The following is a Q&A with Mark Bittman, food personality, The New York Times columnist and author of How to Cook Everything and VB6. It was originally published in Edible Idaho South, a local food magazine. I had an amazing time speaking with this man, and I thought all of you might enjoy reading our talk on veganism, ethical and mindful eating, and the importance of cooking at home. Enjoy!
The Minimalist himself, Mark Bittman — food writer, author, recipe developer and passionate advocate for real food — made his first visit to Sun Valley in March as part of the Sun Valley Center for the Arts 2013-2014 lecture series.
Bittman became a household name in 1997, with the start of “The Minimalist” column for The New York Times. The goal of the column was to make home cooking more accessible, with recipes that called for minimal technique, minimal time, minimal ingredients, or any combination thereof. Bittman also authored the seminal work, How to Cook Everything, a cookbook dedicated to showing home cooks that yes, they could make that dish, and here’s how. The Minimalist ended its reign in 2011, but Bittman continued to write op-ed pieces on food and food policy for The New York Times, as well as hosting a PBS Show, pioneering the Vegan Before Six (VB6) movement and arguing that Americans need to begin focusing on eating fresh, unprocessed, plant-based foods.
In between speaking engagements, Bittman sat down for a conversation with Edible Idaho South’s Kate Wutz about food, politics and how we should eat:
Kate Wutz: I, like most people interested in food in America, have read and followed “The Minimalist,” but I’ve also read your book, Kitchen Express, which focuses on quick meals using fresh ingredients. Have you found that your recipes are almost deceptively simple, that they come across as being almost too simple to need a recipe?
Mark Bittman: “The Minimalist” and Kitchen Express are very different, though they might read the same. I don’t think The Minimalist is deceptive at all. It’s just the most straightforward stuff imaginable from someone who learned to cook at home. In that period of my life, when I was writing it, I probably quadrupled my repertoire. You could learn to cook from The Minimalist. It was for people who wanted to put dinner on the table easily and quickly. Kitchen Express, if you don’t know how to cook, might seem simple, but it reads like Greek.
Wutz: Why is it important that people know how to cook? Why is it important to teach people how to roast a chicken, or how to put together a good salad?
Bittman: It’s so important for people to cook. Only by cooking do you really know what you’re putting in your mouth, what ingredients there are, where did they come from. Without cooking, that’s impossible. For example, why is a chef’s risotto so much better than yours? Because you’d never have the temerity to use the amount of butter that a chef would. I use quite a bit of butter in my risotto at home, but at least I do it with my eyes wide open.
Wutz: You obviously feel very passionately about people knowing what’s going into their mouths. How do you feel about the so-called “ag-gag” law recently passed by the Idaho Legislature, and other similar laws in place around the nation?
Bittman: So often we conflate controlling what we’re eating with how it’s produced, and that’s not always the same thing. We talk about choosing what we should eat — for example, should I have broccoli, or should I have a cheeseburger? But nearly as important a question is, what’s in the cheeseburger? There are countless questions when it comes to the meat, how it was raised, and where it comes from. The ag-gag laws are convenient for the industry, because the more you’re kept in the dark, the more likely you are to be okay with the meat produced.
The opposite of ag-gag laws would be full transparency.There are always two steps to making good food choices. Step one, what are you eating? Step two, what went into it? Pesticides, are there GMOs, how are the laborers treated, how are the animals treated, that sort of thing. Each of those things is not incredibly important by itself — and you are still better with non-organic broccoli than any kind of cheeseburger — but different people care about different things. I know what I care about, for example, and I place laborers above animal welfare, but it’s all important, and we know so little about it. This idea of ag-gag laws, it’s like taking all the labels off of food. It’s like saying, why should you know what’s in Cheerios? What business is it of yours?
Wutz: Are there fewer questions when it comes to plant-based foods? How much does that influence your advocacy for VB6 (a lifestyle in which one eliminates all animal products, sugar, and other processed foods before 6 p.m.)?
Bittman: There was a medical issue [when I began VB6], but it coincided with a time when I realized that I had more visibility than I thought. I though, I know more than about recipes, the problems with the standard American diet are obvious, so why aren’t I writing about this? The transformation of my work and the start of VB6 was contemporaneous, and it was not a coincidence.
It’s easier to eat this way in that, if you make rules for yourself and how you eat, and you follow them, and they were good rules in the first place, then you don’t feel guilty half the time you’re eating, which we all do anyway.
I needed to change the proportion of foods in my diet. Everyone in this country could stand to eat less junk food, less processed food and fewer animal products. That’s what this does. I’m only prejudiced toward it because it works for me, and it continues to work. There are ways of measuring whether or not we’re reasonably healthy, and they are pretty straightforward — blood pressure, cholesterol, body fat percentage — and this diet keeps them all in check for me. The only problem is that, while every restaurant has vegan options, it’s usually the worst option. As a friend of mine says, how many chopped salads can you eat?
Wutz: People have so many options these days for “how to eat well” — VB6, vegan, Paleo, low-fat, gluten-free. How do you recommend people attempt to navigate their options?
Bittman: The more options you can give someone within a diet, the more likely they are to see they can do it. That’s why VB6 works. For the most part, you don’t eat processed foods or animal products before six, then do whatever you want.
Wutz: You’ve said that you developed VB6 because there were foods you could never, ever give up. Care to share some examples?
Bittman: Oh, I like pizza and hot dogs and all that crap. I did actually eat a bag of potato chips the other day, which is something I hadn’t done in a long time. The answer is to decrease the frequency. And you know, it’s hard to panic about not being strict enough when butter turns out to be better for you than margarine, when fat turns out to be better than carbs, and we spend 30 to 40 years misunderstanding that. It’s all just one great big giant experiment, and we’re all guinea pigs.
Wutz: Your philosophy seems incredibly in line with that of Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma. How much did he influence your views on food?
Bittman: A lot. I spent all of those years cooking, and felt like something was missing. That thing was a way to think and write about what food was about. Michael and Eric Schlosser [author of Fast Food Nation], there’s nothing better than their books. I get sent every single book published about food in the country, and these guys set the stage. Nothing else is opening doors like these guys did. They exposed the problems, and now we’re in a period of extended experimentation, looking for solutions — though, of course, the vast majority of people don’t think we have a problem.
Wutz: How do your ideas apply to those in socio-economic groups that might not have access to or be able to afford fresh, unprocessed, good food?
Bittman: Between 70 and 90 percent of people in the United States have access to fresh food most of the time, so the fact that some people don’t have that does not invalidate this message. That group might be the last to be able to benefit from change, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. It’s a process. Three years ago, you would not have believed that gay marriage would not only be legalized, but it would be normalized in your lifetime. We’ve seen a lot of change in this country, and we could see it accelerate further. Things can happen very, very quickly. It pays to be ready, and it pays to be optimistic.
Mark Bittman writes (mostly) about food for the Times Opinion pages, and is The Magazine’s lead food columnist. He is the author of VB6: Eat Vegan Before 6:00 and How To Cook Everything.