Discovering Mark Bittman can be revelatory. I was so taken upon stumbling across The Minimalist, his aptly titled New York Times column, that I set about printing and binder-clipping my favorites into "books" — even sharing them. Then I realized (duh) that Bittman fans are, if not legion, sufficient to keep fat tomes like his How to Cook Everything in print for years.
A Bittman "recipe" can be as simple as "Toss a cup of chopped mixed herbs with a few tablespoons of olive oil in a hot pan. Serve over angel-hair pasta, diluting the sauce if necessary with pasta cooking water." (And a Bittman recipe is rarely more complex than the lentil soup-potato concoction reprinted this week at www.orlandoweekly.com/dining.) But his new book bootstraps simplicity to a higher cause. Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating (With More Than 75 Recipes) posits that simple lifestyle choices can help curb your girth and global warming at the same time.
The ideas aren't exactly new. In an Orlando Weekly cover story last summer, for instance, freelancer Jim Motavalli wrote about the environmental impact of meat-eaters ("The meat of the matter," July 31, 2008). Like Bittman, Motavalli drew on the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization's report "Livestock's Long Shadow." The report fingers livestock production for roughly one-fifth of all greenhouse gases.
In Bittman's synthesis, the staggering numbers involved with raising livestock — the energy required to raise corn to feed cattle to ship beef around the world, for instance — are boiled down to: "… eating a typical family-of-four steak dinner is the rough equivalent, energy-wise, of driving around in an SUV for three hours while leaving all the lights on at home. … If we each ate the equivalent of three fewer cheeseburgers a week, we'd cancel out the effects of all the SUVs in the country."
He wades through the latest "you are what you eat" studies similarly. This leads to his "very nearly sure" conclusion that cutting back on animal products and junk food in favor of minimally processed, simple, natural eats will leave you healthier and "quite likely thinner."
To put those ideas in action after 80 pages, he continues for another 200-plus. There are general suggestions: For instance, if you can't hack it as a vegetarian or vegan, you might ban meat from your daytime diet and leave it, in reduced quantities, for evening repasts. Bittman dispenses advice for stocking your kitchen and planning your meals. Finally, there are more than 75 recipes — each of which, in Bittman's trademark style, include several variations.
How much impact he's having, Bittman said when I spoke with him recently, is hard to gauge. "There's a little bit of preaching to the choir going on here. The reaction has been great. But my idea is to expand the choir, or inspire other people to hear the message. And all I can do is keep talking."
The way Bittman stumbled into this particular line of talk is telling. Back 30 years or so ago, he was driving a cab, substitute teaching and writing for a community newspaper: "The first thing that everyone liked that I was writing about was my food writing, so, from that point on, one thing more or less led to another." He took his food writing to the Times in 1990, and started The Minimalist about 12 years ago.
In other words, he's never been a chef and doesn't consider himself especially talented or skilled in the kitchen. He sees his job as reassuring the novice: "Don't worry about the details, no one is asking you to be Mario Batali; just try to make some good food and get it on your table."
If what Bittman proposes is a coherent philosophy of cooking and eating, what it doesn't have is an easy label. "Conscious-eater" doesn't exactly roll off the tongue. Nor does "less-meatarian," which Bittman says is the best he's come up with. But how about "Bittmanite"? Could that be a winner?
A version of this story originally appeared in the Detroit Metro Times. Visit www.orlando weekly.com/dining for a recipe from Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating.[email protected]