PETER SAGAL, HOST:
And now the game where we ask somebody who knows a lot to answer questions about something else. Mark Bittman isn't a celebrity chef. He doesn't own a famous restaurant. He doesn't even have a cooking show, but he wrote what must be the most popular cookbook in America right now called "How to Cook Everything." Almost everybody has it, and when they take out their copy, it falls open to the page that explains how to boil water.
SAGAL: Mark Bittman, welcome to WAIT, WAIT...DON'T TELL ME!
SAGAL: It is true. You probably are the most popular cookbook author in America right now just by the ubiquity of "How to Cook Everything" and its related books. But you didn't even start out being a chef, right?
MARK BITTMAN: No, I started out being a writer.
SAGAL: Right. And the story was that you started in the food industry as a restaurant critic?
BITTMAN: Well, I actually started in the food industry as a cab driver, but I talked my way into...
BITTMAN: ...being a restaurant critic, yes.
SAGAL: How did you do that?
BITTMAN: I got some advice from a guy. And I went into an editor, and I said, I want to be your restaurant critic. And he said, I already have a restaurant critic, and I said, I'm better. That's sort of the story.
SAGAL: What do you mean, sort of the story?
BITTMAN: Well, there were some words that might not be best used on your show exchanged during that conversation.
SAGAL: You mean you said something profane about their current restaurant critic?
FAITH SALIE: And that got you hired?
SAGAL: And that got you hired?
BITTMAN: Well, you know, arrogance can go a long way sometimes, yeah.
SAGAL: But I mean, were you one of those people - and I'm assuming this was some years ago - that you were one of these young people who walked into a restaurant and just...
BITTMAN: No, this was 18 months ago.
SAGAL: Oh, my God, you've had a career.
SAGAL: No, I mean, were you one of those people who'd go into restaurants and turn up your nose, oh, this plating is terrible. And you're like, dude, we're in a McDonald's. It's in a piece of paper.
BITTMAN: Actually, this was almost 35 years ago. There was no such thing as plating, and the food in restaurants was so bad that I quickly converted the so-called restaurant reviewing column into a cooking column.
SAGAL: Really? So you found...
SUSAN EISEMAN LEVITIN: And so how - you started cooking just because you didn't like the food you were getting in restaurants?
BITTMAN: No, I started cooking because I didn't like the food I was getting at Clark University.
SAGAL: Really? Well, what was your first recipe back when you were a college student trying to learn to cook?
BITTMAN: Well, actually, a friend I lived with and I took the rack out of the oven and placed it on top of the burners on the stove, took them on and grilled hamburgers on top of the stove.
BITTMAN: Thus inventing the gas grill.
SAGAL: Wow. That was you.
BITTMAN: That was us. Sadly, we didn't patent that (unintelligible).
SALIE: And was that friend named George Foreman?
BITTMAN: No, but that's good, close.
SAGAL: And given all the cooking that you must do, you must have an amazing kitchen.
BITTMAN: Well, I live in Manhattan, so I have a kitchen that's about 45 square feet, which, yeah, seven by seven like that.
SAGAL: Let's just say the hamburgers get grilled on top of the stove still.
CARL KASELL: Yeah.
SAGAL: So you - I mean, I have looked through "How to Cook Everything." How many recipes are in that book?
BITTMAN: Well, something around 1,500.
SAGAL: Fifteen hundred recipes. And I'm assuming you made every one of those dishes, right?
BITTMAN: Several times.
SAGAL: Did you find friends who would come over and eat all this food that you were making?
BITTMAN: Well, people are always happy to eat food, yes.
SAGAL: That's true. Were people, like, hanging around your door going what everything are you cooking today?
LUKE BURBANK: Shouldn't the book be called "How to Cook Everything That Mark Bittman Could Pull Off?"
BITTMAN: That's sort of what I said. But it is what it is.
ALONZO BODDEN: Now, Mark, to me, you sound more like a real cook, more like an everyday guy than a chef or an artist or anything. Now, speaking as a guy who can't cook at all and who doesn't - I'm just a bachelor who eats out all the time - if I bought your book, could I just go in the kitchen and make a meal?
BITTMAN: Yeah, you could start. I mean, I really am not a chef. I've never been a chef, and I don't even think I'm that good a cook, but I'm a pretty good cook. And the range of things you can produce being a pretty good cook is quite wide.
SAGAL: So, I mean, is there anything that you're spectacularly good at? Like, this is my specialty? It's like somebody important was coming over?
BITTMAN: You know, no, it's actually all kind of mediocre, but...
SAGAL: We're doing a hell of a job of selling your cookbooks, but go on.
BITTMAN: But the level of expertise in home cooking has sunk so low that I've managed to kind of rise to the top.
SAGAL: There is - there's a tone sometimes of exasperation in your recipes. Like I make your pancake recipe sometimes for my kids, and you say this is so simple, it's amazing people use a mix. Like, what's wrong with you fools?
BITTMAN: Well, everything that we know as packaged and processed food has been invented in the last 100 years. Until that, all of those other humans cooked everything that they ate. So...
BITTMAN: Were they so much smarter than us? I don't think so.
SAGAL: You mean, so they actually made their Oreos from scratch?
BITTMAN: Exactly. That's exactly right, Peter, yes.
BURBANK: As a single dad, at times in my life, that whole making a pancake and adding a couple ears on it...
BODDEN: Oh, yeah.
BURBANK: ...that was all I had.
SALIE: Oh, yeah.
SAGAL: That was my number one move, so don't hate on that.
BITTMAN: Well, the ears are tricky, I'd agree.
SAGAL: The ears are a pain.
SAGAL: Well, Mark Bittman, we're delighted to talk to you. We've asked you here to play a game we're calling...
KASELL: Holy Bittman, Batman.
SAGAL: We're sure this happens...
BITTMAN: Wait, I thought this was - what was the stuff we were doing until now?
SAGAL: Oh, no.
SAGAL: That was just the amiable chat.
BITTMAN: That was the formal interview.
SAGAL: So we're sure this happens to you a lot with a name like Bittman being mistaken for the Caped Crusader, the world's greatest detective, the Dark Knight. So we're going to ask you three questions about Batman, specifically the movie, "Batman and Robin." That was the one with George Clooney as Batman, and it is widely regarded as the very worst...
SALIE: Is that the one...
SAGAL: ...of all the modern Batman films.
SALIE: Is that the one where Batman had nipples?
SAGAL: That is the one.
BITTMAN: That answers the first question.
SALIE: I am never inviting you back, Faith. Answer...
SAGAL: ...two questions correctly, and you'll win our prize.
SALIE: Oh, my God, I'm so sorry. And that's all I know about it.
SAGAL: Yeah, thank you, Faith.
SALIE: I'm so sorry.
SAGAL: Well, we'll go through this anyway.
SAGAL: Answer two questions correctly, and you'll win our prize for one of our listeners, Carl's voice on their voicemail.
SAGAL: Carl, who is Mark Bittman playing for?
KASELL: Mark is playing for Leanna Malkowski of Colorado Springs, Colorado.
BITTMAN: Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, I win and Leanna gets Carl Kasell's voice on her voicemail?
BITTMAN: What do I get?
SAGAL: You get the satisfaction of a job well done.
BITTMAN: We (unintelligible) get your voice on my voicemail.
KASELL: I just left.
SAGAL: So the movie was horrifically panned by the critics when it came out, but one of the things that got fans especially angry was what? Was it: A, Batman is shown sleeping while hanging upside down; B, sexy Catwoman was replaced by a character called Crazy Cat Lady; or C, nipples on the bat suits?
BITTMAN: Guess I'll take a flyer with C.
SAGAL: You would be correct.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
SAGAL: Don't know how you could've known that, but yes.
SAGAL: Director Joel Schumacher said, quote, "that he had no idea that putting nipples in the Bat suit and Robin's suit was going to spark international headlines."
BITTMAN: Wait, it wasn't their nipples, it was on the suit?
BITTMAN: So their nipples were hidden, but they put new nipples on the suits.
SAGAL: They were fake...
BITTMAN: I might have to try that.
SAGAL: So, anyway, the making of featurette that came with the "Batman and Robin" DVD is quite amazing. Among other things, it may be the only making of featurette ever made that features what: A, a laugh track; B, an interview with an actor playing the lead actor, George Clooney, because George Clooney wanted nothing to do with it; or C, a sincere apology from the movie's director?
BITTMAN: You know, I don't really care what the right answer is.
BITTMAN: But I got to go with B because I just love that.
SAGAL: The idea that an actor played George Clooney talking about playing Batman because Clooney wouldn't do it?
SAGAL: Oh, I would...
BITTMAN: That's right, isn't it?
SAGAL: No, it's actually the sincere apology from the director.
SAGAL: Joel Schumacher...
BITTMAN: Kind of the same thing really.
SAGAL: Almost. Schumacher says, quote, "If I disappointed fans in any way, I really want to apologize," unquote. So last question - this is exciting, thanks to Faith, you got one right.
SAGAL: Schumacher says that part of the problem in making the movie was the studio pressure. He was told by the studio to make the movie more what: A, mega-fun; B, toyetic; or C, crappy?
BITTMAN: Has to be mega-fun, doesn't it?
SAGAL: Mega-fun? You think that they got the direction, make this movie not just fun but mega-fun? They don't like it. Faith is shaking...
BITTMAN: What do they think? They think crappy?
SAGAL: So you have choices, mega-fun, toyetic or crappy.
BITTMAN: I told you, mega-fun.
SAGAL: You're going to go for mega-fun even though the audience...
BITTMAN: I don't care if you give me hints that I'm wrong. I think that's what it should be.
SAGAL: So you're going to...
SAGAL: So despite...
BURBANK: Your brash, unfounded confidence worked to get you one job, and now it's your whole move.
SAGAL: It is.
SAGAL: Your choice was mega-fun. I'm sorry to say, a little bit, that it's wrong.
SAGAL: The real answer was toyetic.
BITTMAN: How could that be?
SAGAL: Because the movie studio wanted to make sure that the movie had the maximum number of possibilities to make and sell toys, thus...
BITTMAN: Oh, toyetic.
SAGAL: What did you think I was saying?
BITTMAN: I thought you were saying toyetic.
BITTMAN: I just was hung up on mega-fun, so yeah, I'm sorry.
SAGAL: Mega-fun is - no, that's all right. Carl, how did Mark Bittman do on our quiz?
KASELL: He had one correct answer, but he needed at least two to win for Leanna Malkowski.
SAGAL: Oh, well.
BITTMAN: Carl, come on.
SAGAL: Mark Bittman is the food columnist for the New York Times and the author of the fantastic "How to Cook Everything" cookbook, which I have used to make hollandaise sauce every Christmas for the last decade. His latest book is "V-B-6: Vegan Before 6:00." Mark Bittman, thank you so much for joining us.
BITTMAN: Great fun.
SAGAL: Great to talk to you. Take care.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SAGAL: In just a minute, we're finding Nemo a tissue in the listener Limerick challenge. Call 1-888-Wait-Wait to join us on the air.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.