Let's get one thing straight: Mark Bittman is not a vegan. The first thing he does, sitting down to breakfast at a beautifully curated vegan feast while on tour to promote his mostly-vegan eating manifesto, is demand some dairy.
"What do you say we send this whole vegan thing to hell and get some milk around here?" he says. On cue, dainty milk pitchers arrive, and Bittman's coffee gets a hearty dose.
The scene is an apt introduction to the longtime New York Times food columnist's new and entirely nondogmatic approach to eating, outlined in his new diffusively-titled book, VB6: Eat Vegan Before 6:00 To Lose Weight and Restore Your Health...For Good. The book promotes a principally-vegan diet before 6 p.m., permitting reasonable freedom after that time to eat whatever you darn well please. Well, almost. He puts a few soft restrictions on the nighttime freedom, namely common sensical advice like not eating milkshakes until dawn and "all but" eliminating junk food (the "all but" being a nod to the truth that "everybody needs to break the rules sometimes").
Indeed, it's the rule-breaking that he ends up talking about the most of the time. When faced with a crowd, the hands in the air tend to ask the same questions: "Can I put milk in my coffee?" and "is cheating allowed?" The answer to the first is clearly yes, and also to the second, necessarily. It seems everyone wants to lose weight, or feel better, and have their breakfast bacon too. And despite his own mantra of daytime veganism, Bittman says you can. If that's what works for you.
This is because the point of Vegan Before 6 is not veganism, at least not in the militant sense. The point is that moving towards a more unprocessed, plant-based diet is good for us and everything around us. According to Bittman, any way you do that is fine. In his case, this was the way.
"VB6 is not the science, it's a strategy for paying attention to the science. I don't care what anybody's strategy is, if it works for you, fantastic. The strategy for most Americans has to be one that gets us to eat more plants, fruits and vegetables, and legumes, at the expense of industrially processed meats," says Bittman.
Why 6 p.m.? No reason. It's an arbitrary time, intended to encourage readers to have and enjoy their dinner. While Oprah -- a sassy and ardent opposer of nighttime noshing-- wouldn't approve, Bittman says he'd rather digest while he's sleeping than stave off a nap after heavy lunching. Any diet, as many of us know, that requires us to deprive ourselves too severely ought not to last.
Bittman aims for the VB6 plan to be a pragmatic one, and given the flexibility, it is. But he pleads us to recognize the difference between "cheating" and straight up nonsense.
"There's a big difference between putting milk in your coffee and having two cheeseburgers for lunch," says Bittman. Later, he clarified that even the burgers were all right, as long as you're not doing it every day.
Bittman is touring, coincidentally, at the same time as his contemporary and food writing revolutionary, Michael Pollan. Pollan is promoting his new book, Cooked, that argues the single most important thing you can do for yourself and your family is, well, cook. Pollan's and Bittman's proclamations are both geared to push us in the same direction -- away from industrialized meat and overprocessed goods, towards lusher pastures of leafy plants -- with methods that automatically cut out the pitfalls of convenience (read: fast food).
But as an oft-traveling journalist, Bittman is no stranger to food compromises when your kitchen is unavailable. He had to insist, over beautiful mounds of purslane and fava beans, between bites of sprouted rye bread with rich and homemade hazelnut butter, while reaching across the pile of flour-dusted figs for some fresh cherries, that eating on the road is very, very hard. It wasn't convincing at the moment, but considering his assignments don't often bring him to personally-curated vegan breakfasts in the back of a San Francisco farmer's market, I believed him.
In fact, despite Bittman's prolific works about cooking, including that famous simple-cooking tome, How to Cook Everything, his column is littered with adventures in Taco Bell and Subway, with musings on the merits of hot dogs and the dietary compromises we must make as busy people, or people on the road. Earlier in the day he suggested to me that we can't expect everyone to cook, they're just not going to. And so I laid Pollan's Cooked thesis on the table, to which Bittman partly agreed, arguing we don't need everyone in the kitchen. Just more.
"The more people we can get into the kitchen, the better. Clearly. But you're not going to get everybody into the kitchen. It's really important that we work on making it so that everybody has access to decent food. Even if you don't cook, you have to be able to eat better. So we've got all these people out there making billions and billions of dollars on really bad food. Can't we get it so that they're making billions of dollars on better food? Not everybody is going to cook. And you don't need everyone to cook, maybe forty percent. Because the people cooking live with other people. But right now maybe ten percent of the population is cooking, and it's got to get better," he says.
"So where do you start?" I asked, amid the sea of women clutching his books and smiling warmly.
He looked around and noticed. "Men. There's a place you could start. I haven't spoken to a single man all day."