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Mark Bittman on defensive cooking, deep-fried butter, diets

Let's just cut to the chase: What'd you cook last night?
"Uhhhh, pasta with sausage and sweet onion and tomatoes," Mark Bittman tells me. "And a fennel and celery salad."
But this is Bittman, the New York Times columnist, author of several cookbooks and the guy who is doing what he can to cut America's consumption of junk food, soda and - apologies to the great states of Texas and Nebraska - meat.
"So not a lot of sausage on the pasta, right?" I ask.
"One per person," Bittman said. "Not two."
It's hard to argue with a guy who has lost 30-odd pounds in recent years by not eating meat during the day.
Bittman is also someone who has followed food's impact not only on the way we live but on the way we die. And vote. And damage the planet in ways we barely realize.
It's easy to tell people what to eat; Bittman has been doing it for years.
"More plants, no junk, less meat," he said. "Or at least have the plants crowd out the other stuff."
And yet, we are a nation that is all over the map when it comes to food: We have backyard chicken coops and pesticide-free raised beds and would buy organic dental floss if they made it (do they?).
But we also line up for deep-fried Twinkies and have welcomed with open, flabby arms the invasion of high-end cupcakes and bacon everything. Just last week, I ingested something called "bacon candy." (Meh.)
"Deep-fried butter is 'Ha, ha, ha.' It's all fine and great," Bittman said. "But if that stuff isn't tamed, we're in big trouble. Deep-fried butter is not the problem, but it's an interesting symbol."
Bittman, 62, grew up in the Stuyvesant Town section of New York City with a mother who did the best she could behind the stove. Bless her heart, her best wasn't that good.
In college, "I cooked out of self-defense," Bittman said, adding that the food at home and on the Clark University food plan was so bad that hamburgers and fried eggs were an improvement.
The woman who would become his first wife kept cookbooks on the counter, so he picked some things up there. After they married, she kept the cookbooks but also long hours at her job, so Bittman became the primary meal-maker.
Fast forward past his small-town-newspaper restaurant reviews, his first cookbook (on fish) and some national exposure, and Bittman was The Minimalist, The New York Times' answer to busy lives and empty cupboards that really aren't.
Bittman left that gig in 2010 to focus on opinion columns that - like most dinner-party debates - start in the kitchen.
His editorializing got him into a bit of trouble last month, when, in a blog that rounded up food-related news, he included the death of Donald A. Perry, Chick-fil-A's vice president of public relations. Bittman started the post with "Speaking of pigs ..."
Bittman removed the line from the blog and apologized. But he still believes that, since Chick-fil-A is funding efforts to defeat gay marriage, Perry represented trouble.
"Imagine if the guy had been pro-gay marriage and he dropped dead," Bittman said. "Imagine what the other side would say about these people."
I'd rather not, actually. But Bittman tells me to be prepared.
"I think we're going to see food further divide along political lines," he said.
It's already well under way. Sarah Palin attacked Michelle Obama's anti-obesity campaign, saying that it robbed children of their right to eat dessert.
And New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is getting politically soaked for trying to prohibit the sales of large, sugary drinks in city restaurants, stadiums and movie theaters. A recent New York Times poll found that 60 percent of residents think the plan is a bad idea.
"He was so desperate to figure out a way to limit the amount of soda people drink," Bittman said, and doesn't blame him. Consider: Seven percent of America's calories come from it, Bittman said.
"I don't think that's OK," he said. "Junk is not too harsh a word."
He gave the mayor credit for the proposal, which will be voted on by the New York Board of Health in two weeks.
He would love to lobby beyond what he writes in his opinion columns, maybe even start a fast-food chain that serves healthy food, but it probably won't happen.
"I'm kinda old," he said. "I'm not sure I have the strength to start something from scratch. I have a lot going on and it's all interesting."
And it's his attempt at thinning the herd - not in numbers but in size.
"When 20 percent of the United States is eating a more plant-based diet, and more conscious of the dangers of junk food, well, we can stop right there," Bittman said. "Then we have a terrific situation."