From the Issue: A Conversation with Mark Bittman
Written by Bwog Staff
The February/March issue of the Blue and White will be hitting newsstands, benches, and tables near you later this week, but until then, here’s the issue’s Conversation, in which Hannah Goldfield sits down with Minimalist/all-around chef Mark Bittman.
Though best known for his column “The Minimalist” in the New York Times weekly Dining & Wine section, Mark Bittman is also a blogger, a television personality, and the author of many books–including the modern classic, How to Cook Everything, and his most recent effort, Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating, which has earned him the titles “food historian” and “philosopher.” Champion of oatmeal and other easy, savory breakfasts, he sat down with The Blue & White for the first meal of the day, to talk about cooking, nature’s ironies, and what the new administration might do about the American food dilemma.
The Blue and White: In your new book, Food Matters, you refer to yourself as a “decent cook.” Is that just modesty? Why are you not a great cook?
Mark Bittman: Well, I think I’m a lazy cook, so I think I’m actually an exceptionally good lazy cook. The other night, some friends came over and I had this fabulous black cod that I brought back frozen from Canada, and I marinated it in the morning in miso and soy and sake and stuff, and I broiled it–it took eight minutes. Everybody thought I was a genius because the cod was so good. Yes, I knew what I was doing. I didn’t overcook the black cod, I didn’t undercook the black cod, I marinated it the right way, I didn’t use any recipes; I’m a good cook. But, I never make, for example, lasagna, because it’s too much work. I don’t make croquettes.
B&W: Well, you’re The Minimalist.
MB: But I was the minimalist before I was The Minimalist. I’m a guy whose wife worked, whose kids were growing up, and who had to have dinner on the table every night at a certain time and never started until it was too late, and so I learned how to cut corners. And that’s the kind of cook I am. My friends are very impressed, and people are afraid to cook for me, and blah, blah, blah, but I know my limitations. I also know more about food than almost anyone I know, so I more accurately assess my skill level than most people do.
B&W: Do you think that there’s value in talking about and writing about food without a sociopolitical overtone? Food as an art form? Like what do you think of the Food Network?
MB: Well, but that’s not writing and talking about food as an art form. I think there’s huge value in writing good, clear recipes and encouraging people to use them. I think there’s enormous value in teaching people how to cook. I think that if everybody went to the supermarket, bought ordinary ingredients and cooked five times a week, the world would be a better place.
MB: Because there’d be a better use of resources, you’d automatically be using less processed food, people would be eating much less in the way of poison–additives. They’d probably be eating less meat and chicken, they might be eating less dairy. They’d start exploring the world of vegetables and grains. If people just went to the supermarket and bought ordinary ingredients and cooked with them, not bought microwaveable budget gourmet and said I’m cooking dinner tonight, put the thing in there–
B&W: Beep, beep.
MB: Right, yeah, but cooked, I think that would be tremendously valuable.
B&W: Why don’t people cook?
MB: I don’t know. I could give you a sort of historical–[spills oatmeal on his shirt]. Does everyone do this and I don’t see them do it? I mean, there’s no point in even buying new clothes!
[Resumes] It’s a long story: there was World War II, and there was a surplus of food. The food started getting frozen and the microwave was invented. People were told that food needed to be convenient, housewives were too busy. I think that this, to some extent, fed off what eventually became the women’s movement, because I don’t think they were really too busy, I think they were too bored. By the time the ‘70s came around, women started joining the workforce in great numbers; there was no one left to cook. So then you had this couple of blank decades where no one cooked.
Now you can talk about the Food Network. The Food Network has a much bigger audience than the Dining Section of the New York Times, Gourmet magazine, Food & Wine, etc., combined. Philosophically, I have problems with what they do, because they glorify weird ingredients and in some ways I think they discourage people from cooking because they make it look like it’s really tricky, you have to be able to chop like this: dutdutdutdutdut. I can’t do that stuff.
On the plus side, they’ve brought a consciousness of cooking and of food–international food, especially–to the floor. So people could say, “Oh, look, there’s this Thai restaurant, I really like Thai food,” then they might see some of it cooked on TV, and then they realize, “Oh, maybe I can do that.” Would I have rather that everybody have learned how to cook from reasonable people like me, who don’t sensationalize things? Yeah, but, so what?
B&W: Who is your intended audience with Food Matters?
MB: My intended audience is people who shop in Walmart. My intended audience is people who are not locavores, vegetarians, into organic food, because I went on book tour and those are the people who showed up and I said, look, with all due respect… I’m preaching to the choir here. I think I can say things that are useful to vegetarians, to people who are committed to organic food and local food. I have suggestions and ways that I think that I could help those people see things straighter. They probably think they can help me see things straighter, which is fine, I don’t mind the argument. But the statistics in my book are real. I need to reach the people who are eating only one serving of plants and vegetables a day. I don’t know anyone who eats that way because it’s not my circle of friends.
B&W: You probably don’t have a lot of obese friends.
MB: Right. So how do I reach those people? A little bit in the column, a little bit in the book, but in the long run, how do I get out there? I need to figure out a way to reach more of the How to Cook Everything audience, which is a more mass-marketed audience, I think. I’d like to do television based on Food Matters. Starting in May, The Today Show, at least, is no longer going to position me as this guy who’s a whiz in the kitchen and can show you all these cool things to do fast, but more as someone who can help you figure out the right way to eat.
B&W: Do you think that your plan is realistic for people like that? Can somebody follow it on food stamps, say?
MB: Yes, absolutely, because rice, and beans, and lettuce, and stuff like that is all cheap. Frozen vegetables, which I have no problem with, are really cheap. There’s a lot of inexpensive, halfway-decent food out there.
People on food stamps–and look, that’s a very small percentage of the population–I’m not saying write those people off, by any means, but they need a special kind of help. Those who’ve had elite upbringings and are very literate–we can figure this stuff out for ourselves. But then there’s like 80 percent of the population in the middle, people who drive cars, have jobs, have some money–what I want them to do is go cook a decent meal, based on this less–meat, less–processed–food, less–junk food, more–plants theory. And they don’t have to jump off a cliff, they don’t have to go whole-hog, they could do it a little bit. I honestly believe that it would be self-reinforcing, that they’d lose weight or they’d feel better or they’d save money.
B&W: What should and can the Obama administration be doing about food?
MB: That is really out of my league; I don’t want to be a fantasist. But I would like to see the beginning of very strict curbs on factory farming. I would like to see the environmental costs of raising food industrially paid by the producers.
I would like to see the true costs of food reflected in the price of food, which would make some food cheaper, but most food more expensive, but I think that’s OK. I think that if the true cost of raising livestock were reflected in the price, you’d see a big increase in the price of fast food, which would encourage people to cook.
I’d like to see food stamps be worth more or less depending on the food that you buy. For example, food stamps are worth zero if you want cigarettes. That’s a good thing. Food stamps should be worth zero if you want to buy Kraft macaroni and cheese, frozen food that you pop in the microwave, potato chips, soda–soda would be first on my list. Then I’d like to see food stamps worth something more than zero for dairy and meat and viable canned goods–canned beans, canned tomatoes–and more than that for fresh vegetables, dried beans, stuff like that. And then I’d like to see that pricing structure [in place for the rest of the population].
B&W: How high on the priority list should food be, relative to other things?
MB: What matters more? I mean it’s everything, it’s agriculture, it’s health. It’s ridiculous to address whether there’s universal health insurance without addressing why this country is the world leader in so many lifestyle diseases–it’s diet. People ask the question, should smokers be penalized when it comes to universal health care, because if you smoke–and it is a choice even though it’s an addiction–you’re costing the rest of us money. If you get 90 percent of your calories from animal products and junk food, you’re more likely to get a lifestyle disease–should you be penalized for that? These are the questions that need to be addressed, and I don’t see them being addressed.
B&W: It seems like one of nature’s cruel ironies is that things that are bad for us taste so good.
MB: I think some of that is actually marketing, because I have to say that since I changed my diet, I have a newfound appreciation–if you give me a good apple, I really like it, I really do. It’s not the same as it used to be. I can tell the difference between a good carrot and a bad carrot, I can tell the difference between good oatmeal and bad oatmeal. So it’s not just that. But [you know] fat does have a lot of flavor.
B&W: Frying something makes it taste better.
MB: Well, and good meat contains a lot of fat and it’s very, very complex, much more complex flavor than most apples, for example, and you tend to grill it, you cook it in a way that it browns it and then browning makes things even more complex. I think the lesson is that those things that you say are bad for you are only bad for you in large quantities. A lot of this stuff is a gift. And I’m not a religious person, but as it turns out, a lot of these gifts are things that need to be treated more respectfully and used sparingly. So, a really good apple is a gift, maple syrup is a gift–it’s very hard to make, very labor intensive, only available in a small part of the world, part of the year.
A really properly raised animal, that someone took care of, treated well, and then killed and you’re eating–that is a serious gift. We raise 10 billion animals a year. You’ve taken the specialness out of that, you’ve ruined it. So, the way to get it back is to say, what’s the number of animals that can be raised in a principled manner on the amount of land that we have available to use in the U.S. with a just amount of resources? I would guess the number’s a billion, that our animal production needs to fall by 90 percent to be the right number, so that we’re eating, instead of 30 chickens a year per person–which is about what our number is, half a chicken a week–maybe each family of four eats a chicken a week. That would be an interesting start.
B&W: How do you suggest wading through this wealth of contradictory information we have about health? You have a lot of facts and statistics in your book and I read the New York Times Health section pretty regularly. I read once that sprouts can give you cancer, I read the other day that you shouldn’t blow your nose…
I saw that, what was that about? Of course you’re gonna blow your nose, the stuff is coming out–what are you gonna do, leave it there? I don’t read that stuff. Don’t read it! I don’t think any food is bad for you except, there are proportional issues. “A guide to conscious eating” is what this book is. I can have bacon and eggs for breakfast, it’s not against my rules; I would then look very carefully at the way I ate for the rest of the day, and even for the rest of the week. But I have nothing against bacon and eggs, and I don’t think there are magic bullets. I went out to Portland, and all they were talking about was hemp. And I’m like, you guys are nuts: hemp is not the answer.
B&W: You don’t believe in super foods, and antioxidants, and all that?
MB: No! I don’t believe in super foods and I don’t believe in evil foods, either, it’s just food. The question is how you balance it. So, I don’t think people should be bombing McDonald’s–not that anyone is. I think people should be eating there less, but I don’t think people should be eating there never.
B&W: Do you eat there?
MB: I haven’t in awhile, but it doesn’t mean I won’t. You just can’t make a steady diet of it because it’s clearly, clearly not good for you. Especially since you don’t know what’s in that stuff.
B&W: I read in your book that sometimes cattle are fed cooked municipal garbage… God, that was the most horrifying thing.
MB: I think feathers, when the chickens are fed feathers.
B&W: But cooked garbage…
B&W: Well, agree to disagree.