Food Biz

How Mark Bittman Became the Man Who Cooked Everything

September 27, 2016

Well. It's not everything.

That's the first thing Mark Bittman will tell you when you ask him what "everything"—the "everything" from his landmark 1998 book, How to Cook Everything—is. Of course, it couldn't be everything. "If it's everything, you just write one book and that's the end of it," he said, but first of all, "There's no chicken pot pie in it, which is depressing as hell," and secondly, a series followed the original: There's How to Cook Everything: The Basics (2003) and How to Cook Everything: Vegetarian (2007) and How to Cook Everything Fast (2014) and, most recently, How to Bake Everything, which comes out October 4th.

And anyway, how did a journalist—utterly untrained in any formal culinary sense—like Mark happen to write one of the most popular cookbooks of the last 20 years, one that folks give to newlyweds and 17-year-olds heading off to college?

Which to start with? Mark, who describes himself as someone who likes to cook "whenever I'm home, or for lunch, or for dinner," says "How to Cook Everything Fast" is the closest to how he cooks for himself now. Photo by Alpha Smoot

To know that, you have to start with Fish, his 1992 seafood cookbook (and his first book, period). Fish books are not expected to sell particularly well, Mark told me, and yet Mark's did. (It was something he was really passionate about—"obsessed," he told me, to the point where he was hanging around in fish stores.) The book won him both a Julia Child Cookbook Award and esteem in the eyes of his publisher, Houghton Mifflin.

Houghton Mifflin had recently and briefly acquired the rights to Joy of Cooking. As Mark recounts it, "The guy who was in charge said to my editor, What was that big book we had for awhile? And she said, That was Joy of the Cooking, the book that everyone has to have. And he said, We should do something like that." The person tapped to do it, coming off the success of Fish, was Mark.

Mark worked—alone—on the cookbook for about four years, and the 150 recipes (bundled together under the half-joking working title of "How to Cook," borrowed from the Julia Child book The Way to Cook) covered many basics, but it also dipped toes into venison and foie gras and boar. "It was an interesting general cookbook," Mark said, "but it didn't totally have a soul."

A guy said, "You taught me how to make grilled cheese, that's fabulous!"
Mark Bittman

He and his editor realized that the big book—the book that was supposed to be a modern Joy of Cooking—would be better if it had broader appeal, and so, out went the foie gras and the boar and in their places went popcorn and tuna salad and grilled cheese. "I wish I could find them," he said of the recipes. "It would be fun to do a How to Cook Everything: The Lost Recipes."

And so, he also brought on a small team to help him write and develop, and with a team alongside him, Mark had a couple of epiphanies—the moments where he realized that the book wasn't fully representative of how he cooked or wondered if it wasn't widely appealing enough. With the help of his editor Jennifer Griffin, he even pushed the book's publishing date back a year, and then he and Jack Bishop (who would go on to be the editorial director at Cook's Illustrated) spent six months evaluating each of the 25 chapters, one per week. It was with Jen and Jack that "the book took shape in a way that was compelling," he said. They developed the in-recipe variations for which Mark is known, and the handy lists: "10 ideas for this or that, 15 ways to blah blah blah—a lot of that happened in those last few months before publication. We built and built and built."

Ultimately, he organized the book around everything he knew he (someone who has never considered himself a chef, who was never formally trained) wanted to eat. Why pay such close attention to this one writer's culinary preferences, a book that would become a true classic? Maybe because of how reassuring and accessible it all is: "The idea's always been to keep things simple, to encourage people to cook, to make it clear that cooking isn't intimidating but something you just need to get into and practice," he said, echoing the line from the book's introduction that became the comforting mantra for every green cook who picked up the tome, which topped out at 2000 recipes: "Anyone can cook."

And then the time came to give the project a true title, and "the marketing people got together and said, We're going to call it How to Cook Everythingand I said, Not over my dead body. It's filled with hubris." Mark fought against it, but the title stuck. ("I've fought against a lot of smart things in my career," Mark said, "but luckily a lot of them go through.")

Mark no longer regrets the title: There was a moment on a talk show when "a guy said, You taught me how to make grilled cheese, that's fabulous!" And Mark realized that "Unintentionally, we'd done something really smart. We swapped out precious recipes for simple ones." And the result was that it was that everything—everything that Mark wanted to cook—was a lot of what everyone else wanted to cook, too. Everything rose to be the #2 bestselling book on Amazon—all books, not just cookbooks.

Nearly twenty years later, the thing Mark's most proud of is the book's underlying theme, a philosophy Mark adopted from cookbook writers of the '70s and '80s: "You don't need a thousand recipes, you just need to understand the principles behind them." For Mark, "If you can make one chicken breast recipe, you can make 50, but you don't need 50—you need one good one and some ideas for variations." And the same goes for muffins, or loaves of bread, or salad dressings. "I'm really happy to the extent that How to Cook Everything has carried that out. That was not common then. It's still not common. There's still too much isolated recipe talk."

How to Bake Everything, which comes out next week, upholds the philosophy. Mark does bake—he had a loaf of bread in the oven when I called him—but he doesn't eat much dessert, which was challenging in developing the book. (About a third of the book is devoted to baking's savory side.) His goal? To take baking, which many people do associate with dessert (and as reserved for special occasions), and demonstrate that "baking is just a form of cooking." And if anyone can cook—well, anyone can bake.

Do you have How to Cook Everything on your cookbook shelf? Tell us about how you've cooked from it in the comments.

4 Comments

Sarah G. November 10, 2018
Thank you for this piece! I was just sitting down with my own How to Cook Everything and got to thinking about how the hell Mark Bittman had come to write it. Mine (a fourth printing, they were pretty cheap) too is falling apart; but I’ve turned to it probably hundreds of times for techniques or basic recipes.<br /><br />I appreciate very much his “here are some variations” approach but was just marveling at how out-of-date a 20-year-old cookbook can be; for instance, a recipe for coconut milk pudding has no coconut milk in it 🤣. Missed a great opportunity for vegan options!<br /><br />I love, too, this window into publishing history, and how some editor’s buffoonery (“what’s that big book again?”) created a juggernaut.
 
heatheranne December 9, 2016
I have How to Cook Everything, the Food Matters Cookbook and the newer Kitchen Matrix one. While they were great when I was starting out, I find them too basic now. I'm going to keep the Matrix one, but probably ditch the other two (meaning, give them to someone who would get use out of them).
 
Dana September 28, 2016
We got ourselves a copy of "How to Cook Everything" early in our now 13 year marriage and recycled it maybe 8 years on after it spent too much time on the shelf. It was falling apart due, in part, to how cheaply is was made, but also because we used it. A lot. <br />It's true, the tone was a revelation for us - you can do it! It's fun! And most of all, rewarding! <br />And we outgrew it for the most part. I needed to get into why and how and improving techniques rather than adding a basic repertoire, though some of the foundational recipes are still with me. <br />It is a great starter book for someone starting off cooking for themselves or a family.
 
Rémy R. September 28, 2016
:)