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Mark Bittman on Vegans, Ethical Eating, and a New Cookbook

Mark Bittman on Vegans, Ethical Eating, and a New Cookbook

"Chorizo" tacos. Photograph by Quentin Bacon.

If there’s one thing Mark Bittman, author of kitchen standby “How to Cook Everything,” knows well, it’s how to craft a recipe. But there’s something else the longtime New York Times columnist is getting to be a pro at, too: irritating vegans.

“A lot of them get pissed with my use of the word,” Bittman, author of the new “VB6 Cookbook,” told us. VB6 is short for “vegan before 6,” and represents his approach to eating: Follow a strict vegan diet that’s free of junk and highly processed foods — but only till dusk, at which point you can go hog-wild. “It’s a strategy for increasing the proportion of plants and other real foods in your diet, and decreasing the amounts of processed foods and animal products,” he explained.

But Bittman, whose newest cookbook includes recipes from (vegan) Seaweed Soba to the (decidedly not) Pork Chop Pan Roast, was also quick to note, “I’m not a vegan and I’m not a believer in veganism.” In fact, he finds the philosophy of eating both “less pleasurable” and “unnecessary.”

His comments will come as no surprise to anyone who has followed his writings over the years, particularly his 2013 New York Times opinion piece, “Why I’m Not a Vegan.” And they will certainly bring comfort to omnivores who struggle with guilt over the notion of ethical eating. But Bittman’s words (including his most recent provocative piece, “Leave ‘Organic’ Out of It,” in which he defends GMOs) can seem confusing to anyone who sees him as a defender of sustainability—an approach he himself touts often.

On one hand, addressing the issue of animal cruelty, he told us, “Now that [Iowa] has got fields and fields of corn and soybeans and very few animals on the landscape, except poor pigs locked in barns in what amount to factories, that’s not a healthy situation.” Furthermore, he’s noted that animal products “use too many resources: land, water, energy, and — not the least important — food that could nourish people,” and that industrial livestock production is “a major (if not the leading) contributor to greenhouse gases.”

And yet, he still disses veganism, writing in his book that “the idea of becoming a full-time vegan was neither realistic nor appealing to someone accustomed to eating as widely and as well as I do.”

This has left actual vegans in a tricky situation: Embrace Bittman—a nationally revered and best-selling author with a six-digit Twitter following—or fault him.

Gene Baur, president of Farm Sanctuary, the nation’s leading farm-animal protection organization, has chosen to embrace him, inviting Bittman on to its recent fundraising panel, “The Conscientious Table: Rethinking Our Food System,” in New York City.

“There are things that we agree on and things that we disagree on,” Baur told us. “He would say, ‘eat animals that come from so-called humane farms,’ I would say the word ‘humane’ and ‘slaughter’ are in conflict with each other.” Further, he notes, “I think he sort of operates in the middle ground — he doesn’t delve into the ethical issues around animals as deeply as he should.” However, Baur says, “We appreciate how much he’s done to start discussion on these issues. A lot has to do with momentum, and he is doing a significant amount to build momentum.” 

Others are more blunt. “The problem with the food movement today, and Bittman is hardly alone, is that it’s too scared to tell the truth,” Jasmin Singer, cofounder of Our Hen House, a vegan think tank, podcast and cable TV show in Brooklyn, New York, told us. “We have 7 billion people and counting on this planet. If we continue to eat meat — regardless of what time of day it is — we will continue to have factory farms. There’s also the fundamental truth that every animal’s life, and every animal’s suffering, matters.”

And so here, to that end, is a vegan recipe from Bittman’s new book that (we tested it!) almost everyone can probably agree is very good—for taste buds and the planet:

“Chorizo” Tacos
Makes 4 servings 
Time: 20 to 45 minutes, depending on the desired texture

Eight 6-inch corn tortillas
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small red onion, chopped
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
1½ pounds firm tofu (1½ blocks)
1 red bell pepper, chopped (optional)
1 tablespoon chili powder
2 limes, 1 halved,
1 quartered
¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro, for garnish
¼ cup chopped scallions, for garnish

1. Heat the oven to 400°F. Stack the tortillas on a large square of foil and wrap them loosely.

2. Put the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onion and garlic; sprinkle with the salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally until the vegetables soften, 3 to 5 minutes.

3. Crumble the tofu into the pan with your hands. Cook, stirring and scraping the bottom of the skillet occasionally, and adjusting the heat as necessary, until the tofu browns and crisps as much or as little as you like it, anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes.

4. When the tofu is almost ready, put the tortillas in the oven.

5. Add the bell pepper to the pan if you’re using it. Sprinkle the mixture with the chili powder; stir, and cook, continuing to scrape any browned bits from the bottom of the pan until the mixture is fragrant, less than a minute. Squeeze the juice of the halved lime over all, garnish with cilantro and scallions, and serve with the tortillas and lime quarters.

More Ideas
For a little more kick without being too fiery, try 1 or 2 poblano chiles instead of the bell pepper. • Substitute 3 cups well-drained cooked or canned black or pinto beans for the tofu. (If you’re using canned beans, rinse them before draining.) • Use tempeh instead of tofu. It will be tangier and slightly more dense, closer to the texture of ground meat. • Small whole wheat tortillas are good, here, too. Soften them the same way as described above.

Reprinted from The VB6 Cookbook. Copyright © 2014 by Mark Bittman. Photographs copyright © 2014 by Quentin Bacon. Published by Clarkson Potter, a division of Random House LLC.