Mama Madison: Move over, Julia Child

Mark Bittman taught my family to cook

Mark Bittman is our family's version of an American folk hero. Sure, myth has it Paul Bunyan dug the Grand Canyon with just his ax and an ox. And Pecos Bill, they say, could ride anything, even a tornado. But neither could have pulled off the same impressive feat that the professional food writer and cookbook author did at our place a few years back.

Because of him, we actually have fresh, homemade meals a lot more often now.

And as those who know me well, or frankly, know me at all, know, I'm not the one cooking them.

It all began during the holiday season of 2010. As appropriate for Hanukkah, this miracle also involved oil -- for cooking, though, as opposed to sacred lighting. This was the year my sister, instead of a predictable iTunes gift card, gave my then 13-year-old son a shiny hardcover copy of Bittman's How to Cook Everything.

And with it everything changed.

I think it was the "everything" part of the title that so enthralled my son. If you'd told him this book would help him with desserts only, or braising, or how to measure a cup of flour, I don't think the fascination would have been quite so intense. But this was a culinary opus, a full-on dissertation ---the Completely Revised Tenth Anniversary Edition, no less. Within days we were having Sweet Baked Omelets for weekend breakfasts and leftover Stir Fried Chicken with Black Beansfor lunch.

That first week we had fresh homemade pasta with fresh homemade Bolognese meat sauce for dinner. I'm not sure we'd ever had two fully fresh things on our plates before, not to mention the salad. My son actually got so good in the kitchen a neighbor mom with similar feelings towards baking as I have commissioned him to prepare a pineapple upside down cake, her husband's favorite, for his 46th birthday celebration.

So when Hanukkah 2011 rolled around, it made perfect sense for my mother to give him How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. And lo and behold we were eating things like tofu and seitan with regularity. And genuinely enjoying them.

Both volumes are now on permanent display in our home, much the same way another family might honor an heirloom Bible or a signed, first edition of a favorite book. Side by side they sit, one red, one green, and both flour-coated (my son is a remarkably messy chef) to remind of us the day that things changed forever at family mealtime.

And as far as I know Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill have never appeared in Madison before. But Monona Terrace is exactly where our hero will be Saturday, April 21, to deliver the keynote at this year's Isthmus Green Day event.

Bittman will be addressing conscious eating and the connection between diet, health and the environment. In essence, he will try to change the way we think about food.

And it's no tall tale to say that for my family he already has.

And if he could get me cooking? Well, that would truly be the stuff legends are made of.

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