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Q and A with Mark Bittman


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I recently had the chance to do a Q and A with Mark Bittman, currently on a book tour with his latest, The Food Matters Cookbook.

Bittman is also a columnist and creator of the New York Times “The Minimalist” column, as well as the bestselling author of Food Matters, How to Cook Everything, and How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. He also appears regularly on the Today show, was previously involved with several public television shows, and is expected to begin a new show with The Cooking Channel this coming fall.

In short could you tell me how you first got into cooking and developed a real passion for food?

Bittman:  I started, as so many people do, at home, cooking for myself and later my family. I liked it more the more I did it; I talked my way into reviewing restaurants, and from there was able to make it a career.

Since making the dietary changes outlined in Food Matters, what comes to mind as the number one effect on your life that this change has ensued?

Bittman:  Well,encouraging this way of eating has become my main professional focus. I’ve spent decades trying to show how easy and enjoyable home cooking is–now I want to convince people that their lives and their children’s lives and the health of the planet depend on it. I truly believe that we, as a nation and as a planet, are facing disaster if we don’t change the way we eat.

When do you think this kind of notion to eat less dairy, meat, and processed foods will really take on in America?

Bittman: Unfortunately, not until the prices of meat, dairy, and processed foods begin to reflect the actual cost of these foods, which won’t happen until the government stops subsidizing crap and starts taxing processed foods and subsidizing fresh fruits and vegetables. But even in the absence of government intervention, I think more and more people will see the writing on the wall–it’s irrefutable that there’s a strong link between our diet, global warming, and our poor national health.

Do you think our food industry has shown, or at least shown enough, signs of significant improvement towards a healthier way of eating over recent years?

Bittman: No. Big Food claims to want to help fix the problem by creating products with less sugar and fat, and reducing portion sizes, and creating campaigns to encourage people to eat moderately and exercise–but they still pour hundreds of millions of dollars into advertising campaigns to convince us and our children to buy more and eat more. Can you blame them? They profit from the current system; they have absolutely no incentive to change it. That’s why we need governmental intervention and a stronger “eat real food” message.

When’d you decide you wanted to expand Food Matters and create a cookbook using its philosophy?

Bittman: Well, I’ve been eating and cooking this way for four years now; it was inevitable that I’d turn into a cookbook since that is, after all, what I do. Also, I can’t very well encourage people to eat less meat and more plants without giving them practical ways to do it.

You note that it was a relatively easy adjustment for you to scale back on meat.  What would you tell the people who find it just too difficult to give up their 3-times-per-day meat consumption?  Any particular recipes you’d recommend for these kind of people from the new cookbook?

Bittman: My advice is to start small.  If you currently eat meat three times a day, try eating a single vegetarian meal without changing the other two meals. Or–if you really want to eat meat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner–just eat less of it. The Food Matters Cookbook contains literally hundreds of recipes that contain meat, just in smaller quantities. I’m not promoting a vegan diet here. I’m promoting less-meatarianism.

What’s your favorite recipe from the Food Matters Cookbook?

Bittman: I can’t pick favorites. There are too many. But I have a soft spot for the ones that take familiar dishes and turn them upside down, like “Vegetables au Vin with Coq” and “Mushroom Stew with Beef Chunks.” I think they prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you don’t need a ton of meat to create a flavorful dish.

Fav. Vegetarian recipe?

Bittman: Again, not to pick favorites, but some of the vegetarian pasta recipes, like “Pasta with Puréed Red Beans and Shiitakes,” for instance are awesome.

What led your passion for food towards food writing?

Bittman: I had some editorial experience as a young man, and I felt like I had a little bit of a knack for writing. I also didn’t see very many voices in food writing saying what I wanted to say–which is  that anyone can cook, and it doesn’t have to be intimidating.

What would signify as your proudest moment of your career?

Bittman: It’s hard to choose one, but publishing both How to Cook Everything and The Food Matters Cookbook means the world to me.

Any advice for other food bloggers like me?

Bittman: Develop a voice and a beat. With all due respect, most people aren’t really interested in what the average food blogger made for dinner last night. But if you have some expertise in one topic or another, you’re more likely to gain a real readership.

Where do you get your produce?

Bittman: I get my produce sometimes at the Greenmarket, sometimes in grocery stores. I used to garden when I was living in Connecticut, but it’s unlikely that I’ll get back into gardening anytime soon.  I don’t have the space. But here’s the thing: where you buy your produce is far less important than making an attempt to buy MORE produce, in place of anything else.

You tell your readers that you do enjoy the occasional piece of good white bread or a plate of white pasta…I mean, who doesn’t? But what would you say is your favorite indulgence?

Bittman: I have many indulgences. Wine. Good cheese. Pizza. Potato chips. It’s just a question of enjoying them in moderation.

So after you’re done with your current book tour, what do you have in store next?  I know you did the PBS Spain on the Road Again series….Any more TV shows in the plans?

Bittman: I’m pleased to say that The Cooking Channel will be airing episodes of The Minimalist starting this fall.

Mark Bittman in Philly


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So I’ve done a few posts about Bittman lately, largely due to the new release of his Food Matters Cookbook.

On Monday, Bittman drew a crowd of around 350 to the Philadelphia Library where he spoke about food trends and the impact they have had on our diets and the planet.

“No one knows what a hamburger really costs,” said Bittman, noting that the price of a greasy burger to your health and the planet, as estimated by some, costs as much as $200 a burger, far more than the 99 cents deal marketed on the menu.

In his slide show, Bittman pictured a cow next to a mushroom cloud, stating that our current food demands far surpass what is sustainable.  “It’s a little hyperbolic, but you’ve got to get people to pay attention,” he joked.

The United States is the world’s most environmentally damaging country.  We also have one of the highest rates of meat consumption of any country in the world.  The production of this meat hordes both land (taking 10 times as much land to raise meat as it does plants) and water resources.

“If we had one and 1/3 Earths we could be living sustainable,” says Bittman, explaining that our demand continues to increase, but what we are producing now is not sustainable.  “If we were to all live like Americans, we’d need four Earths.”

The amount of meat we process in the U.S. alone could go to the moon and back five times.

The demand for meat, dairy, and processed foods, making up approximately 70% of the American diet, largely is due to marketing.

“No one is born craving skittles, or doughnuts, or whoppers,” says Bittman, going on to remind Americans that there was a time when we used to “eat real food, and Goldfish still swam.”  We don’t need these kinds of foods.

But today, America would rather specialize and market the heck out of things that kill us, like pizza, fruit loops, and other processed foods, all in the name of making a profit.

While Bittman respects vegans, his solution to fixing our food system and making it sustainable isn’t by advocating that everyone becomes vegan.  “I’m not pitching veganism.  I’m pitching what I call ‘less-meat-arianism’,” he emphasizes.

He’s also a huge fan of the proposed soda tax, which he envisions as one day being expanded to all junk food as well.  Eliminating marketing of junk to kids, fixing the school lunch program, mandating that package labeling become fully honest, and creating incentives for those who buy and sell healthy food and disincentives for those who don’t are all key proponents of how Bittman, and many like him, see as the solution to fixing our food system.

He also advocates that people should start cooking and stop relying on convenience foods, a prevalent bad habit among Americans.   “Our mantra has become, ‘I’m to busy to cook,'” states Bittman, going on to note that despite this purported business, we still find time to fit in numerous hours of TV and to watch others cook on that TV of our.

Controversy over Lady Gaga’s VMA Meat Debut

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Anyone who’s even faintly familiar with Lady Gaga knows that she’s renowned for wearing extremely outlandish outfits.  But does her latest eccentric getup, appearing in newsstands nationwide, make her appear to have gone a little too overboard?

Sweeping the last award of the night during MTV’s Video Music Awards, aired this past Sunday, September 12, Lady Gaga walked up on stage completely decked out in…BEEF.  Gaga claimed her Video of the Year award, acceptance speech and all, wearing a dress made out of raw beef combined with a matching blood red beef headpiece resembling the shape of an uncooked, tenderized steak.  Meat boots and a meat purse, which she later asked Cher to hold for her, finished off the outfit.

So what exactly possessed Gaga to sport an outfit made out of raw beef, a style that has consequently upset many vegetarian and vegan fans alike?

The meaty outfit was intended to portray to her distaste for the U.S. military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

“Well, it is certainly no disrespect to anyone that is vegan or vegetarian. As you know, I am the most judgment-free human being on the earth,” Gaga said during a chat on the Ellen DeGeneres Show. “However, it has many interpretations, but for me this evening … If we don’t stand up for what we believe in and if we don’t fight for our rights, pretty soon we’re going to have as much rights as the meat on our own bones. And I am not a piece of meat,” she stated.

Ellen, a vegetarian, then jokingly whipped out a bikini made out of kale and a skirt constructed of what appeared to be lettuce, and gave it to Gaga.  Without hesitation, she held the meat-free outfit up in front of her.

Lady Gaga’s barbaric outfit has generated some criticism from PETA.

As posted on PETA’s blog site, “Meat is the decomposing flesh of a tormented animal who didn’t want to die, and after a few hours under the TV lights, it would smell like the rotting flesh it is and likely be crawling in maggots—not too attractive, really.”

Supposedly Eminem refused to sit next to fleshy-dressed Gaga, in which PETA claims was a good choice.

“According to Dr. Larry Franks, the chief scientific adviser for Grow Green Industries, Gaga’s flesh frock was a health hazard, since it could potentially spread E. coli bacteria, which lives in animals’ intestinal tracts and *** and frequently contaminates dead animal flesh,” stated on one of PETA’s recent blog posts.

I know I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to sit next to her, no matter how many awards she won that night.  Did I like Gaga before?  Well, I definitely found her amusing.  Do I dislike her now?  No, but I’ve certainly lost a little respect for her.  There are surely other and better ways to voice your distaste for America’s gay rights laws.

What are your thoughts on Lady Gaga’s meat suit?