Text by Lara Rabinovitch
I recently sat down with New York Times food columnist, Mark Bittman, a.k.a The Minimalist, to discuss the state of food today, what to strive for in the future and how to learn a thing or two from bubbe.
Everyone knows fast food is bad for you, but why do people still eat it? Do you think they need to know more about sustainability and health to not go to McDonald’s or do you think there’s a larger issue here than knowing more?
I don’t even find McDonald’s that convenient. You go to McDonald’s you’re on line for 10 minutes. That’s not fast. It takes an enormous amount of willpower to not eat crap, because it is so easy to eat crap. And I can’t cite you a lick of evidence that things are getting better. Anecdotally, yes, but statistically no.
But how do you make sugar and salt not taste good, particularly for kids? Do you have any ideas on how we can educate children to change what they want to eat? Is the solution even in education?
It is an education project. You absolutely need to start with the kids. We need to get to the point where the kid who would have said, ‘Mommy, why are you smoking? I don’t want you to die’ will be saying ‘Daddy, why are you taking us to McDonald’s? We need to go home and cook something.’ I also want to stress that I think the so-called Casual Dining chains, the Applebee’s, the Chili’s, the T.G.I. Friday’s—whatever—are worse because their calorie counts are criminal.
Why haven’t food writers tackled the issue of alcohol and the relationship to obesity? Why are we missing the health and sustainability discourse on drinking?
Because food writers are all alcoholics.
So what do you think about the proposed soda tax?
I think taxes can be a useful tool, but I think that it’s part of this whole thing of discouraging bad eating and bad food. So I have no problem with taxing stuff, it depends on what the tax program looks like and where the money is going. I mean you tax ‘soda,’ do you tax diet soda? Bottled water? You could make a very strong argument from an environmental perspective against bottled water. Why is there bottled water when we have a perfectly good water system? But I actually don’t think my opinion on taxing soda matters.
Well, I’m actually curious about that. What do you think are the responsibilities of a food writer, or even a chef? A lot of chefs and food writers have taken on pretty big social and political messages lately.
It’s a personal decision. For me, I think it’s important to say what I think, and I think a lot. I think I can have an impact on what people do in their kitchens and how people think about food.
Why do you think the 101 recipe format of some of your recent columns and extended in Kitchen Express is so appealing to readers and cooks?
There are a lot of people who say, I don’t use cookbooks for anything except to give me ideas. Well, this is the cookbook for those people because it’s just ideas. Sometimes it embarrasses me to write a recipe where I say two cloves of garlic because there are cloves of garlic that are big and cloves of garlic that are a lot smaller. So the way around that is to say a teaspoon of minced garlic. So that means people have to chop up their garlic and measure a teaspoon. But that’s ridiculous. So then you’re saying two to five cloves of garlic. Or two to ten cloves of garlic. Screw the recipe. You know what you like. The dish has to taste like there’s garlic in there, so put some garlic in there. And that’s how our grandmothers cooked. Kitchen Express is a very old-fashioned cookbook, just with new ideas.
Speaking of your grandmother, everyone loved your kasha varnishkes column in the Times last year.
Nah, you’re just hanging out with a bunch of old Jews.
Well, I don’t know about that. Any more treasures from bubbe coming soon?
No, because there weren’t that many. There’s one actually protected cookie recipe in my family which I’m not going to publish. It’s this one little Ukrainian style cookie which my grandmother called Chocolate Zwiebach. It had chocolate but there’s no way it was a zwiebach, but that’s what she called it. I make them now and then. They’re pretty great. That’s probably the last one that I would steal from my grandparents—there’s got to be one recipe that is sacred!
Looking back at this food moment 25 years from now, what will they say is fad and what will they say is lasting?
I’d like to say that the real renaissance of appreciating food as food, that is seeing ingredients and saying, â€˜oh look, we have apples, we have oranges, we have milk, we have cheese,’ and putting them together in ways that taste good, I’d like to think that that’s not a fad. It does have its precious moments, and I do have problems with the preciousness of it all, but it’s got totally legitimate roots. The thing I’d like to think is fad is people watching other people cook on television and celebrity chefs. There’s nothing wrong with a good chef, but chefs being worshipped as if they were doing something otherworldly… it’s not like their marathon runners or, for the most part, great artists.
Don’t you think you’re a celebrity chef?
Don’t you have to have a driver if you’re a celebrity?
Your PBS show, Spain, On the Road Again (with Mario Batali, Gweynth Paltrow, and Claudia Bassols), was such a hit. Any other television features planned?
Spain was great, and I was completely happy to be traveling around. But television is difficult. It is work. You work for 10 hours to put together 10 minutes of good television. I would absolutely do more though.
Would you do more cooking on television, like your short cooking videos for the Times?
I actually think cooking on television is boring. I think cooking online is better. I like the two-minute recipe thing, or something more serious like going out and addressing some of these issues—something where they’ll let me go out and actually do real reporting.