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Bittman - 'Reducto ab absurdum', and forgive me if I spelled this wrong

I'm not a fan of Mark Bittman. My husband isn't either, and I think his term "gasbag" sort of fits as a good description. In today's NY Times, he has another one of his articles about reducing cooking to its lowest common denominator -- You could do this, or you could do that, and if those don't appeal, try this. I feel that it is very condescending as well as pretty unappealing. I may be in he minority here, since most people seem to like him, but for the life of me, I can't figure out why.

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  1. " You could do this, or you could do that, and if those don't appeal, try this"

    In my opinion this is the essence of being a good cook rather than being a recipe follower.

    1 Reply
    1. re: melo7

      Agreed. I like him and his approach to help people cook more and cook better. His style is a bit quirky and clutsy but he get's his point across. I think his show is not aimed at the experienced cook but I have picked up a pearl or two from his shows and articles. He basically is telling us that if he can do it anyone can. What's wrong with that. He's right!

    2. I think his appeal is for many people (like me) who aren't skilled, experienced cooks and who are somewhat intimidated by the process. He takes some of the fear out of the whole experience, at least for me anyhow.

      1. I think that for many people who do like him, his approach takes the "mystery" and the intimidation out of cooking and lets everyone know that they really do know what they like to eat and makes it easy for people to create what they like.

        1. I haven't seen the article and I'm not sure I'm following you. When you write: "You could do this, or you could do that, and if those don't appeal, try this," are you talking about cooking instructions - Bittman's tendency to talk about techniques and decisions and variations rather than strict recipes?

          If so, how in the world is that condescending? Or if not, what are you referring to?

          21 Replies
          1. re: cowboyardee

            I haven't seen the article either, but I'm just trying to get a handle on the title of the post. What does reductio ad absurdum have to do with Bittman, his practices, or your feelings about them? How do Bittman's convictions lead to untenable or completely ridiculous conclusions, as you suggest? (Or is the reasoning his, in which case, I'd still like an example.) A little flare, please, (since slagging off through logic is fun) and perhaps, more explanation in this case to help me follow.

            I'm also wondering what it means to 'reduce' cooking to the lowest common denominator? If it is about testing out possibilities ('You could do this, or you could do that, and if those don't appeal, try this'), I'm not even sure how that's a bad thing for a home cook-- or even a chef. So I'm with coyboyardee: How is that condescending?

            1. re: Lizard

              Reducto Ad Absurdum means that he dumbs down recipes by reducing them to little more than suggestions. I have his How to Cook Everything, which is a book that turned me off to him. For me, and I mean that -- for me, his recipes tend to be bland. Yes, they're simple, but they are pretty uninteresting. For example, this week's lobster recipes in the NY Times suggests lobster with butter, or lobster with olive oil, lobster with mayo, or lobster kabobs, among others. Yeah, so? He has done these sort of lists of "ideas" many times. Those are not recipes; those are suggestions for dining, and nothing that I haven't heard about before. It's simply a compendium.

              The reason I personally find this condescending is that there is the assumption of total ignorance and lack of any culinary experience on the part of the reader.

              1. re: roxlet

                I have to agree w/ the last statement especially. I honestly think that by the time someone's graduated to even WANTING his cookbooks, they're a little more food-and-kitchen-savvy than your average bear. To my mind, Mark Bittman is just a little cavalier.

                1. re: roxlet

                  Many people - maybe not you or me - really do have a lack of knowledge or experience in how to prepare even simple foods. I take his "suggestions" (like the lobster article) as ideas or reminders or even inspirations of what I could do.

                  I guess we all process this stuff through whatever filters we see the world through and for you Bittman occurs as condescending; for me he occurs as inspiring. Neither one is better or worse; right or wrong. But it sure is interesting how differently we all see the world!

                  1. re: roxlet

                    Because food, recipes or ideas about food have to be complicated to be worthwhile and tasty?

                    I think just the opposite of Bittman, that he assumes a reasonably high level of proficiency on the part of readers and knows that often all a good cook needs is the tickle of inspiration to run with.

                    I actually thought your post was going to be in reference to his new-ish presence in op-ed. As it pertains to his cooking persona, I find the "gasbag" characterization curious. Who talks/writes about food in a manner you enjoy?

                    1. re: splatgirl

                      That's exactly what I think-- I use his book a lot, more as a reminder of some ways to handle some ingredient that is not on my "usual" list. I follow his instructions with whatever amount of detail I wish to-- but it's a great collection of ideas. And I think his whole point is that you don't have to skip a recipe just because you don't have one ingredient in the pantry. Too many people think-- I can't make this because I don't have capers! Oh well...

                    2. re: roxlet

                      I was so excited when I saw the Times magazine had recipes for lobster. Then I turned the page. Then I threw out the magazine. Nothing there at all interesting or innovative; nothing I couldn't have figured out on my own without his help. I don't hate him, I just don't pay much attention to him. And agree totally that the recipes in How to Cook Everything could be subtitled: But Not Very Well.

                      1. re: JoanN

                        How To Cook Everything was one of the few cookbooks I didn't save when we moved overseas. The recipes struck me as imprecise to the point where they seemed untested. I have plenty of ideas, but I go to cookbooks to find accurate proportions, technique, and flavor combinations. Generally I'm suspicious of "master" recipes that can be gussied up or "ethnicized" by swapping out an ingredient or two---e.g., add coconut milk and lemongrass for a "Thai" take on pot roast, or add sriracha and scallions for a "Chinese" spin (ha!). Personally, I'm much more interested in reading someone who has mastered a particular cuisine, rather than a generalist who thinks he does everything well.

                      2. re: roxlet

                        A) That's not what 'reductio ad absurdum' means. It's actually a style of philosophical argument used to contradict another argument or proposition. It is also often used as a kind of roundabout proof of an argument.

                        B) Dude teaches beginners how to cook. It's not condescending that he assumes some culinary ignorance on the part of his core audience - his core audience consists of beginners and dabblers. Nothing wrong with that. If he's too basic for you, there are plenty of more advanced books and such out there. Would you rather that beginners learn from Rachel Ray?

                        But I fundamentally disagree with you that hard, set-in-stone recipes are better for beginner cooks than recipes focusing on technique and listing options. Most people I know who are reliant upon recipes, even if they're reasonably competent cooks in their element, wind up having real difficulty improvising in the kitchen. People who learn based on techniques are much better off, IMO.

                        1. re: cowboyardee

                          True.

                          "Give a man a fish [=detailed precise recipe], feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish [=techniques, concepts of how to do something, ideas of how things come together], feed him for a lifetime." ** Etc etc. ::Shrug:: YMMV.

                          (**paraphrased from Lao Tzu)

                          1. re: huiray

                            I disagree that one cannot learn from detailed, precise recipes or that it is a less effective method of teaching. Learn to do something correctly and well, and you have the knowledge base to begin creating variations. Learn to create several dishes halfheartedly and imprecisely, and well, you just have several middling meals.

                            At least, this has been my experience. Each person's can, admittedly, be different. But it's no coincidence, I think, that many fine cooks learn (or teach themselves) classical technique and flavor combinations from well-written recipes, then begin to create their own spins and improvisations on the classics.

                            1. re: ChristinaMason

                              Look at what Julia Child did for cooking in this country, with her extremely detailed and precise recipes. I certainly learned a lot from her.
                              Brown a chicken and throw some wine in, let simmer, will not produce Coq au Vin.

                              1. re: ChristinaMason

                                I'm not saying that strict recipes are useless. Just that they're an inefficient way to learn to cook.

                                There's a reason that any half decent culinary school puts more focus on techniques than recipes.

                                1. re: ChristinaMason

                                  One assuredly could, especially if one is already a competent cook or skilled in lateral thinking. For a novice in a field, whether it be cooking or physics, learning the underpinnings and general principles before trying to do a recreation of Beef Wellington or build an electron microscrope from scratch is likely to be more useful when starting out - for many. Others may have a natural aptitude and learn quickly from complicated designs right from the beginning but these folks are rarer. There is no necessity that "imprecise" be the same as "generalized" nor the same as "sloppy". Fine cooks/chefs almost by definition fall into the high-aptitude group. Perhaps many CHounders do so too.

                                  There is also the danger that some may become "locked" into only one way of doing something if they 'learn' from a specific detailed recipe and lack the ability to step outside of that recipe - lateral thinking, again, if you will.

                                  Why not do both, then - perhaps starting with the "generalized" way then adding precise recipes to illustrate application of the techniques and furtherance of one's thinking about the way food comes together?

                            2. re: roxlet

                              So why don't get rid of his book by selling it on Ebay, and you'll sleep better. Did you ever cook something without following a recipe exactly as written?

                              1. re: roxlet

                                Unfortunately, a great many people today simply do not know how to cook or think they do not have time to cook. It seems to me that Bittman (like Jamie Oliver in his "Food Revolution") or Alice Waters in "Simple Cooking" writes for these. But the books also provide plenty of stimulating new ideas for experienced cooks who don't follow recipes as a rule. His most recent book, "How to Cook Everything Fast," will be a perfect Christmas gift for a harried mother know who wants to learn to do more than bake a frozen pizza or cook boxed mac and cheese. In fact, this book would be a great reference for a planned series of days of reflection on cooking and spirituality. He provides the how and we explore the meaning. For a slightly different take on the theme, look at some of Slater's books, including "Real Fast Food." He doesn't outline the structure of cooking, but he takes a similar approach with ingredients at hand. Yes, there are other complex ways to do things, but for me the final test is whether something is both nutritious and good tasting. Simple food can encompass both.

                                1. re: Father Kitchen

                                  "In fact, this book would be a great reference for a planned series of days of reflection on cooking and spirituality." You're planning a series of days of reflection based on this book? I have this book and that's the last thing that occurred to me. I'm curious about how you're planning to do this!

                                  I am a harried mother and I'm really interested in the idea of this book, but I'm having a hard time getting through it now that I've read the intro. I wish there were an easy way to flip to the beginning of a new chapter (since the book's so thick, I wish they'd do an indented tab the way they use to do with dictionaries) and I don't find it very readable, beyond the intro.

                                  On the other hand, when my copy of the big green Gourmet Cookbook, "Gourmet Today" came, I found it very easy to read all of the call outs, etc.

                                  ~TDQ

                                  1. re: The Dairy Queen

                                    I'm not planning to base the days of reflection on the book, but I would use it as a reference. I've only done one so far, and I planned it around bread and soup. We baked no-knead bread. I started a loaf the night before and we baked that, and we mixed the dough for another at the start of the morning, so people got a hands-on feel for it. We had about twenty people, and they all worked in the kitchen. We pulled up scripture references to food and cooking. We talked about using meals to build relationships and to feed the whole person, including the spirit. We talked about cooking as a form of service. Other topics could include nutrition, feeding the poor, social justice, etc. And we made four kinds of soups. Maybe next time I would do less. We did not work from a recipe but from concepts. I'd got people to taste things and suggest what to do next. When needed, I offered some alternative seasoning and ingredients. I asked them what they think would be good. We made a corn chowder, a lentil soup, a butternut squash soup, and an Asian-inspired chicken-noodle soup similar to pho but made from home-made noodles which we cooked as fast as we cut them. Bittman's variations on a basic recipe support this kind of thinking.
                                    I would like to focus on cooking methods since many folks today don't know basic techniques.
                                    Another approach might have been to bring a selection of ingredients and work directly from them.
                                    After cooking everything, we had a meal, which included salad prepared by retreat house volunteers who joined us. Later, several participants told me they had gone home and repeated the Asian-style noodle soup for their families.
                                    In a similar vein, each Lent we have a "Rice Bowl" lunch at which we serve a potluck of international dishes, preferably mostly-vegetarian dishes from third-world countries. For several years, I've adapted some simple Bittman recipes instead of using recipes from Catholic Relief Services that come with the Rice Bowl materials. However, the hands-down favorite has always been bean fritters which one parishioner does to perfection.

                            3. re: cowboyardee

                              I have over 200 cookbooks and cooking documents, and I doubt that I have ever followed more than 5 recipes to the letter. Cookbooks to me are just guides. However, my wife complains that if I ever cook something she really likes, she knows she'll never have it again because I like to play with my food.

                              1. re: ChiliDude

                                I could get as many ideas on how to cook something from looking at the picture than looking at the recipe

                            4. I find his writing uninspired/uninspiring too. Have his "How to Cook Everything" (which is an rather annoying title anyway) and have made his shrimp with paprika and garlic a few times, but nothing else grabbed me. I got turned off to him when he started his 100 dishes articles in the NYT (appetizers...these kinds of things: Roll some melon in prosciutto! Put cheese on crackers! Gosh! Revelatory!).
                              The lobster article in the NYT Mag was slightly more interesting to me, primarily because I seldom cook lobster at home. Don't like the chart routine though, 4 things to do.
                              This whole reductio thing has really taken off, with the almighty Ruhlman and his "Ratio" (yes, I know pro cooks use this method) and recent "Twenty". Takes a lot of the romance and creativity out of the whole process.

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: buttertart

                                I could forgive everything about BIttman if, when I followed his recipes or suggestions or whatever they are, the end product were consistently delicious. But, with Bittman, it often isn't. Recipes don't have to be complicated or educational or perfectly written to be successful. A former cookbook of the month, Italian Easy (one of the River Cafe Books) comes to mind. The recipes in that book appeared to have been hastily and unevenly converted from British to American conventions. There were all kinds of loose ends. Ingredients that they never told you what to do with. Ingredients that suddenly appeared in the instructions that weren't mentioned in the listing. And so on. It was very frustrating but, somehow, I always enjoyed the result. Not so with Bittman.

                                I did recently buy his Food Matters Cookbook because it's a philosophy of cooking I'd like to embrace and because a couple of home cooking 'hounds spoke highly of it. I hope I'm not disappointed.

                                ~TDQ

                              2. I can see how folks can go either way with him. I have long been a fan--and I love to cook, improvise all the time, have to actually force myself to follow recipes exactly when making something for the first time and I need a recipe. (and I usually still add my own spin)

                                Having said all that, a little tip fom him prompted my latest post on the home cooking board--copied here:

                                "I saw on the Today show last week that Mark Bittman (BTW-interesting difference of opinions on him over in the Food Media board) prepared a soup with tomatoes and peaches.

                                Having lots of both I was intrigued.

                                he mentioned as he prrepared it that they make a great salad, too.

                                Tried it last night--very ripe farmers market peaches and some home and farmers market tomatoes. Just wedged them, S&P and drop of balsamic and EVOO.

                                Tasty!!

                                so good I brought same for lunch, with white balsamic instead and a touch of fresh tarragon (as his soup recipe called for).

                                I don't think I would have made a salad of just this if he had not brought up the combo.

                                So, thanks, MB."

                                That's one of the reasons I like him. simple yes--but very good.

                                1. I can see that Bittman is kind of a "love him or loathe him" type of guy. Personally, I like him. He is not, nor professes to be, a professional chef. His message is that you can cook tasty, interesting and healthy food, without it being a big production or expense. He throws out scores of ideas and if I get several good ones out of them, I'm happy. Not unlike my feelings about the "Home Cooking" board.

                                  1. "Gasbag" and "condescending." My sentiments EXACTLY. Especially when you see him in action on one TV show or another.