Skip to main content

David Rieff, 'Swimming in a Sea of Death'

Diagnosed with cancer for the third time, Susan Sontag signed on for a harsh treatment regimen in hopes it would keep her alive. But it only added to her suffering. Her son, journalist David Rieff, has published a memoir about his mother's "revolt against death."

35:53

Other segments from the episode on January 10, 2008

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 10, 2008: Interview with David Rieff; Interview with Mark Bittman.

Transcript

DATE January 10, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: David Rieff discusses new memoir on death of his
mother, Susan Sontag
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

After twice surviving cancer, Susan Sontag, one of America's best known public
intellectuals, was diagnosed with a particularly lethal form of blood cancer,
myelodysplastic syndrome. She underwent a bone marrow transplant, which is a
risky treatment with painful side effects, hoping it would save her; but it
didn't. She died in 2004 at the age of 71. My guest is her son, the
journalist David Rieff. He's written a memoir about Sontag's death and the
unanswerable questions he was left with. It's called "Swimming in a Sea of
Death: A Son's Memoir." Rieff is a contributing writer to The New York Times
Magazine and has reported from several war zones. He's also the author of
seven previous books.

Susan Sontag wrote much-discussed essays about photography, the sensibility of
camp, illness, Eastern Europe and the war in Bosnia. She also wrote a
best-selling historical novel.

David Rieff, welcome back to FRESH AIR. You had to ask yourself a lot of
difficult questions while your mother was dying, and one of the questions you
asked yourself was should you be honest with her. You basically saw her
diagnosis as a death sentence. She believed she really stood a chance with
the bone marrow transplant. And so you had to figure out whether you were
going to reflect the optimism that she had or the pessimism that you believed
to reflect reality. You say that she always thought of herself as someone
whose hunger for truth was absolute, but this was a situation where you
weren't sure you wanted to be honest with her about what you really thought.

Mr. DAVID RIEFF: Well, it's worse than that in a way, Terry, because I think
she demanded honestly but she didn't actually want honesty in this case. She
wanted to be--I mean, that's what I try to write about in the sense that it's,
at its starkest, that what my mother wanted for me, it seemed very clear, was
some kind of optimistic spin or optimistic account of her chances. Or at
least not a pessimistic one. And I thought a lot about that, of course. I
thought, `Well, what happens if I--what happens if I tell her the truth? What
happens if I say, `Look, all the doctors are telling me it's possible that
you'll survive, but the chances are starkly against you'? What would that
have accomplished? I kept wondering, would it have allowed her to, in some
way, come to terms with her death in a way that would have made her death
easier?

And I thought, in the end, I'm getting such a strong signal from her, both in
words but also in--by which I mean in terms of the questions she would ask.
You know, I remember her saying to me, `Well, you know, I'm much younger than
my biological age. Don't you think that's true?' Well, in a sense, whatever
the grammar of it, the reality--the human reality is if someone says that to
you and then follows the assertion with the question, `Don't you think that's
true?' she's telling you, `Tell me it's true.'

And I--in the end, I thought, `But it's her death. It's not my death. What
is this truth? What am I doing telling her the truth? Is that for her or is
it for me?' If I told her the truth, maybe I could force her to have a
conversation with me about our past together, about our very complicated--and
they were very complicated--relations. I would have perhaps been able to have
asked her questions that maybe I would have liked to have asked her. But
that's all for me. For her, she wanted to live. She didn't want to feel it
was time to have those conversations. And it seemed to me, again, it's her
death, not mine.

GROSS: Well, you know, one of your mother, Susan Sontag's, most famous books
was "Illness as Metaphor," and she wrote this after her first cancer, her
breast cancer. And one of the things she wrote about in there was how she
disliked how people used the metaphors of war when it came to dealing with
cancer. You know, like, "battling" cancer. And I wonder, like, when she was
sick what language she used to describe her own feelings about what was
happening to her body. Like, what kind of language did she find for it?

Mr. RIEFF: Well, I think she tried to find, on the one hand, the language of
science, and on the other hand the language of pain. A lot of what happened
to her in the last months of her life were just being in agony. Basically
everything went reasonably smoothly until the transplant itself. It's--say
the process in getting someone ready for a bone marrow transplant is basically
to destroy their immune system with radiation and drugs. And that actually
she weathered. People die during this. It's not a--and someone at her age.
They were very worried about this because they hadn't done it to that many
people of 70.

But she did incredibly well. And they found a donor who was a match. But
once she had the transplant, basically everything that could go wrong went
wrong, every kind of illness, every kind of physical affront. So, I mean,
within very short time she was deep in just the language of pain, the language
of being flayed, but there was nothing military or, you know, there was no--it
was really just sort of, `I hurt. I can't swallow. Everything, you know, my
mouth is a sore.'

When she died, I was there a lot. But, of course, you both look and you don't
look. And after she died, I asked everybody there--there were a bunch of
people there--and I asked them to leave. And I took her shirt off and she was
just--it was just a sore. Her body was a sore, one big sore. And it was
amazing, I mean, in the, you know, it was unbearable. And how she had bore
it, I don't know. But we were pretty far from the end of "Illness as
Metaphor" where she cites Lucretius and talks about giving the language of war
back to the war makers.

GROSS: Some people, as they face death, have religion and they can believe in
God or in an afterlife, in some meaning to life, in some, you know, redemption
in death, and it surely seems to help ease them from one world to the next.
And your mother was an atheist. Did she seem to wish she had anything toward
the end like religion or some larger philosophy or something? Like do you
know where I'm...

Mr. RIEFF: I do.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. RIEFF: I just think she really was an atheist, not an agnostic. I think
if you're an agnostic, that's a possibility for you.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. RIEFF: But if you're really an atheist, you just believe in the one
life. You could believe that life had a purpose. You could believe you did
good things, but you could believe your work was important. I think she
certainly--look, by the end of her life she was incapable of speaking in this
way as, I mean, because she died horribly. I mean, she didn't literally, as I
try to describe it in the book, the last hours of her life she was not in such
pain or terror. But, I mean, she died in agony and her death was an agony.
So I don't think in the end, you know, a philosophical conversation--I know
you don't mean it that way, but I don't think for an atheist that thought--if
you really mean it--that thought is possible. You said, even in the phrasing
of what you said, you know, going from one world to the next. But, of course,
if you're an atheist, you only think there's this world. There is no next--I
mean, or really to talk the next world is a...

GROSS: No, you're right.

Mr. RIEFF: ...is a theistic idea.

GROSS: And I noticed that as I was saying it. Yeah. Uh-huh, mm-hmm. No,
absolutely.

Mr. RIEFF: You know, there's a famous story. I mean, this is a person who
died, at least according to the accounts you read, I mean, these are just
literary accounts, so who knows? But David Hume, who is an atheist, the
Scottish philosopher--I mean, Boswell, the biographer, Dr. Johnson came to
see Hume on his deathbed, and in effect he said, `Aren't you afraid of dying
and aren't you tempted to accept Christ, you know, to insure your immortal
soul?' And Hume, very gently but absolutely implacably, said, `What? I don't
believe there's a life after death and that the soul can be separated from the
body.' And I think that's unfortunately the atheist position.

And, to be fair to my mother--I mean, this may seem like an odd way to put it,
but I don't mean it in any odd and I certainly don't mean it in any ironic or
let alone sarcastic way--but I think my mother took religion far too
seriously, atheist though she was, to imagine that she could somehow accept it
on her deathbed because it would make her feel better. I mean, if she
couldn't accept it in her life, I don't think she could just sort of say,
`Well, now that I'm dying I need it, so I'll accept it.' Or be so, I mean,
maybe--I'm sure--look, people convert on their deathbeds. People accept
religion on their deathbeds. But I don't think that was a possibility for
her.

GROSS: The impression I get from your book was that your mother was like
afraid of death. I mean, she loved life and really wanted to live and would
do anything to live, but that she was also afraid of death. And I guess I was
wondering if you knew exactly what it was she was afraid of with death?

Mr. RIEFF: Oh, yeah. Sure.

GROSS: She was afraid of hell. She wasn't afraid of afterlife. Didn't
believe in it, in fact.

Mr. RIEFF: No, again, we're back to--yeah, we're sort of back to our
conversation where you were saying this world to the next. My mother was
afraid of extinction. I quote this amazing poem of Philip Larkin's called
"Aubade" in the book, which I think speaks for my mother. And I'm no good at
remembering poetry, but basically it says, you know, `What's all this being
reconciled to death? Everything you are ceases to be and nothing replaces it.
You just--you are extinguished.' And I think that's what she felt, and I think
it terrified her.

GROSS: I always found it interesting that she had made several trips to
Sarajevo during the war in Bosnia, putting her life at risk. And I know you
did this, too, you made trips there. For her, one of the things she did was
stage a Beckett play.

Mr. RIEFF: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And I remember her writing about the kind of, you know, game of
roulette that it was, that you were playing with your life just being there
because death was so random. You know, a bullet would just come through the
window and you're dead. Or you're crossing the street, sniper shoots you,
you're dead. So here she was, somebody who like really feared death, putting
herself in a situation where death was all around her and death had
this--death was like chance processes. You know, death was this like random
act being committed all around you. And I guess it was always hard for me to
completely make sense of that. But I'm curious, from your impressions, how
that effected, if at all, her attitude about her own death?

Mr. RIEFF: You know, that's a very interesting question. I'd never thought
of that. I mean, I've thought of it for myself because I've been in a lot of
wars and I, as a journalist, I lived in Sarajevo. And I've been in, well,
lots of other places, including Iraq, but I don't know the answer to that. I
think somewhere she knew she was taking this risk and somehow she didn't
connect the two. I can't really explain it. I don't feel that way. I mean,
I do remember what's in Sarajevo and I don't know that I'm so much less afraid
of dying than she was, as I write in the book.

But I remember once a very bad time in Sarajevo. We were actually in a plane
that was, as it was taking off, got hit by a couple of small arms rounds. And
the plane was full of French soldiers. One of them got hit by the bullet and
he started to scream. And I was terrified. I mean, I've been frightened many
times, but I was terrified in that kind of physical way. I thought, `I'm
never going to control myself.' And then I remember thinking sort of--it was
almost like a kind of respite. I thought, `It's OK to die today.' And that
was the only thing that made me calmer.

But I don't think she ever felt that. I'm speculating now, but I have to feel
she'd thought she'd get through it. That's all I can explain.

GROSS: Do you think that at any point you crossed the line and realized she
wasn't going to get through it and that all that was left for her was
suffering? And I guess one of the things I'm really wondering here is, do you
think it ever would have occurred to her to ask to have her death speeded up
because all that was left for her was suffering?

Mr. RIEFF: No, it was the opposite. When the doctors in Seattle--she had
this transplant in the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle, which is one
of the great hospitals in the world. And when the doctors came to tell her it
hadn't worked, she started to scream. And the only thing that consoled her
was going back to New York, and having her doctor in New York, principal
doctor at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, say, `I'm going
to try one last thing.' So there was never a point when she was reconciled.
The very last two weeks of her life she said--not to me, but to a couple of
other people--`I'm dying,' but without any calm or any sense of being
reconciled, quite the opposite.

GROSS: My guest is the journalist David Rieff and he's written several books,
but his new book is a memoir about the death of his mother, Susan Sontag, and
it's called "Swimming in a Sea of Death."

Your mother had cancer three times. She had breast cancer in 1975 and it was
advanced, but she survived it through a radical mastectomy. She had a uterine
form of cancer in 1998, survived that. And her final cancer three years ago,
which was a blood cancer, is the one that did her in. A lot of people who
survive cancer or any other form of severe illness say that they were
transformed by it in some large or small way. The first time I interviewed
your mother in 1989--and this was somewhat after she'd written "Illness As
Metaphor," which we had been talking about--I asked her about how she thought,
or if she thought she was changed by that first cancer. And if you don't
mind, I thought I'd play you a little bit of what she said.

Mr. RIEFF: Sure.

GROSS: So here it is. This is Susan Sontag, recorded in 1989.

Mr. RIEFF: Mm-hmm.

(Soundbite of 1989 interview)

Ms. SUSAN SONTAG: I think it was, actually, a positive experience. It may
sound strange to say it. I mean, there a lot of things I didn't like about
it, like scaring people who love me, particularly my son, who went into a sort
of deep despair when he thought that I was going to die, and that was
certainly a wound in his life. And I didn't like, you know, being cut up and
mutilated and operations, and I didn't like a lot of other things. And yet,
and yet, and yet, I think it was a positive experience. I think it was a
deepening experience. It's put me more in contact with myself. And I don't
think it changed--it didn't make me into a different person, but it released
things that were inhibited, like, well, I have more access for my own gift for
intimacy, if I can put it in such an indirect and shy form. I find it easier
and more necessary to express feeling for other people.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That was Susan Sontag, recorded on FRESH AIR in 1989. And her son,
David Rieff, is my guest, and he's written a new book about his mother's
death.

I'm wondering if you share her perception that after her first cancer that she
became more comfortable with intimacy?

Mr. RIEFF: I think, whether it was true or not, I think she, before that
cancer, had operated under at least the idea--again, maybe it was only partly
true, but it wasn't--it was at least partly true that as long as she had the
work, the rest was secondary. And I don't think she felt that afterwards.

Look, what she said to you in 1989 was what she thought. I don't know
whether--I guess I don't know how much she changed. She changed some. I
don't know how much any of us can really change.

GROSS: After she died, you read her diaries. And I'm wondering if you had
any reservations about reading them, whether you felt like you were violating
her privacy when you read them or if you wondered if she would have approved
of you reading them?

Mr. RIEFF: Oh, sure. I thought that very strongly. In fact, I wouldn't
have read them had she not sold her papers, including the diaries, to UCLA.

GROSS: Oh.

Mr. RIEFF: In her lifetime, when she was well.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Mr. RIEFF: The reason I read them at all, and it's a bit more than reading
them; I'm now editing them.

GROSS: Oh.

Mr. RIEFF: And I've edited and turned into her publishers the first volume
of the diaries that basically go from adolescents through the early '60s in
New York, cover the period of her marriage to my father and many other very
important things in her life, including--well, a lot of things. But I've
edited them. I'm now wrestling, as we speak today, with an introduction. And
I'll edit two more volumes.

But I would not have done any of that had I not known that these materials
would be public at some point, at which point I felt, `I've got--better me.'
But I--oh, yeah. I have read them with great difficulty and great regret.

GROSS: Why difficulty and regret?

Mr. RIEFF: It's hard. It's hard. You know, they're very intimate, as
people will see when they read these journals. The diaries are very tough
stuff. It's not like the diaries of someone who writes about, I don't know,
their literary life with a few personal asides. These diaries are intensely
personal. But, as I say, she made the decision. She crossed the Rubicon by
selling these papers and not burning these diaries. Which, after all, she
could have done, or...

GROSS: So are you finding out things about how you felt about you, her son,
in reading these? Is that...

Mr. RIEFF: Oh, sure. There's that, inter alia, though I wouldn't have said
that's the main thing.

GROSS: Mm-hm.

Mr. RIEFF: But, sure. And I've tried to be very--I've tried to play it
straight. That is, I've tried to not just to put the things that I admire or
I like, but the things that cause me pain in there, too.

GROSS: So you've been editing your mother's diaries. You write in in your
memoir about her death that, as she was dying, you consciously decided not to
take notes on it. And writing is the thing in your family. I mean, your
father, Philip Rieff, was a writer. Your mother, Susan Sontag, was a writer.
You are a writer. Writing, that's what your family does. You have thoughts
and you put them on paper.

Mr. RIEFF: That's the family olive oil business, yeah.

GROSS: Right. But you decided not to take notes as she was dying. Why did
you--I mean, since you ended up writing a book...

Mr. RIEFF: Because I didn't want...

GROSS: ...why didn't you take notes on it?

Mr. RIEFF: Because writing is a form of self armoring.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. RIEFF: I mean, writing is a way that you keep yourself from--you
mitigate the experience. You take the experience and you turn it into
writing. Any writing in the end, no matter how honest you try to be, no
matter how self-lacerating you're willing to be, no matter how unadorned
you're willing to be, it's still a work of prose. It's still an artifact.
It's still a piece of work. And, as such, you don't have to stare directly at
what's happening. It's actually a way of distracting yourself. And I had the
example of a couple of writers I know who had taken copious notes as parents
were dying, and I felt they were trying to protect themselves by doing so.

GROSS: What do you mean by protect themselves? You mean by...

Mr. RIEFF: Well, protect themselves from the full force of what was going
on.

GROSS: Uh-huh. Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Mr. RIEFF: And I wanted--maybe I'm wrong. I mean, maybe I would have taken
these notes and I would have written a better book, or maybe I would have
taken these notes and somehow found out things that are now lost to me
forever. But I felt it was a kind of cowardice--for me. I'm not judging
people who do it.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. RIEFF: That's none of my business.

GROSS: One of the things I knew I'd want to ask you about, but you answer
this for me in the book, was how you felt about the photos that Annie
Leibovitz took of your mother, Susan Sontag, as she was dying and even after
she was dead, and these photographs were published in a book. And Annie
Leibovitz is a very celebrated photographer who takes a lot of pictures for
Vanity Fair. And your mother and Annie Leibovitz were lovers, I think it was
a kind of on again-off again kind of thing, it was.

Mr. RIEFF: That's right. Absolutely. Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah. So here's what you write about those photos, those post-death
photos in your book. You write that your mother was humiliated posthumously
by being, quote, "memorialized," unquote, that way, in those carnival images
of celebrity death. Were you...

Mr. RIEFF: Yeah. I mean, that's probably all I have to say. I mean, I'm
told--I have no contact with Annie Leibovitz since my mother's funeral. You
know, I would have no--Annie only got to take those pictures because I
permitted it when my mother was in the funeral home. I mean, I'll go this
far. I don't want to go much further than this. But as the next of kin, it
was my choice to let Annie take the pictures. They were not authorized at the
funeral home in New York to let anyone in without my permission. And Annie
wanted to take these pictures, and I thought, `Annie Leibovitz is a
photographer. People respond to great events in their life; artists respond
with their art. So if this would help her,' even though we were already on
quite difficult terms, I thought, `OK.' It just never occurred to me that she
would publish them.

GROSS: Because when your mother was well enough to talk about her death, she
wasn't ready to say that she was dying, you never really had a chance to talk
with her about death or funeral plans. She didn't make funeral plans because
she didn't expect to die back at the time when she was well enough to make
plans like that. So you were left with the decision of where to bury her, and
you decided to bury her in Paris, a city that she sometimes lived in and that
she really loved. And she's buried--is it Montparnasse?

Mr. RIEFF: Mm-hmm, yes.

GROSS: In the cemetery there, near the grave of Simone de Beauvoir.
Jean-Paul Sartre is buried there, too. Taking her body to--flying with her
body to Paris, you had to think a lot about, `Why there?' And, `What is a
grave for?' I know your mother didn't want--the thing you did know is that
your mother did not want to be cremated. But what do you think now a grave is
for? Do you know what I mean? Like, the grave isn't...

Mr. RIEFF: Yeah. I tried to write...

GROSS: The grave isn't in your backyard.

Mr. RIEFF: Yes.

GROSS: It's not close to you in Manhattan. You know, it's...

Mr. RIEFF: No. Although I go back and forth to Europe a lot.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Mr. RIEFF: But I don't stay very long. As I write it, I mean, the last part
of my book is about precisely that burial and the after-effects. It's kind of
little epilogue that I tacked on to the book where I try to describe it. But
I think graves are for the living, if they are for anything at all. And I
thought three things. The first is, I thought that the graves in New York
City, the cemeteries in New York City are very ugly, unlike the cemeteries in
other major American cities, like Mount Auburn in Boston being the most
obvious. Beautiful place. And I thought to bury my mother in some awful
cemetery in Queens was just not on. And, again, maybe I was thinking of the
living. I don't know what, really.

And she lived in a number of places. She grew up in the Southwest and then
Southern California. But she had no great fondness for Tucson or for LA,
where she loved Paris, so I thought--and many of her friends are people who go
through Paris at least every year or two, maybe many of her friends much more
often. So if they wanted to go to the grave site, it would be there.

As far as why that grave site, well, I just, I mean, it's one of the two
places where writers get buried in Paris, and I think I was just being very
conventional about it. It's not that I think--you know, this is not a Ben
Affleck movie. You know, it's not like I think when we're all away Simone de
Beauvoir and Samuel Beckett and my mother have conversations. I don't believe
in--you know, I try to write in the book that, you know, I'm not, you know, I
don't believe they're there. And when I go, I don't stay very long. I sort
of clean up the grave and sweep the bits. She's buried under a tree, and the
tree sheds, and I--even though the gardeners in the Montparnasse cemetery do a
very good job, I sort of sweep up and then I go, because she's not there.

GROSS: I would like you to end by reading a poem that you quote in your
memoir. It's by Abba Kovner, an Israeli writer.

Mr. RIEFF: Yeah. Abba, yeah. Abba Kovner was a great Israeli poet who died
terribly in Sloan-Kettering in New York in '87, cancer. Anyway, the part of
the poem that I quote reads, "Soon, soon we shall know if we've learned to
accept that the stars do not go out when we die."

GROSS: Well, David Rieff--oh, I want to thank you very much for talking with
us. I really appreciate it.

Mr. RIEFF: I'm glad of the chance. Thank you.

GROSS: David Rieff's new memoir, "Swimming in a Sea of Death," is about the
death of his mother, Susan Sontag.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Food columnist Mark Bittman discusses new book
"How to Cook Everything Vegetarian" and his column
TERRY GROSS, host:

Mark Bittman is a cookbook author, newspaper columnist and TV host, all of
which came out of his interest in cooking as an amateur enthusiast. For 10
years he's written a weekly New York Times column called "The Minimalist,"
offering quick and often easy recipes for all manner of appetizers, entrees,
desserts and even smoothies. He's hosted his own public TV series, a
companion to his best-selling cookbook "How to Cook Everything." That book won
the James Beard and Julia Child IACP cookbook awards. Bittman's latest book
is a spin-off of sorts. It's called "How to Cook Everything Vegetarian."
FRESH AIR TV critic David Bianculli, who's pretty good in the kitchen, too,
talked to Mark Bittman.

DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

Mark Bittman, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. MARK BITTMAN: It's great to be here, Dave.

BIANCULLI: I figure that every cook has one or two tricks that he or she
prizes above all others. You know, little golden secrets that just work
brilliantly. What are yours?

Mr. BITTMAN: I don't know that I have tricks. I think the tricks that I
have are not secrets at all. I think they're things that just come from
really a life of cooking and become sort of second nature. For example,
there's a very, very funny old cookbook writer, French guy named Edouard De
Pomaine--whose last name I'm probably mispronouncing, but he wrote a hilarious
book called "French Cooking in 10 Minutes," which was also pretty instructive.
But his first rule was, `Go in the kitchen and set a pot of water to boil. I
don't know what you're going to use it for, but you're going to use it for
something.' And that's not a bad rule, and I think that pre-heating pans,
which I generally don't say in my recipe instructions because I'm afraid that
people are going to forget them or burn the house down or whatever, but I
generally throw a pan on the fire a couple of minutes before I start cooking.

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BITTMAN: So that it's hot once I start cooking. It just sort of makes
things move along a little more quickly. Sufficient amounts of fat. When
you're cooking in fat I think, you know, you have to use enough. And you kind
of eyeball that and see what enough is. I don't know that there's anything I
do that's that slick.

BIANCULLI: Listen, your new book, "How to Cook Everything Vegetarian," has an
obvious limitation: no meat. But was that restriction freeing, as well?

Mr. BITTMAN: Interesting question because when you started asking it I
thought immediately of this Japanese woman I met a couple years ago who was a
brilliant chef who only did super vegan, you know, really, really limited
stuff. And I asked her why. Because she ate meat and she obviously enjoyed
it, but she only cooked very, very limited. And she said, `It's like pen and
ink.' And I said, `What do you mean?' And she said, `Well, you know, you limit
things so that you can explore the universe of them more thoroughly.' Which
seemed like a very Japanese thing to say.

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm. Sounds great, though.

Mr. BITTMAN: But you know what? I think that I'm not interested in
proselytizing for people to be vegetarians, but I am interested in
proselytizing for people to eat fewer animal products. We raise animals now
in what can only be called an industrial fashion. And I think the more people
know about that, the more turned off they're going to be by that.

BIANCULLI: Well, one thing about the vegetarian cookbook that I was really
surprised by was your sort of--your admonition that you really had to sort of
think of this in a slightly new way, like leftovers in you refrigerator could
be the basis for new meals. I never really thought of a multiday, multimeal
plan with the different grains and vegetables really seems to, you know, work
out right for vegetarianism. Did you know that beforehand?

Mr. BITTMAN: I didn't. Although, you know, when you think about it, cooked
foods don't go bad very quickly.

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BITTMAN: And once you've cooked something, it will stay in the
refrigerator for quite a while. Now, it'll decline in flavor perhaps and
freshness, but it's not going to decline that quickly and it's not going to
decline in quality or become dangerous--that is, rot--for a while. That's why
refrigerators are so terrific. So it's just as easy to cook a pound of dried
beans as a half a pound, and it's just as easy to cook two cups of rice or
barley or whatever as one cup. And when you start thinking that way, it's
just as easy to wash a head of lettuce as half a head of lettuce. All of
these things will then stay, once they're cooked or prepared, in the
refrigerator for days. And once you start thinking that way, you have the
makings of different meals at your fingertips.

Now, it can be argued that vegetarian food is less filling than nonvegetarian
food, and that's probably true because hunks of meat have a lot of fat in
them, and high quantities of protein tend to fill you up also. So if you're
eating rice and beans and vegetables and salads and soups that don't contain,
you know, sausage and steak and chicken and so on, you probably will eat more
quantity.

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BITTMAN: I mean, you know, vegetables are more water based than animals,
so you're eating more volume. So you need more things to feel satisfied.

BIANCULLI: Can you point to a recipe in your book that surprised you, a
vegetable that you didn't think was going to work out as good as it did, or
wasn't going to taste as good as it did, and you just ended up loving the
recipe when you were through with it?

Mr. BITTMAN: I will say that what really freaked me out when I was working
on this book was how many different things I--or we--were able to do with
whole grains. And we came up with a method for cooking whole grains that's
faster and easier than anything I've ever seen. And we came up with a bunch
of kind of casseroles and sauce dishes with whole grains that I was really,
really excited about. So it's more of a category than an individual dish, but
that's the case.

BIANCULLI: I'm really interested in your "Minimalist" column in The New York
Times. I'm wondering, how do you think it's evolved over the years and what's
your sense of your own readership?

Mr. BITTMAN: The column is 10 years old. We had a little party for it back
in September when I estimated that I had written the 500th column. I was
freelancing for The Times starting 1990. And around 1994, my editor said,
`We're relaunching the section and we need one--we need a new column and we're
wondering if you'd like to do it?' And I said, `No duh. Of course.' And what
happened that took really two or three years to settle into was this kind of
recipe that's not exactly a straight recipe but that has some kind of, almost
like a pop song, it has some kind of hook to it. There's something a little
bit offbeat about it that makes it not traditional. I'm not just showing you,
I don't know, how to make a vinaigrette.

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BITTMAN: Because I've written books that show you how to make a
vinaigrette. I'm suggesting you make a vinaigrette with a tablespoon of soy
sauce in it. I mean, it's just--it's almost that simple. I'm not just
saying, `Here's how you roast a chicken.' I'm saying, `I figured out a way to
roast a chicken that I think is really cool and slightly innovative and I
think people are going to get excited about it.'

BIANCULLI: Right.

Mr. BITTMAN: So over the years we've sort of applied "The Minimalist" bug to
almost everything that I've done. And, you know, I've written a lot in that
section.

BIANCULLI: So who reads you?

Mr. BITTMAN: I'll tell you one thing, a lot of men. And I'm not saying
women don't, but what's changed in the last 10 years is that I get stopped now
by equal amounts of men and women, and men are much more aggressive e-mailers,
I think. They're not necessarily more frequent e-mailers, but they'll e-mail
me and challenge things or suggest new ideas, or they don't--women tend to
more e-mail and say, `I really liked what you're doing.' Men say either, `I
think you're an idiot,' or, `I like what you're doing but you could do it
better.' Or, `I like what you're doing and here's another idea for you.'

(Announcements)

GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with Mark Bittman. He writes the food
column "The Minimalist" for The New York Times. His latest book is called
"How to Cook Everything Vegetarian." He spoke with our TV critic David
Bianculli, who loves to cook.

BIANCULLI: All right, here's my big question.

Mr. BITTMAN: Hm.

BIANCULLI: In theory, what I wanted to for the interview was pick out a
recipe of yours that I was very skeptical about, in advance, that...

Mr. BITTMAN: I'm already amazed that you found one you could be skeptical
about, but go ahead.

BIANCULLI: Yeah. No, I did. But I couldn't find it in the vegetarian
cookbook. I had to go on "The Minimalist" and go back. And it was--we're in
firm agreement as meat eaters that, you know, we're talking about rib eyes as
the best part of the steak.

Mr. BITTMAN: No question.

BIANCULLI: And that, you know, simplicity is wonderful here. And you have a
recipe which says, `Instead of just doing it the normal way, just put it
uncovered, you know, over a little wire thing in the refrigerator for like two
or three or four days and flip it once a day. And don't cover it. And then
this gives it this crust that you can then cook with.'

Mr. BITTMAN: Yeah. It dries it out a little bit.

BIANCULLI: So a little bit? Well, let me tell you, I did an A/B test. I got
two rib eyes. I have a real good butcher.

Mr. BITTMAN: You know, I'm very glad you did this. I can't wait to hear
what you say.

BIANCULLI: Yeah. So what happened was, so I kept one wrapped up and did it
the way I normally would do. I did the other one. I did the equal rub on
both. But the one that was dried in the refrigerator, after a couple of days,
it started looking like rib eye jerky, you know? And the last time meat
looked like that in my refrigerator, honestly, I threw it away.

Mr. BITTMAN: Right.

BIANCULLI: But I thought, `Ok, I can sue you if it doesn't work. I can talk
to you about this or get some sort of'--anyway. Cooked them.

Mr. BITTMAN: You didn't throw it out, though. You cooked it.

BIANCULLI: I did not throw it out. I cooked it. And eating them side by
side, it was remarkably better.

Mr. BITTMAN: Well, how is this a scary question? You got me all nervous.

BIANCULLI: Yeah, well.

Mr. BITTMAN: But now you're telling me that...

BIANCULLI: Because I--it looked horrible.

Mr. BITTMAN: Yeah.

BIANCULLI: It looks horrible.

Mr. BITTMAN: Yeah. It does dry out.

BIANCULLI: And you didn't warn me in the recipe that it was going to look,
you know, inedible before you cooked it, but it was so much crustier and
crispier and better. So how did you figure that out?

Mr. BITTMAN: You know, refrigerators are pretty drying environment. And
that's why people hang meat in cool places, because you want to--if you think
about all the different meat preparations, the traditional ones of aging and
drying meat, they are things that people love. And a prosciutto, which is
essentially a dried ham, it's hung for 18 months and almost all the moisture
is leaving that. And if you think of dry, aged beef, that's exactly what it
is, dry, aged beef.

But my thinking in the refrigerator thing was not really to age the
meat--although that's something I want to try to play with at some point or
I've been threatening to play with at some point--my thinking was really, when
you are trying to brown a steak, especially in a home environment where you
often don't have the kind of high heat they have in restaurants, your biggest
enemy is moisture. And if you put a piece of meat on a rack in a
refrigerator, I figured it would dry out. And the whole thing's not going to
dry out. What's going to dry out is the outside.

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BITTMAN: And then it's going to take a crust really, really well.

BIANCULLI: Mark, let me ask you, what was the first cookbook you fell in love
with and why?

Mr. BITTMAN: There were a few, but I'd have to say that it was Paula Peck's
"Art of Good Cooking." Paula Peck was this woman in New York who was friends
with, well, what passed for foodies in those days, but was really kind of out
of the loop, and was, from all accounts--I never met her--from all accounts a
kind of unhappy housewife who decided she was going to take cooking a little
more seriously. She experimented quite a bit. She had a very good voice.
She wrote very, very clear recipes. And when something in the culinary canon
was nonsense, she said so. Hers was the first book that I kind of cooked
through cover to cover, and she did such radicals things as announcing that
boneless chicken breasts were a terrific substitute for veal scallopini.
Well, guess what? In those days people didn't--that wasn't--now you think of
veal scallopini as a substitute for chicken breasts, but in those days that
wasn't what happened. And she further announced that they cooked through in
six minutes. And when you told people you could cook chicken in six minutes,
you were telling them something that nobody knew.

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BITTMAN: And that was really remarkable. So those books, you can still
find Paula's books remaindered or in used book shops, because she also has
"The Art of Fine Baking," in which you will find the single best croissant
recipe ever printed, I believe. So if you want to know how to make
croissants, it's worth getting that book.

BIANCULLI: OK. Thanks very much for being here on FRESH AIR.

Mr. BITTMAN: It's been wonderful. Thank you, David.

GROSS: Mark Bittman's new book is called "How to Cook Everything Vegetarian."
He spoke to FRESH AIR's TV critic David Bianculli. David is also the TV
critic for tvworthwatching.com.

You can download podcasts of our show by going to our Web site,
freshair.npr.org.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

43:25

Black Power Scholar Illustrates How MLK And Malcolm X Influenced Each Other

In his book, The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., Peniel Joseph braids together the lives of the two civil rights leaders. He says that King and Malcolm X had "convergent visions" for Black America — but their strategies for how to reach the goal was informed by their different upbringings.

43:11

Veteran GOP Strategist Takes On Trump — And His Party — In 'It Was All A Lie'

In his new book, It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump, Stuart Stevens argues that the party's support for Trump isn't just a pragmatic choice. Instead, he says, it reflects the party's complete abandonment of principles it long claimed to embrace, such as fiscal restraint, personal responsibility and family values.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue