Are Bittman’s Three Recipes Anything More Than a Gimmick?

Flickr / Chiot's Run

I generally am a fan of Mark Bittman. On the list of white guys who are supposed experts on how and what we should eat (looking at you, Pollan), he’s my favorite. The reason I like his work in How To Cook Everything is that he lays out a basic recipe and then offers several easy variations. This is crucial for new cooks, because often they tend to stick very strictly to a recipe and freak out a bit if they don’t have every ingredient or if, for some reason, they need to modify it. Understanding from the beginning that there are multiple ways to get great results is an excellent way to lower the bar to entry for cooking.

With that said, I was vaguely skeptical of his recent NYT piece where he explained that you only need three recipes to eat well for the rest of your life (and do right by the planet). Those recipes are: “a stir-fry, a chopped salad, and the basic combination of rice and lentils, all of which are easy enough to learn in one lesson.”

His reasons for choosing these three dishes are pretty sound:

They’re nutritionally sound and environmentally friendly. They’ve sustained scores of generations of societies worldwide, using traditional farming methods and producing little negative impact on the earth. (Almost without exception, your ancestors relied on something like one or more of these dishes.) All of them can be made with meat, poultry or fish, but they can be satisfying and delicious when made vegetarian or even vegan.

My skepticism is not because I disagree, but because I’m pretty pessimistic about what most people are willing and able to do in the kitchen. Arguments about why people don’t cook often break down into a binary: A) lots of people just don’t have the time/energy/resources/knowledge to cook or B) everyone can make a pot of beans and rice with an egg. As usual, the truth falls somewhere between the two, but I’m somewhat closer to side A: that many people find cooking truly daunting for any number of reasons.

This was underscored further today by a link to an article that Bittman tweeted, where Mary Kate Frank at iVillage attempted to make his broccoli stir-fry. Bittman (rightfully) complained that Frank called it “The $84 Stir-Fry” when she overbought ingredients plus a useless $50 food scale. But nonetheless, this stands out:

It occurs to me that cooks define “lightning fast” much differently than non-cooks.

Frank spent an hour and a half slicing ingredients, which seems comically slow, except that I’ve instructed non-cooks to slice things in my own kitchen and it always takes them for. ever. Facility with a knife is something that’s easy to take for granted when you have it, but watching someone cut something slowly and then ask repeatedly if they’re doing it right (right size, right shape, whatever) is a reminder that cooking is not, as Jamelle Bouie has said, “obvious.”

It took Frank more than three hours to make a meal that, for a frequent cook who would likely have half the ingredients in her pantry or freezer, should take 30 minutes or so. And obviously, Frank was being facetious in much of her piece, but a lot of people don’t know what button mushrooms look like, or whether to peel ginger before mincing it (no, really, I’ve been asked this).

At any rate, it’s not clear what the solution is. It’s easy to scoff at “these three recipes are all you need!” but I respect the work Bittman is doing to make home cooking more accessible for more people. Still, I wonder if that kind of gimmick just puts people off more, especially if a new cook finds that it takes six times as long as it should to make a recipe for the first time.


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