Mark Bittman and Ruth Reichl savage the food-TV craze, and the ‘secret’ 2012 Farm Bill

Mark Bittman. (Dan Rosenblum)
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Not long after he finished college, an encounter with a mediocre pesto dish at a New Haven restaurant was the making of Mark Bittman.

You know Bittman as The Minimalist, after the column he wrote for 13 years at The New York Times until he dropped it last January to write books and columns for the Times Magazine and its opinion section, as well as occasional big features; right now he's running an essay contest for the magazine about the ethics of meat eating.

But last night at the 92nd Street Y, the pesto dish was his madeleine: Thinking that he could cook it better at home than the chef had at the restaurant, and pesto after all being a supremely simple dish, the idea was born of elevating home cooking according to simple, accessible principles, and good, whole ingredients.

He was being interviewed by foodie-about-town Ruth Reichl, who herself was a restaurant reviewer for the Times before she became the editor in chief of the now-shuttered legendary food magazine, Gourmet.

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Recently, Reichl was a judge on the Bravo reality-competition series “Top Chef Masters, and Bittman himself has worked extensively on the small screen (including appearances on the "Today" show and his own PBS series, among other things) so it seemed natural for Reichl to ask what the food-television craze had contributed to home cooking.

Were people learning how to cook from television?

"No," Bittman said, repeating the word emphatically several times.

“I think what was learned from TV is that food is a worthwhile thing to think about,” he said. “But I don’t think anyone actually learned how to scramble an egg.”

Reichl began another question but Bittman continued.

“It’s quite incredible, it’s really amazing, because it’s all competition, cleavage, nastiness.”

“But you’ve done some TV,” Reichl said. “I mean, how’s that for you?”

“I’m tempted to say ‘next question’ but since I can’t see the audience I can still pretend it’s a conversation,” he said. “Um, it’s not my favorite thing in the world.”

Multiple takes, scripting and editing all interfere with the purity of the process Bittman enjoys in his writing; the television he likes best are the live and unscripted segments like the ones he occasionally does for “Today.”

But the real evil of food television, both agreed, was the confusion between chefs and cooks.

Bittman’s newly released book, a new "Basics" edition of How to Cook Everything, is another milestone in his larger concept to encouraging would-be cooks to stop being intimidated by their own kitchens and limitations. 

Reichl, striking a poetic vein as she is wont to do, remembered out loud how she did her best cooking when she was young, broke and living in a loft on Rivington Street rolling pies with a wine bottle. They both agreed clean, trophy kitchens were for people who don’t cook.

“This whole thing 'in order to cook, you have to be a chef' has got things all backwards," Bittman said. "The vast minority of people who cook wind up being chefs. No where else in the world, except for the West right now, would anyone ever think that cooking and being a chef was synonymous. There is that tendency around television. Books are a small part, television is really—if ‘blame’ is to be cast television is to blame for that.”

“Well that’s true,” Reichl said. “It makes people think that chefs are cooks, which in fact they are C.E.O.’s who run assembly lines, essentially."

“For some reason people don’t watch—what’s it called—NASCAR and think they can’t drive a car unless they drive it 180 miles an hour. That’s true right? And they don’t watch tennis, they’d never play tennis unless they can play like—you know, what’s his name—Djokovic. People don’t think that stuff, but then they think if they can’t cook like Bobby Flay, then what’s the point?”

Bittman said he was happy to see more vegetarian and near-vegan diets on the rise. He praised the role of public opinion on food issues, pointing to the recent "pink slime" expose.

“I think what happened with pink slime in the last couple of weeks is encouraging not so much because pink slime is the worst thing in the world, but because people got annoyed or angry or freaked out or upset about it, and they made noise about it," Bittman said. "And they’re gonna put that thing out of business, and that is pretty interesting because if that happened with industrially produced chickens, that would be really quite a thing.”

As Reichl continued to read audience questions from cards collected earlier from audience members during the conversation, she pointed out the post-script from a question card about food bloggers.

“P.S. I totally learned to cook from the Food Network,” Reichl said, reading from the card.

The audience laughed.

“There’s an exception to every rule,” Bittman said.

As the hour wound down, Reichl asked Bittman about the 2012 Farm Bill, a contentious bit of legislation that is renewed every five years and controls a vast array of food-production policies. It's something Bittman hasn't been shy about offering his opinions on.

“I shouldn’t go there,” she said.

“It’s horrifying,” he said; and it was late. “Yeah, you’re right, we shouldn’t go there.”

“Go there!” someone in the audience yelled. Others cheered. 

“I mean, you just feel so helpless watching this farm bill, which is probably going to end up taking away all that’s good in the last farm bill, and taking away all the subsidies to family farmers and putting more money into industrial farming,” Reichl said, amplifying some of Bittman's previous contentions on the matter.

In the new farm bill, there are eight times more federal subsidies going to commodities like corn than to fruits and vegetables, Bittman said. But Bittman said public anger should be shifted away from corporations, who after all are in it to make money.

“To me, the people to be pissed of at now is the government,” he said. “Part of their job is to rein them in, and they’re not doing it.”

“I feel like until we get a really riled public about what’s happening and people really understand how much our tax policy, where the money is going on a governmental level, how much money it influences the way that we eat, nothing’s gonna happen," Reichl said. "And now it’s locked up behind closed doors.”

Bittman said there were important issues even outside of the farm bill, like industrial production of animals and taking money away from agencies like the Food and Drug Administration

“The whole defunding scheme is really deregulation by another name,” he said. "I mean, if you gut the F.D.A., that’s deregulation.”

The whole exchange was a crowd-pleaser, given the sophisticated audience. But Reichl had been reading questions from audience members throughout the evening, and it was to be expected that some of the obvious ones were also among the most important to the people that had come last night.

They wanted to hear what Bittman's favorite restaurant was (Jean-Georges; he's co-written a book with chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten); his favorite food (this year, eggplant is one) and his favorite food cities. Those were Genoa, Nice and, of course, New York.