The Making of the Minimalist

Mr. Bittman settled in New Haven with his first wife, Karen Baar, who worked for Planned Parenthood (they divorced in

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.

The Making of the Minimalist