Nutrition advice is a carnival of health-fad snake-oil hawkers, protein-guzzling muscle men, garbage-food peddlers, and marketing hypnotists. Mark Bittman is here to escort us away from those distractions, reminding us of the simple tenets of healthy eating along the way. In his new book, How to Eat, he and co-author David Katz, MD, do just that.
We shouldn’t need this book — in fact, it’s inspired by their 2018 Grub Street article, “The Last Conversation You’ll Ever Need to Have About Eating Right”— but we do, and it’s only partly our fault.
We met with Bittman in the produce section of Cold Spring’s Foodtown (his local grocery store) in January to learn about his food philosophy and to see how we can apply it to our lives in the Hudson Valley. He walked in with his hands in his pockets, scanned the piles of uniformly plump tomatoes, shining eggplants, leathery avocadoes, and fuzzy kiwis, all arranged by the entrance to entice, and commented, “Well, we know none of this is in season or local.” He paused and then allowed, “But that’s okay.”
He continued along the produce aisle, stopped, and looked at an unanointed shelf tucked with parsnips, carrots, and other roots; he leaned down and palmed a giant bulb of craggy, pale celeriac with a few stray hairs and said, “Now it’s not unlikely that this was grown around here.” He glanced away, “Sixty to eighty percent of the products in grocery stores could qualify as ultra-processed or junky, but if you stick to this aisle you are okay. This section would have been about half the size ten years ago. No one is saying all of this is organic or local. It’s ridiculous to have a bag of loose peas here in January…” He picks the bag up an inch and drops it. “The fact that we can get a variety of vegetables year-round is a decided plus. Still, local, seasonal, organic… these are the benchmarks. Organic is expensive. If we expect everyone to eat that way then it becomes a food justice issue.”
“Changing food systems is much more complicated [than changing personal habits],” says the author, who wrote for the New York Times for more than two decades, including penning the country’s first food-focused Op-Ed column for a major news publication. “We know we should be eating less junk, more plants that are as close to unprocessed as possible, fewer animal products, and really, that’s all there is to it. [How to Eat] exists because, despite the simplicity of those statements, people have questions. Should we be paleo? Should we be vegan? Should we be this or that? Your grandmother didn’t have these questions, nor did any generation before her for 200,000 years. The fact is, most traditional diets will work. But it’s not your fault if you still have a hard time eating well because of the way the food environment is shaped.”
These days, Bittman’s own food environment looks a lot like the junk-food rehab we may all need. He lives on the Glynwood Center for Regional Food and Farming’s property near Cold Spring with his romantic partner, Glynwood’s president Kathleen Finlay.
We caught up with Finlay a couple of days after the Foodtown tour. She said, “Both of us feel incredibly fortunate to cook and eat off the farm most days. We have three resident chickens that are our beloved ladies. Mark has become a renegade gardener, throwing seed everywhere with no rhyme or reason — there were watermelons growing all along our walkway last season; that was really beautiful. We get our Glynwood CSAs and that goes through the winter; one of us will typically go and get our share and we get really excited to cook from it. Deciding what meat we are going to eat from the freezer is a common conversation that is pretty awesome.”
Both Bittman and Finlay understand that very few people are lucky enough to live on a regenerative farm. “But there are a great many people in this country who can afford to buy good food and support real farming. Not everyone, obviously. But those who can, should.”
Bittman’s point is we eat what is around, and for most of us — when our stomachs churn mid-day — a Big Mac is more accessible than a kale salad. Bittman says, “If you have junk food in the house, you’ll eat it. If I have ice cream or potato chips in the house — they’re gone. The only way for most of us to avoid eating that kind of food is to stay away from it. This is difficult, given the current food environment, which might be described as a junk-food carnival.” Also, we’re confused: Is a box of processed organic apple chips or a protein bar healthier than a conventionally farmed apple? “Organic junk food is still junk food. Better a plain old apple than an organic apple chip,” Bittman says. “There is a lot of money to be made on all of those misconceptions.”
“In the long run, we need to change the marketing around this,” he says. “We need to empower scientists and regulators to make sure that what we’re growing will sustain the soil, sustain farmers, and nourish eaters. Today what’s grown is grown to get the highest profit possible. Soil health is mostly ignored, farmer health is mostly ignored, and eater health is mostly ignored.”
Across the kitchen table, Finlay is hard at work on that. Before taking the position at Glynwood eight years ago, she ran a center at Harvard Medical School for 14 years that studied and raised awareness about how human health depends on the health of the natural world. Since she arrived at Glynwood, she has started programs such as a farm business incubator and supported an existing apprenticeship program for young farmers, both of which empower farmers with values of regenerative farming, climate resilience, and farmer resilience. Some local incubator participants include Second Wind, Rise and Root, Grass and Grit, and Hearty Roots. Currently, through a federal grant, they are piloting a program that allows people to use SNAP dollars (food stamps) toward CSAs.
For Bittman’s part, he is creating a groundswell of awareness through teaching people how to cook and how to eat, but also through speaking to the right people in forums large and small. He says, “One way changes happen is when we agree that we want elected officials who will make those changes.” In 2016, he was in Iowa for the caucus and had a hard time getting anyone to talk about food. He notes that things have changed, citing both Bernie Sanders’ and Elizabeth Warren’s detailed plans for food-systems change.
The last conversation we ever need to have about eating right won’t come until our food landscape is more farms than factories; until then, Bittman urges us to do our best, to use the resources we do have — like larger produce sections and close to 100 CSAs between Albany and Westchester — and to eat “less junk, more plants that are as close to unprocessed as possible, and fewer animal products.”
We asked Bittman, what is in his usual cooking arsenal. In How to Cook Everything, the revised 20th anniversary edition, Bittman says, “[Stir frying] is fast and easy, and my favorite way to cook. The process usually takes 15 minutes — just enough time to cook a pot of rice. Once you learn the technique, all the components — proteins, vegetables, and seasonings — are interchangeable. That means you can substitute ingredients more freely than with any other type of cooking.”
Makes: 4 servings
Stir-fries are among the best ways to use those odd bits of vegetables languishing in your fridge. Just remember: The smaller you cut them, the more quickly they’ll become tender. And if you’ve got some stock handy, use that instead of some or all of the water.
• 1½ pounds quick-cooking vegetables like broccoli, sugar snap or snow peas, carrots, or asparagus
• 2 tablespoons good-quality vegetable oil
• 1 tablespoon chopped garlic
• 1 tablespoon chopped fresh ginger
• ½ cup chopped scallions or onion
• Salt and pepper
• 2 tablespoons soy sauce, plus more to taste
• 1 teaspoon sesame oil
1. Trim the vegetables and cut them into bite-sized pieces if necessary. Put a large skillet over medium-high heat for about 3 minutes to get hot. Add the oil, quickly followed by the garlic, ginger, and scallions. Cook, stirring constantly, for about 15 seconds, then add the vegetables and adjust the heat so they sizzle. Sprinkle with a little salt and pepper.
2. Cook, stirring frequently, until the vegetables are brightly colored but not quite as tender as you want them, 3 to 7 minutes, depending on the kind and how they’re cut. Add ¼ cup water, the soy sauce, and sesame oil; stir and turn off the heat. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Serve or store covered in the refrigerator for up to a day to eat cold or at room temperature.
Time: 15 minutes
Excerpted from HOW TO COOK EVERYTHING—COMPLETELY REVISED TWENTIETH ANNIVERSARY EDITION: SIMPLE RECIPES FOR GREAT FOOD © by Mark Bittman. Photography © 2019 by Aya Brackett. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.