions of agribusiness to global warming and other environmental horrors — happened gradually.” Are there factors outside the realm of food that have influenced our current penchant for “unconscious” eating?

MB: Well, if marketing can be considered outside of food, sure — we’ve been encouraged to eat meat, dairy, processed food, useless carbs, and outright junk for fifty years or more. It’s been the most intense marketing campaign imaginable, and — had it been regulated, like marketing cigarettes has been — we’d be a lot healthier.

BNR: Has the rise of technology, say, and its empowerment of a new sense of individual and social identity, detached from land and even, to some extent, from traditional continuities of time, contributed to the state of affairs you’d like to change?

MB: Yes, for sure. People don’t know where their food comes from; they’re alienated from farms and from their family’s traditions — it’s a tragedy from the social as well as more obvious perspectives.

BNR: You make the case that the pursuit of convenience can have a dangerous influence on eating habits. In some way, the same is true of cooking, in that flavor requires a certain amount of time to seep in. It seems to me that what unites Food Matters to the work you’ve been doing all along is your gift for getting the highest return in the most efficient manner — in this case, a healthy and eco-friendly return on eating habits; in the “Minimalist” columns, for example, the best return in flavor on the least amount of work. It’s like you are an eating and cooking investment advisor, instructing us how to invest our time wisely for the most satisfying experiences in the kitchen and at table. Does that ring true to you?

MB: Yes. Here’s the thing, and thanks for asking: in a way, cooking helps solve the problem. When people shop for themselves and cook for themselves, they’re totally conscious about what they eat — they’re aware of every single thing they put in their mouths. Now: if the message is clear — eat more plants, fewer animals — and they believe it, and they start cooking for themselves, the rest is easy. No?

BNR: As a cook and food lover, has the change in your own eating habits described in Food Matters led to the happy discovery of new ingredients, new flavors, or new culinary techniques or traditions?

MB: For sure. I’m eating many times more grains, beans, vegetables, and fruit than I was a couple of years ago. I’m using more herbs and spices, I suppose — because, after all, meat is the ultimate convenience food (you brown it, add salt, it tastes good). But the fact is I’m cooking much more than I was, much more simply, and enjoying it more. Eating — well, that’s the easy part.

BNR: There are 75 appealing recipes in the book. Would you mind highlighting a few of your favorites?

MB: I really love the frittata with less eggs and the pasta with more sauce. Also:
Pan-Cooked Grated Vegetables and Crunchy Fish
Braised Vegetables with Prosciutto, Bacon, or Ham
Whole Grains without Measuring (because it so simplifies things; same with the basic bean and veg recipes)
Orchiette with Broccoli Rabe, My Style
Meat-and-Grain Loaves, Burgers, and Balls

BNR: The recipes for short ribs in Simple to Spectacular, the book you wrote with Jean-Georges Vongerichten, are on the short list of all-time favorites in my house. Can we still eat them without guilt?

MB: Yes, of course. But probably not as often!

BNR: In conclusion, a general question: How did you come to cooking and culinary writing as a career? Did you start out as a writer/reporter, and gravitate to food? Or was it the other way around? If the former, was there one moment or experience that, as it were, tipped you into the cooking pot?

MB: I was a home cook, and I loved it. I was a writer, searching for something to write about that would actually help me earn a living. It worked out. The memorable moments are many, but none was earth-shattering; it was a slow, steady, difficult development. Mostly work, a little luck, but nothing miraculous.