Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Mark Bittman, author of 20 acclaimed books including the How to Cook Everything series and Food Matters. Transcripts may contain a few typos—with some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it’s difficult to catch some minor errors. Enjoy!
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Tim Ferriss: Hello boys and girls, lemurs and squirrels. Crazy Bulgarian seated across from me; you too, you little lemur. This is Tim Ferriss and welcome to another episode of the Tim Ferriss Show. I am sitting in a dungeon of a hotel room. I don’t know why it is so damn dark in here, and I feel like I am going to have my fingernails pulled out by some type of operative.
But before we go down that dark trail – I don’t know where I’m going with this – typically what I do on this show is I deconstruct world class performers and tease out the habits and routines and so on that you can use; their favorite books, morning routines and whatnot. This episode is no different, and instead of a chess prodigy or someone in the military, we have Mark Bittman.
Mark Bittman @bittman, B-I-T-T-M-A-N on Twitter is the author of 20 acclaimed books, maybe more, including How to Cook Everything, which is a series, Food Matters, and his latest, How to Bake Everything, which is on a coveted shelf in my own kitchen. Many of yo may not realize I started cooking with baking for the cyclical ketogenic diet, which we talk about in this episode. For more than two decades, that’s 20 years, people, his popular and compelling stories appeared in the New York Times, where he was ultimately the lead food writer for the “Sunday Magazine,” and he became the country’s first food-focused op ed columnist for a major news publication.
He’s done a lot. He’s starred in four TV series, including the Emmy award winning Years of Living Dangerously. He’s been a distinguished fellow at the University of California Berkley, a fellow at the Union of Concerned Scientists, and was recently appointed to the faculty of Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health.
I’m not high, folks; I’m just in the war room on book launch. That explains it. Throughout his career, Bittman has strived for the same goal; to make food and all of its aspects understandable, and he also extends that to a brand-new podcast called the Get Bitt, B-I-T-T. In this episode we talk about my fasting regime, why I do it the way I do it; a bit of ketosis here, a bit of ketogenic diet there. We discuss his favorite failures, what he’s learned, the first piece – his breakthrough in the world of writing or journalism, and much more. So without further ado, as I always say, please enjoy this episode with Mark Bittman.
Mark, welcome to the show.
Mark Bittman: Great to be here, Tim. Thank you for having me.
Tim Ferriss: I really appreciate you making the time, and I thought we would just jump into rather than asking you the 17 questions that you’ve been asked most often, what I would call rapid fire questions.
All that means is I’m going to attempt in my sometimes long-winded way to ask short questions. Your answers don’t have to be short; they can be as long as you would like. The first question I wanted to ask, trying to steer away from the most trodden path, is if you had to give a TED Talk on something you’re not known for at all, something that is perhaps an obsession of yours, or an interest of yours that very few people know about, what would you talk about?
Mark Bittman: I was going to say cooking, which is obviously totally the wrong answer.
Tim Ferriss: That’s the only one on the foreboded list.
Mark Bittman: It is sort of this quiet passion but I happen to have turned it into a career, so we’ll let that one go. I guess running; I guess it would be running. I did used to write a little bit about running. It’s funny; I’m in sort of a down moment in my running life.
But I’ve had those before, and I know that I’ll always come back. As I age, it’s just an interesting thing to keep track of and an interesting thing to note that at this point, I think it’s 45 years I’ve been running. Even if I’m not running and I see other people run, it just stimulates my thinking about it.
Tim Ferriss: I’ve read a little bit of Haruki Murakmi, his running and certainly Malcolm Gladwell, well-known runner. What is it that you get out of running, and did you start really young?
Mark Bittman: I started when I was in my 20s I started as a way to stop smoking cigarettes, which worked. I have gotten so much out of running besides general overall fitness. I was like the slowest kid in my group of boys when I was growing up; I was always the last or second to last chosen when we were playing games.
I was a terrible athlete, the worst runner. When I started running as a hobby, and I realized I was obviously never going to be among the fastest people but I had great endurance, I really enjoyed it. I could get into this spacey head place that I really liked and I just kept running longer and longer distances. I’ve run a bunch of marathons. I think it’s this combination of fitness and self worth, and then when it’s going well, the kind of daily high of just putting your head in a different place, getting tired, and feeling good about the way your body feels. You know, when I listen to those things, that’s a lot.
You can’t get that out of a lot. You can get it out of any daily exercise where it feels like you make progress I guess. But for me, because I was competitive with myself or even where I would be in a given year, I’m never going to break any of my older personal records but just to make progress; there’s something very rewarding about it.
Tim Ferriss: Very reinforcing. This is going to be a left turn, but these are all going to be left turns so I guess we’ll just end up going in a weird square over and over again.
Mark Bittman: Right, cool.
Tim Ferriss: What books, besides your own, have you gifted most to other people?
Mark Bittman: I buy a one-off; I see a book someone will like and I buy that. I have bought Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott for a number of people who’ve told me they were struggling with writing, because I think it’s a really great writing book and it’s a good read anyway.
Tim Ferriss: Fantastic book.
Mark Bittman: I used to buy Catch-22 for a lot of people because I just thought if you hadn’t read it, you had to but maybe that era is over. I’ve bought cookbooks by other people. I’ve bought Marcella Hazan books for people, and Julie Sahni books for people because I think those are the best basic Italian and Indian books, respectively. Maybe I don’t buy a lot of books. Like I said, I think it’s mostly one-offs. I see something I think someone I know will like and just send it.
Tim Ferriss: If we’re looking at one-offs and continuing in that thread, what purchase – and it doesn’t have to be exact, but what purchase of, say, less than $100.00 but not something terribly expensive comes to mind that has had a significant positive impact on your life? It could be anything.
Mark Bittman: The iPhone headset. I don’t know, an electric shaver?
Tim Ferriss: Those are all fair answers. You’re saying them like questions; those are all fair.
Mark Bittman: I kilo tin of anchovies? You know, I think I could probably go on. It’s funny to talk about purchases because I feel like in the past year… talking about books I was thinking about Amazon. I dropped Amazon Prime because I felt like I was buying things too easily. I felt like I wasn’t thinking about it, and it’s not really the cost because most stuff is inexpensive or negligible. It’s not like I was buying washing machines on a whim.
But if I needed a box of tissues, I might buy a case of tissues, that kind of thing. I just thought I wasn’t thinking things through enough, thinking through purchases enough. Then I started to realize how much stuff I had and how easy it would be to just give things away, or go shopping in my closet for clothing or that kind of thing.
So in the last year or so, I’ve become less of a consumer; more thoughtful about this and more thoughtful about how things decline in value. Some things decline in value tremendously the minute you buy them. We think about cars but if you think about clothing, it’s sort of the same thing. I’m trying to focus purchases on stuff that I need and stuff that’s higher quality.
That goes especially for food because you use food up, so you do need to buy that more and more. But it’s interesting; six months ago I said I’m going on a three-year clothing strike, just not going to buy anything. That hasn’t exactly been true but compared to what I was like before…
If I need something, like I needed a rain jacket for a backpacking trip I was going on; I bought it but I’m not buying things on whims. I’m not buying things because they’re quote-unquote nice. I have enough sweatshirts. I probably have enough sweatshirts for the rest of my life.
Tim Ferriss: Did you say a gallon tin of anchovies?
Mark Bittman: A kilo.
Tim Ferriss: Kilo, alright.
Mark Bittman: You can buy salted anchovies. Anchovies come in two ways. Preserved anchovies come salted or they come packed in oil. If they’re salted, you then rinse them off and you can pack them in oil yourself, or not. They keep really well. You can use a couple at a time; it’s a little less expensive. They’re pretty high quality; generally they come from Sicily or elsewhere in southern Italy. I don’t know; that was just an example. I do like that. And it’s a nice can. Everybody buys the same; there’s one producer that everybody buys.
Tim Ferriss: What’s the name of the producer?
Mark Bittman: I don’t know; it’s Sicilian stuff.
Tim Ferriss: The reason I’m asking is that I actually travel with cans of sardines, and I was turned onto this by a scientist named Dominique D’Agostino. Are you just eating them as a solo dish?
Mark Bittman: Yeah, often as a snack. But tell me about that because I’m curious.
Tim Ferriss: Dominique D’Agostino researches a number of things but he focuses on metabolism and is more recently focused on exogenous ketones. So these are ketone esters that mimic the physiological state of fasting, in some respects.
Your brain utilizes ketones very well so he’s looked at how ketones in the dietary state of ketosis along the lines of, say, an Atkins Diet, or if it’s induced by fasting can affect everything from cancer growth, even very aggressive cancer growth like glioblastoma and things along those lines. He’s done a lot more than that, but he follows a ketogenic diet himself. I asked him what he had for breakfast, and he said, “Well, I usually have, let’s say, a handful of macadamia nuts, some eggs, and a tin of sardines and a half a tin of canned oysters.”
I didn’t even know there was such a thing as canned oysters so I started emulating his breakfast, and I fell in love with these sardines, these Wild Planet sardines.
Mark Bittman: I know them. They’re good; they’re really great quality stuff.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, they’re great; packed in oil. So when I’m traveling, I’ll just throw a few of those tins in my checked luggage. And if I find myself in at tight spot where I can’t get a breakfast that’s acceptable to me, then I’ll have that. Have you done any experimentation with fasting?
Mark Bittman: Five years ago I fasted for four days. I don’t know if you’d count that as experimentation. I did it for political reasons and it was an interesting experience. But it I don’t think it was the kind of experience that you’re asking me about. This is your podcast so I want to do what you want to do, but I wouldn’t mind continuing this conversation because it’s interesting stuff to me.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, we can talk about it. The fasting, I think Sayfreed might be the last name; I’d have to look it up. But there are a number of published researchers who believe that as one tool in the toolkit, not a standalone monotherapy at all, that fasting can, among other things, let’s just say using the standard of care of chemotherapy or something like that, sensitize cancer cells to the effects of those treatments while also increasing the resilience of normal cells.
I have a friend who has stage three cancer – I won’t get into specifics because he’s a private guy, but he fasted for three continuous days prior to his treatments. And while the rest of his cohort, these other people, were laid out in bed for a day, he was running ten miles the next morning. And that could have been placebo; who knows.
But there’s enough data to support that in addition to that, even using fasting prophylactically, most people over 40 will have pre-cancerous cells in their bodies and that in and of itself is not a problem if they don’t grow out of control. But extended fasting, let’s just say, and I think Dominique generally does say a five-day or five- to seven-day fast a few times a day can help to purge those cells that might, at a later time, metastasize or become a problem.
So for both philosophical and ascetic reasons but also physiological reasons, I’ve started scheduling regular fasts for myself.
Mark Bittman: So what does a fast mean under these circumstances?
Tim Ferriss: What a fast means under these circumstances, and I’ve changed over time. I did a distilled water fast, which I actually do not recommend. I do not believe juice fasts are in fitness paradigm because you’ll never click over into a ketosis state if you’re feeding yourself glucose, or in this case fructose. For me, I’ll tell you exactly what it looks like. Waking up, I will have tea or coffee so a non-caloric beverage. I will allow myself some fat. That could come in the form of coconut oil or pure MCT oil. I am avoiding protein and carbohydrate for the most part.
There are a few allowances that I made in the last go-around. But generally speaking, I’m having water, tea, or coffee and allowing a small amount of fat each day, particularly in the first few days. When I say I made some allowances last time around, when I did my water fast I lost I want to say about 12 pounds of muscle; it was a very, very large amount of muscle. Because it took me a long time to go from glucose-dependent to fat-adapted. When you’re glucose dependent, you run out of glycogen and you start breaking down muscle tissue in a process called gluconeogenesis in the liver.
So the second time around, or this was maybe the third time, I did a ten-day fast. I got into ketosis very quickly, in about 18 hours. And I’m measuring this with a finger print using a device called the Precision Extra, E-T-R-A from Abbott Labs. It looks like a glucometer; it is a glucometer. Once I get to about .5 millimolars, which is the concentration of ketones in the blood, most people would say that’s ketosis.
I only feel it when I get to about 1.2, 1.3. But the point being I got into ketosis very quickly, so I’m already sparing muscle tissue. I was doing dexa scans, these body composition scans every two days or three days to keep track of muscle mass and just general composition. I started losing muscle, which I did not want to have happen. I spoke to Dominique, this scientist I mentioned, and he said I could try using very, very small amounts of branch chain amino acids; very small, though.
So we’re talking 1.5 grams in the morning, and then on a workout day if you’re going to work out, taking perhaps 2 to 3 grams intra-workout. I started doing that and I lost zero muscle tissue over a nine-and-a-half day fast. The only protein I was consuming was let’s just call it one-and-a-half to three-and-a-half of branch chain amino acids per day.
I would very occasionally give myself a treat of nori sheets soaked in olive oil because it’s 10 calories; there’s nothing to it, really. It’s all fat. At this point as a working hypothesis, I’ve just assumed on some level that if you’re avoiding primarily protein and carbohydrates, a very, very ultra low calorie ketogenic diet that I then call a fast probably provokes a lot of the autophagy and cell cleaning and so on that I’m looking for in a fast without being just distilled water.
Where you get into trouble with distilled water is you’re going to be peeling off electrolytes and losing a lot of water. This was consistent when I did my first seven-day fast at a medical clinic; almost everyone had tachycardia, or rapid heart rate at night. They couldn’t sleep at all.
When you start to supplement with, let’s say, bouillon cubes in water or magnesium potassium, etc., then you’re totally fine and you can sleep. I think that’s a colinergic response. So there you have it. That’s a big part of my monthly and quarterly scheduling now is the fasting.
Mark Bittman: Have you written about it at all?
Tim Ferriss: I have, actually. We’re certainly here to talk about what you’re up to.
Mark Bittman: I’m just curious. I’ll read about it. We don’t have to keep going on this.
Tim Ferriss: No, I don’t mind. I’ve had enough caffeine to enjoy talking. I have a brand-new book that’s coming out in a few days called Tools of Titans, and one of the longest chapters is on everything I’ve learned including my personal routine related to fasting and the ketogenic diet.
But it’s very neglected. I think people think about fixing problems by adding things; this is a very natural instinct. It’s not as common to think about subtracting things and then reintroducing them. This is perhaps an extreme example, but with fasting, you’re just removing all the inputs and allowing nature to try to do its work. You see some really odd things happen. A lot of people with joint injuries have them resolve themselves. I can’t explain exactly why that’s the case but I’ve seen it in dozens of cases; it’s really odd.
Let me ask you. We talked about writing and you brought up Bird by Bird, which completely saved me when I was writing my second book and I’ve given it to a lot of friends since. I’d love to talk about your writing process a little bit. How many books at this point have you authored or co-authored?
Mark Bittman: 20.
Tim Ferriss: God, that’s a lot of books.
Mark Bittman: That’s the answer. That is the answer, so yeah.
Tim Ferriss: You very often seem to write books that are similar to some of mine in the sense that you could bludgeon a mugger to death with some of these books; these are not small books in all cases. When you’re on deadline, let’s just say you’re a month out from book deadline. What does your daily routine look like?
Mark Bittman: You know, it’s really different. Cookbooks are different from other things, or they may be similar to what you do. But with cookbooks, the process, especially the big ones – and there are now five, including How to Bake Everything, the latest. There are five “How to Cook Everything” books; six if you count that one is a second edition of another. How to Cook Everything, and then a second edition of How to Cook Everything, and How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, How to Cook Everything; the Basics, How to Cook Everything Fast, and now How to Bake Everything. Those are all so big that they’re really years-long projects.
A month out from deadline doesn’t mean anything because I tend to submit things in quarters or halves or whatever, and I’m working on editing the first half while still finishing the second half and so on. I think on a book project like Food Matters or Vegan Before Six where there was much more writing, where it was more of a long essay or novella-length essay, I think in the last few weeks a lot of what’s going on is tweaking.
Tweaking language and trying to make sure that sometimes you read things so many times that you don’t realize what’s wrong, and you need a big chunk of time to get away from it and come back and say oh, this whole chapter, half the paragraphs should be somewhere else; like it’s just not tracking right. And those are only things that at least for me, you can catch after you’ve written something and let it rest for awhile.
I think more interesting than what happens in the last month may be what happens in the last six months, and I hope part of that last six months is setting things aside so that I can come back and look at them fresh.
Tim Ferriss: When you’re in the thick of writing, when you are actually in production mode and not stepping away, what does the structure of your day look like?
Mark Bittman: Well, I’m hoping in January, or maybe I’m hoping in March so I can stall a little bit, but I’m about to enter one of those periods. The plan is to get up at 4, 4:30 and work seriously from 5 until 10, and then let the rest of the day take whatever shape it takes. If I’m working at my most serious level, it has to be in absolute peace and quiet with nothing around and no email, no phone calls, none of that stuff.
And the only time I have the discipline to do that is when I first get up in the morning. I read about writers who work late into the night and that is so not me, so not me.
Tim Ferriss: When you wake up, what happens? Besides brushing the teeth and so on, what is leading up to sitting down to write, and then what does the first 30 minutes look like?
Mark Bittman: The first 30 minutes is coffee, and then there’s sort of a bunch of knuckle cracking, throat clearing. I might do some email or I might look at the paper or something like that; just really it’s almost warming up my fingers at the keyboard. Then often it’s rewriting something that I’ve done the day before, or if there’s something hot in my head it’s just spilling it out.
And I’m a firm believer there are no secrets in Bird by Bird. Most writers say the same thing, this idea that you have to get a lousy draft down before you can do anything good and you just need to spill the contents of your brain out onto what we’ll call the paper or out onto the screen and then worry about making it beautiful later. I understand there are some writers who really write a careful sentence at a time, but most writers you talk to feel like there are two different kinds of processes. One is kind of a brain dump, and one is this refine, refine, refine.
Tim Ferriss: Do you sit in front of the computer and clock your five hours no matter what? Have you left yourself a starting point, and Hemmingway-esque style of stopping mid-paragraph so you know where to start the next day?
Mark Bittman: No, I’ve never done that. I’m not going to compare myself to Hemingway. It was a different kind of writing, anyway. I don’t do outlines very well but sometimes I’ll get to a point in writing something where I’ll say okay, here I can see the rest of the chapter, or even the rest of the next few chapters and I’ll just make some notes: first this, then you do this, then go do this, then do that. That’s as close to an outline as I get and I like when that happens. But if it doesn’t happen, it just flows. I’ve never had what people call writer’s block. I’ve had months where I didn’t do a lot of writing but I’ve never really had to or wanted to write something and not been able to do it.
I don’t recall an experience where when I’ve been in that kind of rhythm. And it’s funny; it goes back to running in a way. When you run every day, you just run every day and you don’t think about it that much. You get up and maybe you do something and maybe you don’t, but at some point early in the day you tie the shoes on and you go out. And it’s kind of the same thing. There might be months where I’m not really writing anything serious. But if I am writing something serious, it’s just mostly getting up and doing it.
Tim Ferriss: You mentioned not really having writer’s block or not thinking of it much, certainly. Let’s talk about failures or mistakes for a second. How has a failure, or an apparent failure in your life set you up for later success, if you can think of any?
Or do you have a favorite failure of yours that actually ended up being really important to your career or life?
Mark Bittman: There was a period where really by my standards I was a failure. That was because I had done a bunch of writing when I was in my early 20s but not really been paid much for it. But then when I decided I was going to write for a living, no one was interested in anything I was writing. This went on for two or three years. It was back in the mid to late ‘70s so it was awhile ago. I’ve tried to write fiction but I didn’t think it was very good. So then I was trying to write freelance articles.
In those days the wisdom was you wrote letters to editors and you said here’s the story I want to write, and then they would politely say no thanks or they would ignore you entirely. That went on for along time, during which I made a living by being a traveling salesman. I sold photographic equipment. That went on for awhile. I kept trying and trying and trying, and I guess that’s failing; I mean not succeeding, anyway.
The funny thing is people thought I was a good traveling salesman but I knew that I was a terrible traveling salesman because I knew my heart wasn’t in it, and I didn’t particularly believe in what I was selling; I wasn’t that interested in it. I was selling photographic equipment; I might have said that already, forgive me. But I was driving around from store to store saying do you want to buy these tripods, do you want to buy these notebooks?
I didn’t really care whether people bought them or not because the marginal income was not all that significant. That is to say I was making enough money from the job that any additional sale, I made a little more money but it didn’t seem like it was worth killing myself for it. But as I said, I didn’t really believe in the product, so there was that.
Then I finally sold my first piece, and my first piece was a food piece.
Tim Ferriss: Do you remember what it was about?
Mark Bittman: Oh, yeah, totally; I have it on my wall. I was in a karate class with a guy named Chris Angerman. This was in New Haven. Chris was writing theater reviews for the local weekly, but that’ snot what he did for a living. And I said, “How did that happen?” He said, “Just go talk to George D’Stephano, he’s the arts editor down there and he’ll let you do something.”
So I went in the next day and I talked to George D’Stephano and I said, “You know, I could review restaurants better than the people you have reviewing restaurants now.” And he said, “Well, write one and we’ll see what happens.” I wrote one; I slaved over it for 24 hours and I brought it in and he really liked it. It’s interesting, the date on it is March 1, 1980 so it’s now, what is that, going on 37 years ago. He really liked it and I have it on my wall. I think it’s really good; I was quite happy about it.
So that was my first success. And the interesting thing after that is I became a very aggressive salesman of my own stuff. I think you can probably relate to that and I think a lot of entrepreneurial writers can relate to that.
Which is we have to go out there and say you want to buy this book, you want to buy this article because I’m going to say it in a way others haven’t, and it’s an interesting topic and I’ll do a good job, blah, blah, blah. I’ve made my living doing that since then. And I’ve had setbacks, and some years are better than others and so on but I do believe I’m a good writer, and obviously I’ve learned a lot over the years.
And I’ve learned a tremendous amount about food, which is why if we go back to that first question about what I don’t talk about that I do, there is this kind of not a secret life but I do cook all the time and I’m always amazed both at how much there is to learn and how much I actually have learned, and modesty aside, how much I know. So I do think there is this way in which that period of seeing that I didn’t believe in what I was doing set me up for being excited and being assertive if not aggressive about once I started doing things, that I did believe in what I was doing.
Tim Ferriss: You mentioned that people considered you a good salesman of this photographic equipment. Did any of that get translated over to selling your own work? I’m just wondering what specifically makes you or one good at selling either of those things. What was it that made you better at selling your ideas or the photographic equipment than some of the other people who were doing the same?
Mark Bittman: I think they thought I was good at selling photographic equipment because I was a nice guy and people liked me. I knew how to talk. And actually, I am curious about other people’s lives. It happened here; this was supposed to be an interview of me and we wound up talking about something you’re doing for ten minutes. I think that’s not a contrivance; I’m not that interested in myself.
I know what’s going on in myself so I like to hear other people’s stories. I’ve always liked that, and that’s being a reporter, and that’s being a journalist. And yeah, I think I’ve always had that curiosity. I think if you show a genuine interest in other people, which I do because I am genuinely interested in other people, they like you.
Tim Ferriss: Do you have any quotes that you live your life by or think of often?
Mark Bittman: I bet I do but I can’t think of them right now. It’s not like they’re mantras, that’s for sure. But I’m sure that there are things. This writing project that I’m about to take on is a complete and total stretch for me.
I know we’ll probably talk about this but I just started doing a podcast, and that’s a stretch for me. So I do think one thing I learned, and it’s interesting because it goes back to what we were just talking about but one thing I have learned is that if you are afraid to fail, then you’re not going to succeed. Because there is no success without failure, and fear of failure keeps people from trying and then there’s no possible success. So that’s not exactly a mantra; it’s something that I know. I know it’s true and I’ve said it to my kids and to other people and I’ve lived my life that way.
Tim Ferriss: It makes me think of a video that actually had a huge impact on me when I was about 15 years old. It was a video of a very, very legendary wrestling coach named Dan Gable in Iowa. He was doing a post game analysis on one of the Iowa Hawkeyes dual meet competitions.
He was yelling at one of the athletes who got a tie. He said, “You just didn’t want to lose. You didn’t want to lose because he beat you twice before and so you got a tie. You never win that way.” The idea being wanting not to fail and not wanting to win are two very different things. What advice, and this is a cliché question but sometimes it goes somewhere; what advice would you give or do you wish you’d received when you were 20, 25, or 30? You can pick whichever, or any time that you needed some advice, for that matter.
Mark Bittman: You said it was a cliché, and it’s so often repeated and it is so corny. And my parents never said this to me but I think they telegraphed it to me despite themselves and despite the way they lived their own lives. We’re probably not going to get into that, but my parents are funny in that their verbal cues… I don’t know where to go with this. I do think that there are ways in which my parents taught me things that were very unintentional on their part and had very little to do with how they lived their own lives, and even what they believed.
And yet somehow, there were messages that I managed to absorb. Now, maybe I didn’t absorb them from my parents at all; maybe I absorbed them from elsewhere. But anyway, it’s the follow your passion thing. I think you have to do what it is you think you want to do because you’re not going to succeed at stuff that you don’t want to do.
I was passionate about food in the cooking sense. It wasn’t that I ever thought oh, I’m going to write about food. It was that I thought I am going to write, and I really like cooking. Those two things together really worked for me. I didn’t sit around saying oh, I’m passionate about this; this is what I must do. Those were just the things that I felt that I wanted to do. And I don’t know, things could have worked out in my life in much different ways, of course, and they might have worked out better and they might have worked out worse.
But these were things that I wanted to do and wanted as part of my life. That’s the advice I say to people all the time when they say what should I do. It’s really like what is it you want to do, because that’s what you’ve got to know.
Tim Ferriss: I don’t know if you had any external input or pressure or advice given to you, but if you hadn’t listened to that, if you had listened to other people, what do you think you would have ended up doing, or where would you be?
Mark Bittman: My parents would have loved it if I was a doctor. The thing is, when I was young I felt like there were so many options of things to do that it was impossible to decide which one was going to be the right path. So to decide in high school, which is sort of what it would have taken, or early in college to become a doctor, it just seemed way too early. But to say I’m going to be a writer was so vague and meaningless that it left every door open.
And it was only later that I realized every time you say yes to something, you’ve said no to many, many other things. Not every other thing, but every time you make a commitment, you’re making a commitment in a direction and it fields off other directions, at least for that moment.
That’s an important lesson, also, is that it’s not only the things that you say no to that shut down certain avenues; it’s what you say yes to. Because if you say yes to something you’re not going to enter into wholeheartedly, you’re still going to take time, which is I guess we could say the most precious thing we have, and devote it to that path. Which means you’re not giving time to another path. And these can be daily decisions or these can be life decisions.
If you’re watching TV, you’re not exercising. If you’re cooking, you’re not sleeping. Whatever it is, you say yes to something and you’re saying no to something else. In the long run, if you’re 17 years old and you say I’m going to be a doctor, if you stay on that path you shut off all these other careers. There are remarkable people who have more than one career but that’s not the norm.
Tim Ferriss: I want to say this is a Steve Jobs quote but it makes me think of “innovation is saying no to a thousand things.” But as you pointed out, it’s also saying yes to – this is echoing a friend of mine who’s been on the podcast named Derek Sivers who is an entrepreneur. But the saying yes only to the “hell yes, 100 percent in” options and not to “that could be kind of cool options” because you’ll drown yourself in these mediocre commitments. And as you put it, it displaces the opportunity to do these things that you actually care about.
How old are you now, Mark?
Mark Bittman: I’m going to be 67 in February.
Tim Ferriss: If we had, let’s say, your 80-year-old self just poof, appeared on the couch…
Mark Bittman: Not that far away!
Tim Ferriss: Not that far away. What advice do you think your 80-year-old self would give your current self?
Mark Bittman: That’s great. Well, I guess I could say the kind of advice I’d like my 80-year-old self to give my current self. I would hope that it would be don’t age too fast, or don’t write things off too quickly; keep changing, keep struggling to do newer, better, more exciting things and don’t be afraid to jump off metaphorical cliffs. What I’d really hate is if my 80-year-old self was saying to me now: you should be much more conservative in the way you’re living; you should take far fewer chances. I don’t want that.
Tim Ferriss: You said don’t write things off too quickly. Could you elaborate on that or give u s an example?
Mark Bittman: There are projects, there are things that seem too hard at first. The fun thing for me, and I don’t know how many people feel this way but often the fun thing for me is the steep end of the learning curve. So whether we’re talking about the fasting stuff which you were describing before, which is completely new and wild to me and makes me feel like oh, I’d like to explore that; or we’re talking about backpacking which is something I’ve taken up recently and it’s just completely surprised me how much I’ve liked it.
Or pilates, for that matter; same thing, or backgammon. All these things I never thought I’d be interested in and for one reason or another became interested in them; I love that stuff. I love starting new things and I love the part of it that goes from God, I’m completely clueless at this to well, I’ve gained some confidence in this arena and isn’t that nice.
That, to me, is the most fun. Gaining confidence is one of the most fun things in life and something I hope I can continue to do. And it’s funny because I gained confidence in cooking, for example, a long time ago but I like getting better and better at it. Some things come and some things go, and what they’ve had in common is that I love that steep end of the learning curve.
Tim Ferriss: So why start a podcast, and what is the name of the podcast?
Mark Bittman: The podcast is called “Get Bitt,” for better or worse; it’s a name we kind of like. We’ll see if other people like it. It goes back, in a way, to why I left the Times. I left the Times for a variety of reasons but one of them was that I felt constrained. I felt like I couldn’t say anything I wanted to say about any subject I wanted to tackle.
And I thought there are two ways of dealing with this. One is to do a newsletter, which I still might do. And the other is these guys I quite liked came to me and said would you like to do a podcast? And it’s funny, I hadn’t listened to many podcasts. I’d listened to Serial, like everybody else in the United States but I hadn’t listened to really any sort of personal people telling their stories.
I started to do that, and I thought this is great; these people are able to do whatever they want and no one says it has to be 30 minutes, and no one says it has to be two hours. No one says you can’t talk to this guy, and no one says you can’t do this thing. It’s self publishing, in a way, and it’s verbal instead of written and I thought that’s appealing, too.
Because I do like to talk, and I like interviews a lot. I like both ends of interviews and I’m pretty good at interviewing people. So we thought we’d give it a shot. I think three or six months went by, and we were doing samples of this, and we were thinking of who might sponsor and how we might organize. At some point I said we should just do a show. It’s not going to cost us that much money or that much time to put something together; why don’t we do a show?
So a bunch of people got together where I’m living, which is up the Hudson River about 50 miles from New York. It’s a working farm; it’s a bigger story than that but that will do. My daughter Kate came up with her at that point newborn son, and two of their producers came.
As it happened, the guy who was doing a story about me for Epicurious came, and a couple other people showed up. And for two days we made phone calls and did couple of interviews, and we did some walking and golf carting around the farm a little bit and talked about this and that. We did a bunch of cooking and talked about that, and it was really, really fun. So then they went back, Josh and Mark who were two of the people I’m working with, went back and edited the hell out of all of this.
By that time, we probably had six hours of material. They edited it down to 30 or 40 minutes and we just sort of self published it last week. You can find it on my website, on the GetBitt website or the Twittersphere or whatever. But we were really happy about how it came out. I loved the process.
We just did stuff for two days, and Josh, mostly, was walking around with microphones while we were doing it. I think it worked out well. So we’re pushing ahead. We’re going to go ahead with it.
Tim Ferriss: Is it Get Bitt with two Ts, B-I-T-T?
Mark Bittman: B-I-T-T. G-E-T-B-I-T-T, my name.
Tim Ferriss: Of course; just making sure. I’ve found podcasting so fun as an experimental medium. Because as you said, there are no rules, really, and it just provides you an opportunity also to explore your thoughts and the thoughts of others in a way that can translate to, at least for me, a writing much more clearly later. I’m walking through and developing my thoughts as I’m listening to people and asking questions.
You’ve interviewed a lot of people. What are some undervalued questions? Whether they’re follow ups or just openers, whatever it might be; what are some questions that you’ve found very, very helpful or valuable?
Mark Bittman: I don’t think my answer is going to make you happy.
Tim Ferriss: I’m not very happy in general; it’s okay.
Mark Bittman: I don’t think it’s going to give you what you want. This is me. I don’t pretend to teach interviewing, and actually I tried to teach journalism last year and I felt like I wasn’t very good at that, either. I think after this hour-long conversation, it’s clear that I’m not modest when I don’t need to be. But when I recognize something I’m not good at, I’m happy to talk about that also. And I don’t say I’m good about teaching some of the things I think I do well. But you know what? Maybe you will like this answer because I’m thinking about what’s just happened in the course of the last hour.
I don’t believe in having pat questions for interviews. I might have a couple of key things that I want the person I’m interviewing to cover, but I actually think the best interviews are conversations and that you have to see what the natural conversation is. Any subject of any interview can give a variety of different interviews. The interviewer has to determine what he or she – if I’m interviewing somebody, I have to figure out what they are doing that’s interesting to me and hope that that is interesting to other people also.
You can think of anyone you want but it’s most likely that the questions that they most often get are not the most interesting questions, and they’re also not the questions that are going to make them think. Because if you say to me how did you start cooking, it’s a question that I’ve answered literally 200 times.
So anything I say is going to sound rehearsed. Whereas if we have a conversation as we’re doing, which is why I realized you are going to like this answer, if we have a conversation than I’m taken by surprise by whatever comes next and I’m forced to actually think. And I think that as an interviewer, that’s what you want to do is get the person your talking to to actually think.
Tim Ferriss: I just thought of maybe a coping strategy for when you get asked that question again. I heard that Nick Nolte – this is a rumor but it’s been verified a few times, that he got so sick of answering the same questions that he would just make up extremely elaborate lies.
Mark Bittman: I went through that. I’ve been there, done that.
It’s satisfying because it’s kind of fun, and it also forces you to be creative in a way that you might not otherwise be. But who wants to sit around lying all the time? I don’t know; it doesn’t seem that appealing, really.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, certainly it’s a headache for the publicist who gets the fact-checking call at the end of the day. Let’s talk about another topic that I don’t think you’re aware is actually something that is near and dear to my heart, which is baking. Baking was, in fact, the first type of cooking I ever attempted. I was trying in 1999 to follow a ketogenic diet. The tools and packaged foods and so on that support people who are trying to follow an Atkins-like diet now did not exist then.
You get so sick of eggs, meat, water and eggs, meat, water, you just want to have something crunchy and the only thing available at the time was pork rinds. And I said no, I’m sick of pork rinds; I need something crunchy. So I went out and tried to find soy protein powders that might be suitable for baking. I wanted to make cookies, and I had never made cookies. So I got really into baking and I found it suited my personality, which made sense later when I was talking to somebody at the CIA, not the Central Intelligence Agency but the Culinary Institute of America.
Mark Bittman: The other one, right.
Tim Ferriss: I asked how they steered people towards savory or sweet. And they said well, sometimes we’ll just ask them, “Do you like folding your underwear and socks?” and if the answer is yes, we point them towards the baking.
Mark Bittman: That’s too much.
Tim Ferriss: And I was like okay, I don’t do that but I do have a lot of monk-ish type tendencies.
So in the end, baking was really fast; I enjoyed the immediate feedback. What to you makes baking fascinating or fun? What are most people missing who haven’t ever attempted to bake something?
Mark Bittman: Here’s the thing. I don’t think that baking is all that different from cooking, and I think the answer to that question goes for cooking as well as baking. The answer is you wind up with a finished product that makes you happy in a variety of ways, plus you can eat it. So if baking is your passion, I think maybe you’re more interested in the final product having a very specific shape and form that’s pleasing to the eye. Because cooking is a little messier. A stew does not have the same aesthetic qualities as a cake or even a cookie; it’s sort of more free-form and flowing.
On the other hand, there’s nothing more beautiful than an omelet so cooking can be, of course, as beautiful as baking. But I think both have that thing in common. You start a project and within a reasonably short time you finish it. it has a lot of wonderful aesthetic qualities and you get to eat it, and often you get to nurture people you care about, which is quite a beautiful thing.
Tim Ferriss: How many pages is How to Bake Everything?
Mark Bittman: 700-and something.
Tim Ferriss: 700, alright. So How to Bake Everything, everything is all inclusive.
Mark Bittman: It’s not everything, of course; it’s everything I know how to bake, which is a lot. I always feel like this title which has a story of its own, which was a bit tongue and cheek at the beginning but I always feel like I have to apologize for it, even though it’s obviously not meant to be taken literally.
Tim Ferriss: You’re talking to a guy who wrote something called The Four Hour Workweek, which you’d expect to find after the rotisserie chicken, before the spray-on hair at 3 in the morning on TV so yes, I know the feeling. In that book, though, 700 pages, if you wanted to get somebody hooked on baking and simultaneously give them a dish that would teach them principles that apply to a lot of other dishes, or just great principles for cooking, is there any particular recipe that comes to mind?
Mark Bittman: It might be a cheat but I would say something like pizza because it’s got cooking and baking in it. You’re making a sauce, which I think is an incredibly valuable thing and you’re learning how to make a dough, which incorporates yeast which is something that can really serve you well.
You know, I always say when people say how should I start, I say just pick up a cookbook and find something that really appeals to you. Find something that you want to make. Then take your time, and tackle that. Yeah, that is what I think. I think the best dish for a person to cook first is a dish that appeals to that person most. That’s the way I best know how to guarantee or at least to nearly guarantee success.
Tim Ferriss: I think pizza probably hits 80 percent of the population; checks that box.
Mark Bittman: People like pizza so that’s good, yeah. It’s true.
Tim Ferriss: I remember I picked up Marcella Hazan, and what is her magnum opus? I’m blanking on the name.
Mark Bittman: The first thing that she did was Classics of Italian Cooking, I think.
Tim Ferriss: That’s right. I remember being intimidated but focusing on the roast chicken. And to this day, I think that is my go-to approach to roasting chickens. It was the least intimidating, or one of the less intimidating that I could approach.
Mark Bittman: You know that people always used to say you can judge a restaurant best on its roast chicken because it’s the hardest thing to make. I don’t think that’s actually true, but many people think that making a great roast chicken is actually – and it’s true; making a great roast chicken is not easy. Making a decent roast chicken is pretty easy but making a great one is not easy.
Tim Ferriss: I’ve heard the same thing about making a French omelet. That people will say okay, let’s see how you make a French omelet and that was one of the I’m sure many different tests people could throw out there. I’m not a chef. I enjoy cooking but certainly wouldn’t put myself on the line anywhere even half respectable.
Mark Bittman: This is all practice, as you know. Like everything else, it’s all practice.
Tim Ferriss: And as you pointed out, the more you enjoy whether it’s the skill or the dish that you pick out, the more incentivized and motivated you’re going to be to practice in the first place. Mark, two things. The firs is we’ll wrap up here and I’ll let you get running because I know we have a hard out. The first is where can people find out more about you, and find you on the internet, etc.?
And then last is if you have any parting ask of my audience or recommendation – could be anything – what would that be?
Mark Bittman: Those are great questions; thank you for asking them. I have a live and well website called MarkBittman.com, so that’s where you can find me most easily. I’d love people to listen to Get Bitt and tell us either on the Get Bitt site or through Twitter, which I’m @Bittman what they think of it. And yeah, of course I’d love people to check out How to Bake Everything but that goes without saying. I hope that after this conversation, people are curious about it and will check it out. It’s obviously a great season for it and like everything else I’ve done, it’s the most accessible possible book I could do. Those are my two requests.
Tim Ferriss: It’s sitting right in my kitchen next to a bunch of others that are my favorites, like Seven Fires and some of my go-tos. So How to Bake Everything has a spot in prime real estate right on my kitchen shelf. Mark, I am sure you’ll be doing a lot of cooking coming up on the holidays so I wish you and yours a very happy holidays. Thank you for making the time.
Mark Bittman: It was great chatting with you, Tim; really a lot of fun. I hope we get to do it again.
Tim Ferriss: I will be working on my pizza for cheat day.
Mark Bittman: Excellent!
Tim Ferriss: To everybody listening, as always you can find the show notes, links to everything we talked about at FourHourWorkweek.com/podcast. Until next time and as always, thank you for listening.
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