Big Think Interview With Mark Bittman

Question: What are your first memories of\r\nenjoying food? \r\n\r\n

Mark\r\nBittman:  They're all jumbled.  They're all jumbled together, but they\r\nreally are associated with both my grandmothers.  My father's mother, who died when I was pretty young, I do\r\nremember going to her house and she lived in a walk up tenement in the Bronx\r\nwhere my father grew up.  She lived\r\nin the same apartment in which my father grew up.  And I do remember he making blitzes or pirogi or something\r\nlike that from scratch, making the dough, rolling it out, filling it with\r\ncheese or potatoes and cooking them, and that was pretty incredible because I\r\ndon’t have – my mother didn’t do that stuff, so I don’t have a lot of that but\r\nI have that little bit of that. \r\nThen my other grandmother she was the one who really did the big family\r\nfunctions and would cook for 15 and 20 people at once and would scream at\r\neverybody I the kitchen and da, da, da and she made very, very classic eastern\r\nEuropean Jewish food and was good at it. \r\nI don’t remember anything particular.  I mean, I remember eating many different things.  I don’t have a single memory though.

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Question: How did you first get interested in\r\ncooking?

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Mark\r\nBittman:  It was kind of self-defense.  I grew up in New York and the food was\r\ninteresting, varied, not particularly great at home but out on the streets it\r\nwas good and in some of my friends parents' houses it was good and then I went\r\naway to school in Massachusetts where the food was abysmal and I started\r\ncooking out of self-defense.  I\r\nmean it was just the only I could imagine to get half way decent food was to\r\nlearn how to make it myself and it really began there and then continued\r\nthrough a series of roommates, some of whom cooked and some didn’t, but all of\r\nwhom were interested in what I was cooking.  Because I was just following recipes, there was no training,\r\nbut there were good recipes so it worked.

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And then I had a\r\nchild and started cooking for her and then I started writing about food.  I mean at that point I knew -- it had\r\nbeen eight or ten years and I knew enough about food to write a little about it\r\nand then, no pun intended, they fed off of each other.

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So I was writing\r\nabout food and I was cooking and I had to cook in order to write better about\r\nfood, so there's incentive to cook more which gave me more to write about.  There you have it.  I still have not ever had any formal\r\ntraining.

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Question: What are some basic techniques that\r\nnovice chefs can use?

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Mark\r\nBittman: Well, let's\r\njust distinguish between chefs and cooks because I think this is\r\nimportant.  A chef is a person -- I\r\nknow the word is thrown around a lot but a chef is a person who runs the\r\nrestaurant.  So, people who cook at\r\nhome are cooks.  There's nothing\r\nwrong with that.  People who like\r\nto cook are cooks and I think that's a word that's been sadly denigrated and I\r\nthink it’s a lovely word.  It's an\r\nimportant word.  So what are the\r\nmost experienced -- what are the most important techniques for shall we say\r\nnovice cooks?

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Well, reading I\r\nthink is probably very important technique because probably the best way to\r\nlearn how to cook remains getting a couple of decent cook books and working\r\nyour way through them and paying attention to what they're asking and learning\r\na few of the terms and it's such an easy – it's so much easier than playing\r\ntennis, for example, that it's just a matter of starting to do it and then\r\ndoing it over and over again until you kind of get it. 

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So it has more –\r\nit's presented as a highly skilled occupation and indeed for real chefs or\r\npeople running restaurants or people doing demonstrations on Food Television\r\nit's not that easy.  But for most\r\nof us it's not any harder than driving a car, it just needs a little practice.

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Question:  What ten ingredients should everyone\r\nhave in their kitchen?

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Mark Bittman: Well, off the top of my head without\r\nlooking at my pantry, garlic, olive oil, that's two.  It's sort of a hard question because do you want to count\r\nrice and pasta?  Do you want to\r\ncount vinegar and lemons?  Do you\r\nwant to count onions and eggs?  Maybe\r\nthat gets you close to ten.  The\r\nthing is that there are – I'd there are probably 30, somewhere between 25 and\r\n50, but say 30, ingredients that should be in pretty much every kitchen all the\r\ntime.  Ten is not going to do\r\nit.  You can't do much with ten but\r\nif you have 30 you can start doing serious cooking and if you have those 30 and\r\nyou stop at the store and pick up the piece of meat and fish and some\r\nvegetables, something fresh, you're completely in business.  You can cook half of what there is to\r\ncook in all of the world.

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Question: What are common bad habits of at-home\r\ncooks?

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Mark\r\nBittman:  That's an interesting question.  People don’t use high enough heat and\r\npeople don’t preheat their pans and their ovens and things like that enough.  If you really want to put a crust on\r\nsomething, the pan needs to be hot, the butter or oil needs to be hot.  I mean, these are things that trained\r\npeople learn.  Home cooks are a\r\nlittle afraid -- tend to be a little afraid -- or beginning home cooks tend to\r\nbe a little afraid of high heat. \r\nSo that's a mistake people make.

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Having lousy\r\nknives is a mistake people make and it's not that they don’t have expensive\r\nknives, it's that they don’t have sharp knives.  On the other hand, spending too much money on cooking equipment\r\nis a mistake a lot of people make because you don’t need to spend a lot of\r\nmoney on cooking equipment.  What\r\nelse can I think of?

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Well,\r\nattitude.  Attitude is interesting\r\nbecause people tend to be intimidated by cooking and there's nothing to be\r\nintimidated about it.  As I said at\r\nthe beginning, it's really pretty simple. \r\nSo the right attitude is the attitude of I'm going to get something done\r\nand it's going to be good.  It's\r\nnot, "Oh, I'm afraid of this," but nor is it, "Oh, I'm going to\r\nbe Bobby Flay and do something breathtaking."  It's just going to be I'm going to try – just like my\r\ngrandma cooked for my mom I'm going to try to cook for my friends or my kids or\r\nwhatever, which is normal food, the food you like.

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Question: What ingredients and spices are\r\nunappreciated?

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Mark\r\nBittman:  Well, spices in general go under\r\nappreciated by American cooks.  I\r\nmean, the spices that most Americans used in cooking tend to be the sort of you\r\nmight call them warm spices or sweet spices like the kind of stuff you put in\r\nApple Pie: cinnamon, all spice, nutmeg, cloves, ginger a little bit.  Chilies are certainly becoming more and\r\nmore popular and that's great. 

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Mild\r\nchili powder is a wonderful ingredient that's still not fully appreciated. Pimenton, which is mild smoked paprika,\r\nwhich is a form of chili, so mild smoked chili powder is Spanish ingredient,\r\nreally fabulous.  All the Indian\r\nspices or Asian spices, however you want to call them, tend to be\r\nunder-appreciated and these are really simple things to use.  I think part of the problem is when you\r\nadd four or five spices to a recipe, it makes the recipe look long.  It makes the ingredient list look long\r\nand no one wants to see a long ingredient list.

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So, when writing\r\nrecipes one has to be careful but, you know, spices are really -- if you\r\nreplace them every now and then so that they're fairly fresh, they're there,\r\nthey're easy to use, it's not a big deal and they make a huge difference.

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Question: What do you do when friends are\r\ncoming over and you haven't got anything prepared?

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Mark\r\nBittman: I often don’t\r\nfigure out what I am cooking until an hour before people come over but I make\r\nsure there's food in the house and I think that's important.  It seems so obvious when you say it but\r\nso many people don’t do it.  

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If you have a\r\nlot of food in the house cooking is much easier because now you have so many\r\noptions plus there's pressure on you to cook because you don’t a want the stuff\r\nto go bad.  So what I cook for\r\npeople pretty much depends on what I have.  I try to always have, you know, something.  

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Question: Tell us about one of your dinner\r\nparties.

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Mark\r\nBittman: I had made a\r\ndeal with a friend who was an architect and he designed an office for me and\r\nthe deal was that I was going to cook dinner for him and his wife and two of\r\nhis friends and my wife. 

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So there was\r\ngoing to be six of us.  And we set\r\na date, I guess; he says we set a date. \r\nAnd that morning -- that afternoon actually, about two o'clock he called\r\nand said what time do you want us to go over?  I had completely forgotten about it.  So I went shopping and I made -- I ran\r\nout to the store, I came back, I made – this is a long time ago -- but I made\r\nroast chicken with vinegar, was sort of classic French recipe, some kind of\r\npotatoes, a salad, and I don’t know if I made or bought a bread and I made\r\nchocolate mousse for dessert and I did that in about two hours, which, for me,\r\nis a lot of time in the kitchen for me; I don’t spend two hours in the kitchen\r\nthat often.

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The great thing\r\nwas the food was not that great.\r\nThe food was fine.  The\r\ngreat thing was, a.) I got away with it and, b.) they thought it was fantastic\r\nand it was then that I realized that if you cook for people in your home they, a.) they're looking forward to it, b.) they're going to cut you so much\r\nslack.  They're going to give you\r\nevery benefit of the doubt. \r\nThey're going to be grateful and, therefore, the food is going to taste\r\nbetter than it would if you were in a restaurant where the server was annoying\r\nyou and you knew you were going to spend a lot of money and, you know, you had\r\nto travel to get there and blah, blah, blah. 

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So I think it\r\nwas really – and that was probably 12 or 15 years ago.  So it was about halfway into my -- I've\r\nbeen cooking for 40 years, so it was two-thirds of the way into my life as a\r\ncook when I realized that you can do pretty much anything in your home if you\r\ntake it seriously and do it as well as you could do it and your friends and\r\nfamily are really going to appreciate it.

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Question: What defines a Mark Bittman meal?

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Mark\r\nBittman:  My presence.  I guess there's other kinds of Mark Bittman meals.  Well really its simplicity, its\r\nhonesty, it's not overdoing it. \r\nGenerally speaking, it's very few ingredients and very little technique\r\nand not that much time and its home cooking.  There's nothing fancy about it.  There's no pretense, I like to think there's no\r\npretense.  I mean this all -- it\r\nsounds too good to be true.  It\r\nsounds like better than I am but it really is what I do.  So I guess I'll take some credit for\r\nit.

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Question: Can you be a food lover and a\r\nhealthy eater?

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Mark\r\nBittman:  I think if you are a true food lover,\r\nyou are a healthy eater.  Well,\r\nfirst of all, the term foodie is completely ridiculous because for someone to\r\n-- when you meet somebody and they say, "I really love to eat," I\r\nthink the appropriate answer is who doesn’t?  So, I mean look around.  Who do you know who is not a food lover?  Everybody's a food lover.

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The question is\r\ndo you eat responsibly?  Do you eat\r\nfor your own benefit?  Do you eat\r\nfor your planets benefit and do you eat the best food possible?  If the answer to all of those things is\r\nyes then you're eating well.  If\r\nyou're eating, if your style of eating is bad for your body, if your style of\r\neating is bad for the planet then you are not really eating good food.  You're eating lousy food and there's\r\nplenty -- as we know, there's plenty of lousy food around.

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Question: What is the most environmentally\r\nresponsible way to eat?

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Mark\r\nBittman:  The principled way to eat, if you were\r\ngoing to say, "I want to eat entirely for my own benefit, I want to eat\r\nentirely for the benefit of the planet, I want to eat in the most responsible\r\nway possible to minimize my carbon footprint, to minimize my impact overall, to\r\nminimize my effect on animals," you would be a vegan.  That's the bottom line.

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Veganism is the\r\nmost principled way to eat that there is. \r\nFrom the perspective of your own body, from the perspective of the\r\nplanet, from the perspective of animals, very few people are going to be\r\nvegans.  Let's be real.

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So what's\r\nnext?  I mean, if on the one hand\r\nyou have vegans and on the other hand you have people who eat whatever they\r\nfeel like eating, there's a middle ground.  The problem with the way most Americans eat right now is\r\nthat we are about as far from veganism as we could be.  So a vegan would get 100 percent of his\r\nor her calories from plants. 

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Most Americans\r\nget 90 percent of their calories from processed food, junk food, and animal\r\nproducts.  So, the goal, I think,\r\nis to move in the direction of eating more unprocessed plant food than we do\r\nnow and everybody's got a different starting place.  If you eat 20 cheeseburgers a week, or the equivalent, you\r\nmight look at eating 15 cheeseburgers a week or the equivalent.  If you're eating 15, you might look at\r\neating 10 and so on, and I think if people think about what's best for their\r\nbody, what's best for the planet, the answer is eating unprocessed plant food\r\nand then think about how can I eat more of that stuff at the expense of meat,\r\nwhich was the question, but also at the expense of processed food and junk\r\nfood.

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Question: What are some of the main things you\r\ncan do to eat healthily?

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Mark\r\nBittman: The idea is to\r\neat as many unprocessed plants as you can. What are\r\nplants?  Plants are vegetables,\r\nfruits, legumes, which means beans, nuts and seeds; what am I leaving out?  I think that's about it.  So the idea is to eat as many\r\nunprocessed plants as you possibly can and to eat those instead of eating\r\nprocessed foods, junk foods, and animal products. 

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Well, it works\r\nfor me -- what's worked for me for just about three years now, what works for\r\nme is to eat a very, very strict diet of plants only and unprocessed plants\r\nonly from the time I wake up in the morning until dinner time.  So from the time I wake up until\r\nroughly dark I eat a lot of fruit, I eat a lot of vegetables, I eat some whole\r\ngrains and sometimes I have some beans and that's pretty much it.  And then at night I eat whatever I want\r\nand that’s, which includes meat, which includes wine and which includes pasta\r\nand bread and stuff like that. 

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That's a huge\r\nchange for me.  I think that if you\r\nthink of your diet as a seesaw with the animal products, the processed or the\r\njunk food on the heavy side as it is for most people and the unprocessed plants\r\non the light side as it is for most people, I think for me my seesaw went from\r\nlooking something like this to looking something like this.  I think to the extent other people can\r\neat that way they will have a lesser impact on the planet, improve their\r\nhealth, probably lose weight, feel better.

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Question: Why did you decide to change the way\r\nyou ate?

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Mark\r\nBittman:  Well I think I decided to change the\r\nway I ate because of some of the things we've been talking about here.  One is that I recognize that one of the\r\nhighest contributors to greenhouse gases and global warming is the industrial\r\nproduction of livestock.  So I\r\ndecided okay that was one goo d reason to eat less meat.  The other good reason to eat less meat\r\nis that I was in my mid-50s and my health wasn't what it used to be.  So I was overweight, I had bad knees, I\r\nhad sleep apnea, had high cholesterol, I had high blood sugar or borderline\r\nhigh blood sugar, I think that's enough.

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So\r\nI decided to change my diet and it's so obvious to everyone who pays any\r\nattention to nutrition at all that if you want to be healthier the way to do\r\nthat is as I've already said is to eat fewer animal products and eat less\r\nprocessed and junk food.  So I\r\nstarted to do that and it worked. \r\nI lost 35 pounds; gained five of them back but hey.  Sleep apnea went away, I slept better,\r\nmy knees bothered me much less, in fact, they ran the New York marathon last\r\nyear.  My cholesterol is back to\r\nnormal and my blood sugar is back to normal.

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So it all worked\r\nand it's not a coincidence.  I mean\r\nno one would say it was a coincidence.

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Question: Are there any foods you avoid because\r\nof health reasons?

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Mark Bittman:  Actually not.  There's some things I don’t like.  But I think that it's important to recognize that there is\r\nno sort of single, I mean, arsenic and cyanide aside, there's not really a\r\nsingle ingredient that's going to outright kill you.  There's actually some evidence that a single can of soda can\r\ntrigger diabetes, but there's not a lot of evidence about that.  In general, one ingredient, one little\r\nkind of food, one meal, one day, even one week.  That's not what's determinant of your overall health or of\r\nyour impact on the planet.  What\r\ndetermines is your overall diet and if it's moving in the right direction,\r\nwhich for most Americans is towards plants and away from animal products and\r\nprocessed foods, than I think hip, hip, hooray.  That's the way to go.

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Question: Is it possible to be a great chef and\r\na vegan chef?

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Mark\r\nBittman: Yes, there is\r\na great vegan chef.  I mean, there\r\nare a few at this point and yes, I think that it's -- actually, this is an\r\ninteresting story, I met a vegan chef from Japan a couple of years ago.  Tiny, tiny woman, really interesting,\r\nand not a vegan in her personal life.  But she was a vegan chef.  She ran a small, maybe 12- or 20-seat, restaurant in Tokyo\r\nand everything was strictly vegan. \r\nAnd when I found out that she wasn't a vegan, I said I don't get\r\nthis.  I mean why would you choose\r\nto -- it's not a matter of principle for you because you eat meat, you eat\r\nfish, why would you choose to narrow what you serve your customer when you\r\nyourself eat from the broadest spectrum possible and she said it's like pen and\r\nink.  There are people who choose\r\nto be artists in only pen and ink because they want to narrow the world in\r\nwhich they're looking at so as to more fully explore it and I want to narrow\r\nthe world in which I'm cooking so I can understand it better and she was an\r\namazing, amazing chef.  She made\r\ngreat, great stuff.

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Question: What do you think is behind the cult\r\npopularity of food and cooking over the past decade?

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Mark\r\nBittman:  I'd be guessing to answer that question\r\nand it’s a confluence of a bunch of things.  I mean, first off, I guess, is that we like fads, I mean we\r\nlike trends.  So here's one that\r\nhadn't been fully exploited. \r\nSecondly, Food Television really has had a huge impact.  I mean, cooking and eating as a\r\nspectator sport, never before in history. \r\nSo that's had a huge impact. Third, I think, is the kind of\r\ninternationalization of food people -- not only people traveling and seeing\r\nfood from the rest of the world, but ingredients and types of cuisines and\r\nrestaurants arriving here in unprecedented numbers.

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So I think I\r\nguess the short answer is exposure but it still doesn’t explain walking into a\r\nparty and having someone come up to you and say, "I'm a foodie," and\r\nthere's something about this sort of trendiness, it's like saying, I'm a\r\nclothes person. 

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Well, yes, we\r\nall wear clothes; I'm a clothes person, too. What does that -- **** designer or\r\nare you – is there a special kind of thing?

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The thing that\r\nmakes me most upset about this big fad is that more people are not cooking and\r\nthat -- I think it's fine to watch other people cook but then people say,\r\n"Well, I'm too busy to cook," and they're too busy to cook because\r\nthey are watching people cook on television.  It doesn’t track for me.  I think it's really, really bad.

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Question: How important are organic foods, and\r\nhow truthful is the labeling?

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Mark\r\nBittman: One has to\r\nhope that things that are certified organic are organic.  But what does organic mean?  It's a term that’s defined by the\r\nUnited States Department of Agriculture. \r\nIt doesn’t mean anything or it doesn’t mean much about how the animals\r\nare treated.  It doesn’t really\r\nmean much about what kind or what breed of the animals there are.  It doesn't mean anything in terms of\r\nhow the workers who are raising these animals or farming these crops are\r\ntreated.  Doesn’t mean anything\r\nabout where the food is from. 

So does organic\r\nhave some meaning?  Yes, I think\r\nthe term organic has some meaning. \r\nBut I think that it's not the most important thing.  I won't go so far as to say it’s a red\r\nherring because I think there are some important things about it but I will say\r\nthis.  The most important division\r\nin our style of eating right now is not organic versus non-organic and it's not\r\nlocal versus non-local.  It's plants\r\nversus anything else and I don’t mean to be repetitive but the message is very,\r\nvery clear. 

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The way that\r\npeople can eat best is to eat less crap to put it bluntly.  And crap is processed food and junk\r\nfood and you can have organic processed food and you have organic junk food and\r\nthat food is maybe a little better than non-organic processed and junk food but\r\nit's not good food and that's the most important lesson we could learn, I\r\nthink.

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Question: Is it important to eat locally grown,\r\nseasonal foods?

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Mark\r\nBittman:  Well, again, I think the clear answer\r\nis that, as far as your body is concerned, a grape from Chile is better than a\r\ncheeseburger from around the corner. If you're willing to eat turnips, carrots,\r\nbread you bake yourself, frozen meat, a very limited diet, you can eat locally\r\nalmost anywhere, at least in this country, all year round and that's great but\r\nit's expensive, it's inconvenient, and it takes dedication.

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I think it's a\r\nswell idea and I think that ultimately for food to make sense in this country I\r\nthink we're going to see more regionalism and less food coming out of\r\nCalifornia.  But I don’t think\r\nwe'll ever be at a place where we see no food coming out of California, unless\r\nit falls into the sea, of course. \r\nAnd I think that if you want to be truly a local eater, you're not going\r\nto be drinking it.  If you live in\r\nthe northeast, as I do, you're not going to be drinking any coffee.  You're not going to be drinking any\r\ncaffeinated tea.  You're not going\r\nto be using any olive oil.  There\r\nare a lot of things you're just going to be missing out on.  That's fine if you think that that's\r\nthe highest priority.  There are\r\nother priorities, I think. 

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I'm a fan of\r\nlocal food.  I really like local\r\nfood, but to go back to the discussion of trendiness in food.  Everything need not be taken to an\r\nextreme and this is another thing that has been taken to an extreme.

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Question: What foods are your guilty pleasures?

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Mark\r\nBittman: If I'm driving\r\nsay six hours and I decided to stop at Wendy's or whatever I guess there's a\r\ntwinge of guilt.  But there's also\r\nan excuse because you're away and, you know, you're busy and blah, blah, blah\r\nand I don’t exercise that excuse very often.  So I don’t really feel guilty about it.  I think what would make me feel guiltiest,\r\nand I don’t do it, is going to a supermarket and buying a huge bag of potato chips\r\nand coming home and eating it but I don’t do it, so.

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Question: What would you choose as a last\r\nmeal?

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Mark\r\nBittman:  Why do they choose -- because they want\r\nsomething comfortable, they want something they're familiar with.  They all want bacon and eggs,\r\nright?  I mean I don’t -- that's my\r\nguess.  Everybody wants four fried\r\neggs in butter with unlimited supply of bacon and really, really great toast.  I would – am I being executed?  I have to get the scenario.  So assuming I'm being executed and I\r\nhave the – its not a last meal, like I don’t want to think about cancer last\r\nmeals, I want to think about execution last meals.  I would call – I'm privileged I can do this -- I would call\r\nmy friend Jean-Georges Vongerichten and tell him I want to cook for me until I\r\ntell him to stop.  That would be my\r\nlast meal.  But I do like the four\r\nor six eggs cooked in a lot of butter with bacon and really good toast.  I like that, too.

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Question: \r\nWhat do you think of New York's proposal to ban salt in restaurants?

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Mark Bittman: \r\nI think it's moronic.  I\r\nthink that the problem with salt, to the extent that there is a problem with\r\nsalt, and this is not really, really clear, but to the extent there is a\r\nproblem with salt, it's the salt in processed foods.  People who don’t eat a lot of processed foods don’t have\r\nproblems with salt.  People who add\r\ntheir own salt to food have no problems with salt.  Chefs who make their own – chefs in restaurants who cook\r\nfrom scratch and add salt to their taste or to the perceive tastes of their\r\ndiners are not adding criminal amounts of salt.  If you want to limit the amount of salt that McDonalds puts\r\nin its processed foods, that's great. \r\nI'd like to limit the amount of food they can sell period.  It's not really a salt problem, it's an\r\noverall food problem.

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Question: Why are proposals to tax sugary sodas\r\nimportant?

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Mark\r\nBittman:  Well, I think it is happening, which is\r\nreally amazing.  The mayor of\r\nPhiladelphia just proposed a very – the proponents of a soda tax or generally\r\nproposing a penny per ounce as an excise tax, which means 12 ounce can of soda\r\nmight cost a $1.12 instead of $1.00 and a 24-pack case of soda might cost --\r\nmight double in price from a sale price of $2.99 or $3.99.  That's really incredible.  The guy in Philadelphia, I think his\r\nname is Nutter, but hey it's his name. \r\nThe guy in Philadelphia is proposing two cents per ounce, which is\r\nreally quite amazing because it means a $1.00 can of soda would cost a $1.25.  A 32 ounce bottle of soda that was a\r\n$1.00 would cost a $1.64 and so on.

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So I think it is\r\nhappening.  Why is it\r\nimportant?  Soda is the leading\r\nsource of calories for Americans. \r\nAmericans get seven percent of their calories from soda, which is more\r\nthan they get from any other single food. \r\nAnd let's think about this, it's non-nutritive.  That is to say no benefit\r\nwhatsoever.  None.  Like it's not harmless, it's negative.  Secondly, it's a leading cause of\r\nobesity in the United States.  I\r\nmean, if obesity is a problem, you have to look at where the calories are coming\r\nfrom.  If soda is the number one\r\nsource of calories in the United States and it's not a beneficial source of\r\ncalories, it's something people can do without. 

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So if you're\r\nobese and you're looking for ways to help people figure out what they can do\r\nwithout, soda is a very good start. \r\nSo I think the tax is a very smart thing.  There is some research that shows that taxing junk food,\r\nwhich soda is a junk food, taxing junk food is more likely to help people eat\r\nwell than subsidizing healthy food. \r\nThe irony is that if you subsidize healthy food people will take the\r\nmoney they're saving and buy junk food, which is sad but true.

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I think the soda\r\ntax makes sense.  I think it's\r\nhappening.  I think it's going to\r\nhappen this year and next year.  I\r\nthink it is going to be a swell of soda taxes and I think once the greedy state\r\nlegislatures realize they can make money on this thing it's going to have even\r\nmore momentum.

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Question: Describe your kitchen.

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Mark Bittman:  I moved this year and I moved from a\r\nkitchen that was six by seven to a kitchen that was about eight by eight.  So its an eight by eight?  Maybe it's seven by seven; it's\r\n50-something square feet.  It has\r\ncounters on two sides.  It has a\r\nrefrigerator on a third side.  It\r\nhas drawers on a fourth side and it has two doors.  It has a sink and a dishwasher and a stove and it has maybe\r\nsix feet of counter space and nothing is fancy but it's, for me, nearly\r\nperfect.  I mean I wish I could fit\r\nmore – like I wish I could fit a table in it and I wish I could fit more people\r\nin it to hang out with while I was cooking but it's pretty great.  It's really nice but there's nothing\r\nunusual or remarkable about it.

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Question: What inspires you to create a new\r\nrecipe?

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Mark\r\nBittman: The way that\r\nrecipes happen for me is shopping. \r\nIt all starts with shopping. \r\nSo I will go -- I got to Chinatown a lot.  I go to decent supermarkets.  I go to green markets, and I try to buy everything that\r\nlooks good that I think I can cook in the next X days.  I mean am I cooking at home for the\r\nnext four days?  Because to be home\r\nfor four days in a row is a lot. 

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I'll buy four\r\ndays of food but I'll buy a lot and then I will go home and I will cook what I\r\nbought and almost always, a.) because I have like no patients with cooking from\r\nrecipes, b.) because I'm not that methodical, c.) because I have a bad memory\r\nand always think I'm making things up. \r\nI can't even duplicate my own recipes.  What happens is there's this house full of food and I start\r\ncooking and usually interesting things happen.  I don’t – brilliant things don’t happen, but interesting\r\nthings happen, interestingly enough to write about evidently, since people read\r\nthis stuff.

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Question: You often suggest substituting one\r\ningredient for another. Doesn't that change the recipe?

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Mark\r\nBittman: Well, I don’t really care.  If you substitute one -- if you were\r\nmaking pasta with broccoli and you don’t have broccoli, you want to make pasta\r\nwith cauliflower, everything about that is the same: the cooking time, the\r\ntechnique, just about everything about it is the same, assuming you know how to\r\ntrim broccoli and trim cauliflower. \r\nIs it a different recipe? \r\nYou might say it's a different recipe, but almost everything about it is\r\nthe same and so what if it's a different recipe, it's still good.  I mean, I like to say you can vary\r\nthings as much as you want to but you have to remember that you can't make a\r\nroast chicken without chicken.

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Question: Whom do you most enjoy cooking for?

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Mark\r\nBittman:  It’s a toss up.  My wife is the greatest dining\r\ncompanion and a total joy to cook for and she's a good eater and we really have\r\nfun together, but I have to say that my kids, who grew up eating my food and\r\ncan call and say I'm coming over, could you make something Asian or I'm coming\r\nover I need this pasta dish or I'm coming over and could you just – could we\r\nhave one of those – it's really nice and if there are people who don’t like to\r\neat I don’t want to cook for them. \r\n

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I don’t want to\r\nhave to convince anybody that what I'm making is good.  I know it's good.  I usually enjoy it.  If someone enjoys eating, they'll enjoy\r\neating the stuff I cook.  If they\r\ndon’t, something is wrong somewhere. \r\nThere's not – Julia Child used to say, "The great thing about\r\ncooking is you get to eat your mistakes."

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The thing is\r\nthat if you take care in cooking and if you know what you're doing, even a\r\nlittle bit, unless you burn something there are very few things that wind up so\r\nbad that you can't enjoy them. \r\nVery few.  So I mean I'm\r\nlucky enough to have been doing this long enough and writing about it and\r\nlearning from other people and thinking about it so that generally speaking the\r\nstuff I do is pretty good and the people I cook for tend to enjoy it.  But I said before it's not brilliant,\r\nit's not earth shattering it's just good food.

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Question: What was it like hanging out with\r\nGwyneth Paltrow and Mario Batali in Spain?

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Mark\r\nBittman:  Well, Mario and I have known each other\r\nprobably ten years and we've gotten increasingly busy, so we don’t see each\r\nother that much.  So it was really\r\na treat to hang out so much and I know from my – the people who – I was going\r\nto say my fans, which I guess is right, but anyway.  I know from people who've watched "Spain on the Road\r\nAgain" and my other TV shows that everybody thinks that TV is the most fun\r\nthing in the world and everybody's completely jealous of, "Oh, well you\r\ngot to hang out with Mario and Gwyneth and this who's that beautiful woman and\r\nthe food in Spain must be so amazing."

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The\r\nfact is television is a tremendous amount of work.  And for every minute on screen there is an hour of\r\nwork.  So for every 60 minutes on\r\nscreen, there's a week of work and it really is like that.  So we did a huge amount of driving and\r\nthere's a lot of setup time and not exactly rehearsal but figuring out what\r\nwe're going to do.  So none of that\r\nwas my favorite part.

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My favorite part\r\nwas nighttime when everything was done and we all got drunk together.  So that was really great and Mario, of\r\ncourse, can drink anyone under the table. \r\nI think he'll admit to this, maybe it's not an admission, I think he'll\r\nbe proud of this.  Whereas I can't\r\ndrink anyone under the table plus I go to bed earlier than anybody else.  I go to bed earlier than anybody.

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So we'd finish\r\nthe shoot, we'd have a bite to eat, we'd have a fair amount of wine.  It would be 9:30, 10:30, 11:30, I'd go\r\nto bed.  Mario would be up until\r\nfour in the morning.  Everyone else\r\nwas waking up with black eyes and broken shoulders, he was always in great\r\nshape.  So that was sort of what it\r\nwas like.

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Question: If you could cook for anyone, living\r\nor not, whom would you serve?

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Mark\r\nBittman:  So I could say I would cook for Adolph\r\nHitler and serve him poison.  I\r\ncould say that.  I could say quite\r\nsincerely -- see I don’t think you could influence people really, I mean I –\r\nthe obvious answer, an obvious answer is well, I would cook for President Obama\r\nand set him straight on a number of issues but he's already got a lot of people\r\nsetting him straight. 

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I think the\r\npeople I'd most like to cook for would be my maternal grandparents, who I loved\r\nvery much and have been dead a long time and who I think, in some ways, were\r\nresponsible a lot for my personality and a lot for the way I handle myself and\r\nalso for my love of food and saying that makes me think I should go cook for my\r\nparents more often than I do. \r\nThey're alive, fortunately, so I'm going to go and [do that]...

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A conversation with the author and New York Times cooking columnist.