'How To Cook Everything Vegetarian' Author On The Benefits Of A Plant-Based Diet

Nov 25, 2017
Originally published on November 28, 2017 10:49 am

There was a time when people who ate a plant-based diet were considered weird or exotic or somehow out of the mainstream — by meat lovers anyway. But over the past decade that has changed, in large part because well-known figures, such as quarterback Tom Brady, musician Paul McCartney, and hip-hop star RZA, have become vocal advocates.

But that's also because of food writer Mark Bittman.

For years, he was behind The Minimalist, The New York Times' longtime cooking column, before becoming the lead food writer at The New York Times Magazine. He is also the author of the How to Cook Everything series of cookbooks. This month marks the 10-year anniversary of his How To Cook Everything Vegetarian cookbook and the release of a new edition.

NPR's Michel Martin spoke with Bittman about the book's new edition and how vegetarian cuisine has changed in 10 years.


Interview Highlights

On eating a more plant-based diet, even if you don't go full vegetarian

You know, I've always or long advocated a part-time plant-based diet, which basically means I'm advocating that we should be eating more plants, which everybody knows is true, and everybody kind of tries to do, and most people have difficulty doing it. So, you know, How to Cook Everything Vegetarian is not how to be a vegetarian. It's how to cook meatless meals, which I hope many people are interested in ... Every solid piece of evidence that we have shows that we eat a way-too-heavy-animal-product-based diet and that we'd all be better off eating more plants. So if there are two rules that apply to diet, the simplest two rules would be: Eat less junk food and eat more plants.

On how the new edition differs from his original cookbook

You know, it's funny. When I started that book, which was probably 15 years ago, I said — with all due respect, "I love the Moosewood Cookbook." I didn't exactly grow up on it, but I started cooking about when it came out. But I don't want to do a book like that, i.e. a book that takes meat out of dishes and substitutes eggs and cheese.

And when I look back at the first edition of How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, I think, well, you know, I kind of fell into that trap also. There's more cheese in here than I would like. There's more dairy in here than I would like. There's more eggs in here than I would like. And this new edition, I think, is fresher, lighter, more solidly plant-based, with way fewer animal products.

On adding a section for beverages in the new edition

I was of two minds about that. We didn't have a beverage section at all in the first edition. But, you know, a lot of people drink some of their calories. And increasingly, they do so in a way that's really not so bad. So I - you know, I'm not talking about frappuccino. And I'm obviously not talking about Coke or Snapple. But I'm talking about taking a bunch of fruits and or vegetables and throwing them in a blender and whizzing them up and drinking that for breakfast. And, you know, frankly, I do that myself. It's fast. It's easy. It's a great way to get, like, four servings of vegetables in five minutes.

On the health benefits of controlling your diet through cooking

This is something that is really important. We've seen a huge increase in the number of chronic diseases in the United States and in the world, to the point where life expectancy here has slipped a little bit, to the point where chronic diseases kill more people than infectious diseases — the first time in history. And these things are preventable. And they're preventable largely by diet. And you don't control diet by letting somebody else cook for you. You don't control diet by going to restaurants or by ordering from restaurants. You control diet by buying ingredients and putting them together by yourself. That is the best way to do it.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

So it's Thanksgiving weekend. We're still thinking about food. And if you're of a certain age, you might remember when people who ate a plant-based diet were considered weird or exotic or somehow out of the mainstream, by meat lovers anyway. But over the past decade, that has changed. That's in part because well-known figures, such as quarterback Tom Brady, musician Paul McCartney, and hip hop star RZA, have become vocal advocates. But that's also because of food writer Mark Bittman.

For years, he was behind The Minimalist, The New York Times Magazine's longtime cooking column, and the "How To Cook Everything" series of cookbooks. This month marks the 10-year anniversary of his "How To Cook Everything Vegetarian" cookbook and the release of a new edition. Mark Bittman was kind enough to drop by our New York studios to talk to us about it. And I started our conversation by asking him why he thought it was important to make vegetarian cooking accessible despite the fact that he, himself, is not a vegetarian.

MARK BITTMAN: You know, I've always or long advocated a part-time plant-based diet which basically means I'm advocating that we should be eating more plants, which everybody knows is true, and everybody kind of tries to do, and most people have difficulty doing it. So, you know, "How To Cook Everything Vegetarian" is not how to be a vegetarian. It's how to cook meatless meals, which I hope many people are interested in.

MARTIN: But why do you think it's important?

BITTMAN: Every solid piece of evidence that we have shows that we eat a way-too-heavy-animal-product-based diet and that we'd all be better off eating more plants. So if there are two rules that apply to diet, the simplest two rules would be - eat less junk food and eat more plants.

MARTIN: One of the things that's interesting about this book, because it's a revised 10th anniversary edition, is you talk about how vegetarian cuisine has changed in 10 years. Talk a little bit about that, if you would.

BITTMAN: You know, it's funny. When I started that book, which was probably 15 years ago, I said - with all due respect, I love the Moosewood Cookbook. I didn't exactly grow up on it, but I started cooking about when it came out. But I don't want to do a book like that, i.e. a book that takes meat out of dishes and substitutes eggs and cheese.

And when I look back at the first edition of "How to Cook Everything Vegetarian," I think, well, you know, I kind of fell into that trap also. There's more cheese in here than I would like. There's more dairy in here than I would like. There's more eggs in here than I would like. And this new edition, I think, is fresher, lighter, more solidly plant-based with way fewer animal products.

MARTIN: But the carrot cake's still there, please.

BITTMAN: The carrot cake is still there. The banana bread is still there.

MARTIN: Yeah, let's not go crazy.

BITTMAN: Well, you know, you can't write a popular cookbook if you don't throw some sweet stuff in there. That's just the way it is.

MARTIN: Tell me a little bit else about what else has changed. I noticed that you put beverages in there. I thought that was really interesting.

BITTMAN: I was of two minds about that. We didn't have a beverage section at all in the first edition. But, you know, a lot of people drink some of their calories. And increasingly, they do so in a way that's really not so bad. So I - you know, I'm not talking about frappuccino. And I'm obviously not talking about Coke or Snapple. But I'm talking about taking a bunch of fruits and or vegetables and throwing them in a blender and whizzing them up and drinking that for breakfast. And, you know, frankly, I do that myself. It's fast. It's easy. It's a great way to get, like, four servings of vegetables in five minutes.

MARTIN: Let's just talk about the food landscape. When we last talked, you had just announced that you'd be ending your New York Times column to work on a startup. That turned out to be a job as chief innovation officer at Purple Carrot, a vegan home-delivery service. You've since left that position.

But I was wondering how the whole home-delivery-meal-kit thing fits into our country's relationship with food at the moment. You know, just in preparing for our conversation, I realized that there are some - there were like 100 of these companies on the landscape now. So what's your takeaway from your experience with that?

BITTMAN: You know, I think that what we're looking at is a landscape where supermarkets - and I'll include Walmart in that - become food or meal distribution centers. And you can go and buy food the way you do now. But I think before long, and especially with Amazon entering the game, you're going to be able to say, you know, I feel like having eggplant parmesan tonight - go online, tick a few boxes - and, by the time you get home, have the ingredients for eggplant parmesan waiting on your doorstep. Now, whether that's delivered by drones or person, I don't know.

But, you know, a box with ingredients in it makes some sense. I don't know that it has to be dictated by a meal-kit company. I think it can probably be dictated by the customer. That is to say, here's what I want for dinner tonight. Give me the ingredients to cook that, and that'll show up.

MARTIN: Overall, though, do you think that this is a good thing? Do you think it's encouraging more people to cook? Or what do you make of it?

BITTMAN: Yeah, I think this is a blip. You know, I think the question is, do Americans cook or not? And we've seen two or three generations slip by with the number of people cooking going down. But I think millennials and maybe gen-Zers (ph) are going to turn that around. And I don't know. I mean, lots of young people are interested in cooking. And some of them do do meal kits. But many, many more say, you know, I can't cook every night. But when I can, I do, and I like it.

So, I mean, this is something that is really important. We've seen a huge increase in the number of chronic diseases in the United States and in the world to the point where life expectancy here has slipped a little bit - to the point where chronic diseases kill more people than infectious diseases - the first time in history. And these things are preventable. And they're preventable largely by diet. And you don't control diet by letting somebody else cook for you. You don't control diet by going to restaurants or by ordering from restaurants. You control diet by buying ingredients and putting them together by yourself. That is the best way to do it.

MARTIN: That was Mark Bittman. He is a food writer and activist. The 10-year anniversary edition of his cookbook, "How To Cook Everything Vegetarian" is out now. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.