But he’s not worried. Bittman, 63, describes himself as a cross between Larry David and Julia Child, but his mood at the market is decidedly Julia-esque, not cranky in the least. At the beginning of a busy book tour that mostly involves talking, and signing, and appearing on TV and radio shows, he’s grateful for a change of pace. “A train ride followed by a walk on a nice day, and then shopping and cooking? That’s fine with me,” he says. “Other times it’ll get a little grueling.”
In case you haven’t noticed (although how could you have missed it?), Bittman, the bestselling author of “How to Cook Everything” among many others, has a new book out. The subtitle of “VB6” explains the concept: “Eat Vegan Before 6:00 to Lose Weight and Restore Your Health . . . for Good.” The idea stems from his doctor’s suggestion six years ago that in order to reverse a course headed toward diabetes and heart disease, Bittman should go vegan. The patient — perhaps in a Larry David mood this time — balked. “I asked, ‘Can’t I compromise?’ Sid looked at me and said, ‘You’re a smart guy. Figure something out.’ ”
That something was the idea to forgo all animal products and “hyper-processed” foods for breakfast and lunch and snacks, and to let himself eat whatever he wanted for dinner and beyond. It’s a strategy based on the knowledge that deprivation often backfires, that calorie-counting is too laborious to keep up for long, but that something had to change. After 30 days, he was down 15 pounds; after four months, he had lost 35 — and he has kept them off (and returned his cholesterol and blood-sugar levels to normal). “VB6” is a diet book, no doubt, but Bittman also sees it as a way to get people to move away from what’s been called SAD, or the Standard American Diet of processed foods and more meat than our bodies need. As an opinion and Dining columnist for the New York Times who writes about sustainable food issues, Bittman hopes the book might make an environmental impact, too.
What may come across as gimmicky, with the acronym and the time stamp and all, becomes less so once you read or listen. For one thing, that 6 o’clock reference is just a device to mark off part of the day from the rest, to give eaters structure without asking them to obsess. Want cream with your morning coffee? Going out to lunch one day and don’t want to seek out a vegan entree? Want to eat bacon at breakfast and a vegetarian dinner? Don’t sweat the details. “The point is to eat less meat and other animal products,” he says when we’re back in my Dupont Circle kitchen. “VB6 is a way to do that, but it’s certainly not the only way.”
Bittman has dinner plans, and because it’s well before 6, we won't be crumbling any feta into that mash. What would be the point of that? I’d rather see his tips and techniques for making a plant-based (or as “Engine 2” author Rip Esselyn likes to call it, “plant-strong”) meal. It all boils down to one tip, really, which he reiterates from earlier: “Start with good stuff, and go from there.”