How Much Will We Miss Reading Mark Bittman In NY Times? Let Us Count The Ways

mark-bittman.jpgMark Bittman leaving the NY Times? Say it ain’t true!

But it is, although no one in the food world (and beyond) will have heard the last of him. His plans sound big, and exciting, and not the least bit retiring.

But still: leaving the NY Times? You’d think that would be a “feet first” option for most journalists. It made me pause and search the memory banks (somewhat like looking for that cheesy grits recipe you know you don’t need, because it ain’t complicated, just good).

Back in 2009, I made a long trek from California to White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia—a destination with a rather unappealing name but a very appealing resort: The Greenbrier, a national historic landmark. I’d been invited to a gathering called The Symposium for Professional Food Writers, where the list of writers, workshop leaders, and speakers in attendance read like a Hall of Fame carved into a golden wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Bittman was there just before (if memory serves) he joined the Times as an op-ed columnist, and if you look at the ranks of every symposium since 1989, he was joining a group that included Sally Bernstein, Julia Child, Marion Cunningham, Joyce Goldstein, Madeline Kamman, Harold McGee, James McNair, Ruth Reichl...ok, you get the picture: The Pantheon, Mt Olympus, Foodie Nirvana, except they were all still alive. Most still are.

I, however, despite doing a fair amount of food writing over the years, was simply an attendee. No pretentions: I was looking forward to hearing from the major leaguers—and was not disappointed. (By the way, the conference returns next year, 2016, after a hiatus of a few years.)

I was struck immediately by Mr. Bittman’s honed-chef-knife intelligence, boundless energy, and curiosity. He’s a journalist with an extraordinary work ethic: to date he’s published many cookbooks, and several of them have been one-stop themed encyclopedic compendiums of recipes—so many in a single book that it would take the average cook years to try them all, let alone everything in his oeuvre. Much of that output, of course, was derived from meeting weekly deadlines, either set by himself, his publisher, or the voracious maw of a prestigious newspaper—funny how reporting a few recipes each week adds up to hundreds a year.

My favorite for years has been “How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.” I didn’t add the italics—that’s the title all right, and he meant it; two-thousand recipes, with many identified as makeable in 30 minutes or less (that’s speaking my language).

Also on my kitchen’s bookshelf, right there on the bottom, is an unruly stack of Bittman recipes I had to tear out of the paper. Had to. And they don’t just sit there waiting to catch fire via the frayed cord of an old radio perpetually tuned to a PBS station: I pull them out when I want inspiration, knowing I’ll find something seasonal, something healthy, something occasionally weird, but always an approach that broadens my grasp of a simple, fundamental cooking technique or maxim. The guy is a human Internet: searchable long before Google and recipe apps took over the world. Forget those. Just “Bittman It.”

So where’s he going?

Now based in California, he’s launching a new online video project, California Matters. He’s taking tough stances on food politics, especially climate change, and how to address it on a personal level as well as political level (“It baffles me that 98% of attention is paid to fossil fuel reduction—not that that there’s anything wrong with that—but the balance is all for not looking at agriculture...that speaks to the power of the agriculture lobby.”)

One of his latest technique kicks is a small partnership via his own website writing with inspiralized.com. This countertop, hand-cranked gizmo (I have one, and I bought it, so this is not a paid endorsement) turns zucchini into a form of vegetable “pasta” that I think is better than the real thing. Zucchini +12 ways is a typical Bittman “Matrix” approach (although not all spirals!): for example, he gives one raw recipe, which then can be altered into two other recipes—similar, but also very different. Confusing? Not when you see it charted out.

No question about it: Mr. Bittman may have gone West-coastal, but he’s still in the kitchen, bringing the heat in so many ways. 

PHOTO: First published on KQED Food

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