In fairness, the offal was sent compliments of the kitchen.
Mark Bittman grabs the ramekin of chicken liver brûlée with a hand the size of an NBA power forward’s before breaking through the caramelized crust with a dagger of crusty bread. I’ve met the author of the best-selling VB6: Eat Vegan Before 6:00 for lunch at the Breslin, April Bloomfield’s New York City restaurant famous for lamb burgers and boards stacked with liverwurst and head cheese. “Today is a bad day,” says Bittman when asked about breaking his famous meat-and-dairy-free-during-daylight edict during our flowing conversation, which skips between millennial slackerdom, Bill Clinton and Bittman’s next chapter after leaving The New York Times in September: He is serving as chief innovation officer at vegan meal-kit delivery service Purple Carrot, which was officially announced this morning. “But, really, we are celebrating, so it’s not so bad,” he says with a laugh.
The lunch was part of a two-day media blitz promoting the author’s latest book, which was being released that day, a compilation of his popular New York Times Magazine column Kitchen Matrix. Earlier in the morning, the tall and trim 65-year-old had been hawking the book on television and NPR, and later he will tape with the “really intense” Dr. Oz. So it’s clear the dude deserves a basket of beer-battered Long Island fluke and Bloomfield’s supreme pomme frites. “You should eat some of these,” he insists in a long-simmered Manhattan drawl. Bittman was raised in New York City’s Stuyvesant Town, and until earlier this year lived mostly in the Northeast — between Boston, Connecticut and New York City — before relocating to Northern California in January. “Living in Berkeley is fucking awesome,” he says with a smile. And with a new job building a plant-based cooking brand, his first full-time gig outside of media in over 30 years, the roaring startup economy might be pretty fucking awesome for Mark Bittman, too.
“This is the most I can do outside of going into people’s houses and cooking for them.”
The beginning for Bittman, like so many other well-known authors, was modest — and built through hustle. After selling camera equipment to support his young family (he is now divorced and has two grown daughters), he broke into food writing in 1981 after walking into The New Haven Advocate, a community weekly, to inquire about the restaurant critic job that had already been filled. (“I’ll write you one better” is how Bittman describes the conversation he had with the editor.) In short order, the job was his; he was to write about the local steak houses and red-sauce joints. But soon, in a small town with little action, he ran out of source material. Then one day he filed copy on a place that was serving a pesto and pasta dish. “It was just terrible,” he recalls. After saying so in the review, he tacked on a recipe at the end for a better way to make it at home. And with that, he became a recipe writer. “I wrote about many different things during my career, and nobody was interested in anything I was writing about until it was food.”
After picking up steam at the weekly, he soon started selling stories to the Hartford Courant, the New Haven Register and The Washington Post, where he wrote extensively about seafood, embedding with fisherman and oyster farmers, all the while writing in a simple, conversational tone that also tackled complex topics, translating them for a workaday readership. Simplicity is fundamental in good food writing, from the listicle farms to the pros like Bittman, who in Mark Bittman’s Kitchen Matrix tells you, for example, how to prepare soft shell crabs in 12 different ways — on a single page.
“I was captivated by his voice, his New York whiz kid confidence and those amazing recipes,” says Angela Miller, Bittman’s longtime literary agent. “He came to my office for a first meeting and signed an agreement right then and there. Mark is no bullshit, and his recipes reflected that from the start.” Miller, an industry vet who also reps this writer, has been with Bittman since the beginning, selling his first book, Fish, to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 1996. His publisher Pam Krauss calls Bittman a spokesman for cooking with more confidence. “He gives readers the tools to change things up to suit their own palate rather than slavishly re-create a dish,” she says, calling Matrix a stunningly beautiful expression of that goal. “This book is pure Bittman.”
But what about selling vegan food? Is that pure Bittman? “I’m totally nervous about this,” he admits, saying that he’s going to “test the bejesus” out of the recipes and hope for the best at a company that is playing catch-up to several established cook-at-home meal-delivery services, like Plated and Blue Apron. With the news of Bittman’s new role, Purple Carrot has also announced that it has expanded its distribution to 35 states and has sent out more than 100,000 meals to date. “This is the most I can do outside of going into people’s houses and cooking for them.” In addition to developing recipes, Bittman will also establish relationships with farmers and make sure the company is as environmentally conscious as possible. For anybody who has read his books, none of this is much of a shocker. But to see the writer take the leap and actually act upon the hundreds of thousands of words typed into his MacBook is pretty interesting. “People will ultimately cook from this, which is all you can hope for at the end of the day.” And that means Bittman boxes arriving at the door weekly, filled with products and recipes to get saag paneer with tofu, penne with cauliflower sauce and black bean burgers on the table fast.
“What report card would the sugar lobby give you?” I’ve gone all Anderson Cooper on the poor guy trying to enjoy his Ribolla, but Bittman gives me pure Bittman — a response both confident and to the point. “I think they would give me a pretty good report card,” he says, rubbing his eyes like a man who could use a cortado. “I don’t demonize sugar; I just think we drink too much of it. These lobbies are built to sell more products. We know what the lobbyists are going to say. What’s important is what the scientists say.” Earlier we’d been talking about the recent WHO report linking processed meats to colon cancer, and I was pressing for a reaction from a man who is frequently called upon for a sound bite on such matters. Although he officially has “zero dialogue” with the Obama administration, and his call for a national food policy has gone largely ignored, he’s booked repeatedly to speak at events and in the media. And it is fair to say that Bittman does not run out of steam.
“This report is not news to anyone, so why is it top of mind?” he says, echoing comments he made on cable news the day before. “You would have thought something significant happened, but really it wasn’t news. Meat is not deadly. The way we produce meat is deadly. A turning point could be a mad-cow [disease] equivalent, which would bring to light the meat production practices in the country.” So, contrary to some sensationalized media drops, the WHO report was hardly a signal moment. And the fact of the matter, as Bittman points out, is that the consumption of red meat is way down over the past 20 years. So what is the problem? “Still, too much meat is bad for you, and people know that.” And the solution might just be inside that Purple Carrot box sitting at your front door.