Mark Bittman, the New York Times food columnist and best-selling cookbook author, was ambling unnoticed through the tight aisles of the Fairway at 74th Street and Broadway on a mild Friday evening earlier this month, shopping for dinner. He nosed briefly around the fish counter before settling on a two-pound slab of monkfish. He had some Savoy cabbage at home, but he wasn’t sure what else. This seemed to fortify rather than trouble him. “If you can go get whatever you want,” he said, “there’s no challenge left at all.”
It was a quick cab ride 25 blocks north to his kitchen, which, as Times health blogger Tara Parker-Pope noted recently, is exceptionally small: 7 feet by 8 feet, Mr. Bittman claimed, but this seemed generous.
Lanky and loose-framed in blue jeans and a sweatshirt (he has lost 30 pounds over the past couple of years), he rooted through his refrigerator and tossed, among other things, a Ziploc bag full of roasted vegetables on the counter. He had cooked them that morning with Meredith Vieira on The Today Show, where he is a regular guest.
“I have chestnuts!” Mr. Bittman said from halfway inside the fridge. “That’s interesting.”
He emerged and considered for a moment the pile of food on his counter. “I think actually we should … sauté the Savoy cabbage, make it taste good, stuff the monkfish with some stuff, put the monkfish on top of the Savoy cabbage, cook a grain with some chestnuts.”
And there it was. Dinner in three parts, with almost no planning, from the man who has become, like The Joy of Cooking’s Irma Rombauer before him, America’s foremost home cook, the go-to authority on everything from braised spareribs to paratha to pad thai to spaghetti with butter and Parmesan.
With his next book, Food Matters, due from Simon & Schuster in January, he’d like to change the world. But for the moment, some simpler accolades.
“I use him for everything from pancakes (he’s great on pancakes) to grilled fish to things like his great recipe for baby artichokes with olives and tomatoes,” wrote Times executive editor Bill Keller in an e-mail, adding that his old yellow edition of Mr. Bittman’s breakthrough book, How to Cook Everything—which has supplanted Joy on many New Yorkers’ countertops—“is all gravy dribbles, wine rings and sauce stains.”
“It’s the dirtiest cookbook in our kitchen,” said Babbo chef Mario Batali, with whom Mr. Bittman has been gallivanting this fall, along with actresses Gwyneth Paltrow and Claudia Bassols, on the PBS food-porn show Spain … on the Road Again.
The commenters on Ms. Parker-Pope’s blog seemed more interested in what’s between the lines. “Mark Bittman rules!” … “Mr. Bittman looked so cute” … “I have a major crush on Bittman. Is he maried [sic]?”
Answer: Yes. To Kelly Doe, an art director at The Times. Back in the one-bedroom apartment he shares with her, which is decorated in orthodox Upper West Side (floor to ceiling bookshelves, enormous cactus), Mr. Bittman put a pot of water on the stove. His gray hair was shaved close and his round wire-rimmed glasses sat askew on his nose, giving him an air of persistent skepticism.
“Let’s start the chestnuts,” he said. “They’re a pain in the ass.”
MR. BITTMAN, who is 58, has no formal culinary training.
He was born in Manhattan and grew up in Stuyvesant Town; his parents still live there. After graduating from Clark University with a degree in psychology, he drove a cab in New York. (“People find it exciting, but it’s not that exciting.”) But it was the early 1970s, and he had become active in left-wing politics. He moved to Boston, where he worked as a community organizer.
“He was not one of these guys who struck one with their ambition and drive,” said an old friend from that crowd, Naomi Glauberman, also a journalist. “You didn’t say, ‘Oh my God, he’s gonna get somewhere.’”
Mr. Bittman settled in New Haven with his first wife, Karen Baar, who worked for Planned Parenthood (they divorced in 2002). After they had a daughter, Kate, he found himself cooking dinner most nights and realized he was good at it.
He also knew he was a good writer. One day a friend who worked at The New Haven Advocate, a local weekly, put him in touch with the paper’s editor. Mr. Bittman walked in and said, “I want to be your restaurant reviewer.” Told there already was a restaurant reviewer, Mr. Bittman replied, “They suck.”
Hired the next day, he soon began venturing beyond criticism. “I started putting things in like, ‘The restaurant serves what they call “pasta with pesto,” but it really wasn’t. Here’s how you make it.’”
He peddled his work to other publications around the country, with modest success. Editors liked his writing, he said, but “I had no cred whatsoever in the world of food. I’d say, ‘I have this great recipe for monkfish with Savoy cabbage.’ They’d say, ‘That’s great, call a chef. We want his monkfish recipe, not yours.’”
Mr. Bittman may not have been famous, but his voice was familiar, unpretentious and straightforward. In 1992, he sold his first cookbook, Fish, to Macmillan. “As far as I know,” he said, “I was the first American food writer to write about the joys of fresh tuna.”
He tested recipes on his family, which by then included a second daughter, Emma (now a server at David Chang’s Momofuku Ssäm Bar). “I would have friends over for dinner,” Kate remembered, “and he’d be making an enormous squid in the sink. We’d say, ‘Can you make us hot dogs instead?’”
Fish was an immediate hit; suddenly even The New York Times wanted a piece of Mr. Bittman. He began writing a regular column for them, the Minimalist, and working on a cookbook with the chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who shared his philosophy of simplicity, and whose star was rapidly rising in New York.
Around the same time, Macmillan, which had recently given up the rights to The Joy of Cooking, asked Mr. Bittman if he wanted to write a book like that for a new age.
“I said, ‘No! I don’t want to do it like that,’” Mr. Bittman said. Joy at that time was, as he described it, “collegial, like Diderot or Montesquieu.” In other words: “It sucked. Because it had all these different voices and they didn’t agree with each other.”
He preferred to emulate Ms. Rombauer’s original: “A person who knows how to cook telling people in his voice how to cook.”
The publisher agreed, and soon Mr. Bittman was getting up at 5 a.m. every day to write recipes for two hours before taking the kids to school. This took a year. Then came the winnowing.
“We took out the foie gras terrine and the wild boar stew and the bullshit that was part of cooking in those days, and we added—I’m not kidding—grilled cheese, popcorn, tuna sandwiches, hamburger. Like, total, total, total basics.”
HOW TO COOK EVERYTHING was published in November 1998, with an initial print run of 85,000. It sold out by Christmas. Today, the book and its offshoots—including a popular vegetarian adaptation—have sold more than two million copies. A 10th-anniversary edition of the original was released this month.
“We sell a hell of a lot of copies,” said Nach Waxman, the owner of Kitchen Arts & Letters, on the Upper East Side. “The world was ready for a big general cookbook because the famous ones had sort of basically disappeared. The Joy of Cooking, which was a sensation still after all those years … had just lost its legs with these various revisions.”
The tremendous success of Everything, along with the Minimalist, whose weekly deadline he has not missed once in 11 years; his own blog, Bitten; and the various TV and Web appearances, have given Mr. Bittman a scope of influence that he never anticipated.
“I didn’t see an opportunity for me to write about issues in the food world until recently,” he said. “I was just writing about recipes and having my cute little witty New Yorker sarcastic voice. But now I can pretty much find a platform for anything I want to say, so I’m saying what I think.”
What he thinks is that the American diet has been largely destroyed by the industrialization of food production and the massive amounts we eat as a result. “There’s a huge change going on in the way people look at food,” Mr. Bittman said. “I think it’s unavoidable, and I want to be a part of that.”
It’s not a new idea; the journalist Michael Pollan, for one, has covered this ground extensively. But Mr. Pollan doesn’t write recipes.
Food Matters lays out the case—philosophical and culinary—that Mr. Bittman has been making in print and on video over the past year. Like Mr. Pollan’s, it might be boiled down to: Eat less meat. It’s a rule he follows dutifully—no eating animals during the day—and to which he attributes much of his weight loss.
Also: Farmers’ markets may be a good thing, but they’re not going to save the world.
“People buy food in supermarkets,” said Mr. Bittman. “And they’re gonna buy food in supermarkets. So, it doesn’t matter if they buy good meat at the farmers’ market or good broccoli; what matters is they go to the supermarket and buy good broccoli—or even bad broccoli!—instead of meat.
“The grass-fed beef concept is really great,” he went on, “but if you don’t cut consumption, it doesn’t matter. There’s not enough room for grass-fed beef any more than there’s enough room for imprisoned beef.”
It’s the same with seafood. “All this farm-raised stuff, it’s crap,” he said, but he is wary of promoting wild fish. “If I tell you to go eat it, it’s gone.” Mr. Bittman said he cannot update Fish because so many of the 70 species he wrote about have since disappeared.
Not to ruin one’s appetite for dinner or anything! After several trips to the kitchen for knife tests, the monkfish was almost done. Mr. Bittman was waiting it out in the living room, slouching low in his chair and cradling a glass of white wine. He wasn’t freaking out in the slightest.
“As you can tell, I know what I’m doing, but I had no idea exactly what was going to happen. I made plenty of mistakes,” he said. Among them, he didn’t chop the cabbage enough; he forgot to turn the skillet on before searing the monkfish; and he burned his fingers while peeling the chestnuts. None of this bothered him.
“I have no interest in helping people becoming chefs,” Mr. Bittman said. “I have an interest in 50 percent of the people in America knowing how to cook. And whether they cook like chefs or not, I don’t care. It’s probably better if they don’t. It would be better if they cook like me, which is adequately.”
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