Photo by Hamutal Dotan/Torontoist.
Mark Bittman, a.k.a. The Minimalist, has built a career out of making home-cooking an accessible, manageable, enjoyable activity for those who feel too harried or busy to spend much time in the kitchen. It’s a noble project, one for which he has been winning widespread recognition. Bittman’s How to Cook Everything (just re-released in a tenth anniversary edition) is often described as The Joy of Cooking for a new generation: a single, comprehensive volume that puts a full repertoire of cooking essentials into terms beginners can understand and the more experienced find helpful in a pinch. Every Wednesday many of us turn to his column in the New York Times to learn how to whip up a quick meal, sometimes in less than five minutes. Bittman’s articles are often among the most emailed at the Times, and his story about making no-knead bread two years ago instantly became the stuff of cooking legend.
Like many of his readers, Bittman has become increasingly interested in the ethics and politics of food: its environmental sustainability, role in the market economy, and effect on people’s health. His book on the subject, Food Matters, has just been released, and Bittman was in Toronto last night to discuss it. Lurid details on soda consumption and factory-farmed cows after the fold.
“The Communist Manifesto of food” is how Bittman’s publisher has taken to describing his book, and it’s a portrayal he rather seems to relish. His goal throughout his career, he said last night, has been “helping people to take control of their diet.” (He uses diet in the proper, old-fashioned sense: to refer to a holistic picture of what we eat rather than to faddish weight-loss programs whose lifespan is approximately fourteen days.) First, this meant teaching us how to cook simply, and now it’s a matter of educating us to the burdens that modern North American farming and eating practices impose on the environment, as well as on our own bodies.
The ethics of food is a hot topic right now, and with the growing pile of books on the subject it’s fair to ask if Bittman can bring anything new to the conversation. Fortunately, the answer is yes. Specifically, he brings his trademark practicality: completely free of ideological agendas or wild-eyed evangelism, Bittman’s strategy isn’t to endorse a rigorous code of conduct or offer a list of proscribed foodstuffs. Rather, he is interested in shifting the discourse, and our diets, in a certain direction: he doesn’t want to ban animal products so much as to encourage us to eat less of them and more of everything else. When asked, for instance, why we shouldn’t all just become vegans, Bittman responded, “It would be better if our animal consumption went down to ten per cent, but that last ten per cent doesn’t make much difference… This is the way shit happens—it happens incrementally.”
The extent of Bittman’s popularity was immediately evident: Hart House’s East Common Room was packed half an hour before the talk began, and organizers turned one of the speakers to face the hallway so that the overflow of people could hear the conversation. Many of the two-hundred-plus attendees came armed with their own copies of Food Matters and waited patiently in line for a signature and handshake from the author. The Toronto stop on Bittman’s book tour was sponsored by local favourite Type Books and featured an interview by the CBC’s Matt Galloway as well as an audience Q&A.