Of food for the planet and for our plates

TheThirdPlate_JKFThe Third Plate by Dan Barber is a book that explores and celebrates a revolutionary way of growing food and of cooking and eating it . Revolutionary, yet old. Perhaps many of our revolutions are that, when you consider the etymology of the word, from the Latin, revolvere, ‘roll back’.

Dan Barber is “the Chef of Blue Hill, a restaurant in Manhattan’s West Village, and Blue Hill at Stone Barns, located within the nonprofit farm and education center, Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture.” He is renowned and awarded as a chef, and The Third Plate is on the New York Times bestseller list.

First, an explanation of the title, from the New York Times review:

This cryptic title alludes to Mr. Barber’s whimsical response when a magazine asked him to show, in a sketch, what Americans would be eating in 35 years. Mr. Barber drew three plates illustrating the recent evolution of the American diet.

The first showed a seven-ounce corn-fed steak with steamed baby carrots. The second reflected the farm-to-table values that Mr. Barber has championed for years, with grass-fed steak and heirloom carrots grown in organic soil. The third plate, a look into the future, offered a slab of carrot “steak” with a sauce of braised second cuts of beef.

The dominance of vegetable rather than meat, and the emphasis on using all the parts of an animal, not just the prime ones, are clues to this way of producing food, where animals are adjunct to growing grains and vegetables, rather than the top of the hierarchy, and the balance of nature is respected. Here is an excerpt from the book’s web page:

While the ‘third plate’ is a novelty in America, Barber demonstrates that this way of eating is rooted in worldwide tradition. He explores the time-honored farming practices of the southern Spanish dehesa, producing high-grade olives, acorns, cork, wool, and the renowned jamón ibérico. Off the Straits of Gibraltar, Barber investigates the future of seafood through a revolutionary aquaculture operation and an ancient tuna-fishing ritual. In upstate New York, Barber learns from a flourishing mixed-crop farm whose innovative organic practices have revived the land and resurrected an industry. And in Washington State he works with cutting-edge seedsmen developing new varieties of grain in collaboration with local bakers, millers, and malt makers. Drawing on the wisdom and experience of chefs and farmers from around the world, Barber builds a dazzling panorama of ethical and flavorful eating destined to refashion Americans’ deepest beliefs about food.

The title is a criticism of his own practice as a chef, and that of the farm-to-table practice that has become the catchword for alternative food production and eating (away from processed, packaged, imported foods, chemically grown and genetically altered, machine-processed, denatured, altered, sterilised, lifeless…). Farm to table has moved to grass fed, free range, organic, heirloom varieties, locally grown where possible. All good, but not good enough, according to Barber, for this reason:

“The larger problem, as I came to see it, was that farm-to-table allows, even celebrates, a kind of cherry-picking of ingredients that are often ecologically demanding and expensive to grow.”

So Barber set out on a quest, which took him to Spain, where a radical farmer raises wild geese who graze at will on local acorns; happy, relaxed birds, the farmer swears, produce fatty livers; in contrast to the force-fed geese of France. Barber attests that the wild geese livers’ flavour far outstrips that of the artificially fed geese. Also in Spain, a seafood chef converts him to cooking and eating lesser fish than the endangered bluefin tuna and sea bass, and parts of them normally thrown away. As for grains, Barber devotes  a lot of text to wheat, and discovers that wheat grown as a monoculture, bred to increase yield and milled to produce stable white flour that can be stored for long periods and shipped long distances, by stripping it of the germ and bran, has resulted in a product lacking in flavour and nutrition; efficient, but lacking the germ, “the vital, living element of wheat and the bran”, an essential source of fibre. Barber explores the qualities of ancient strains of wheat, like emmer and spelt, grown in synergy with grains like oats, rye and barley, and discovers the promise of a renaissance in locally grown grain, grown in small amounts as part of crop rotations, a middle way that combines heirloom varieties (high in flavour but low in yield) with improved modern, regional varieties that are selected for disease resistance and flavour.

And so the story goes on, weaving together dozens of smaller stories, yarns with passionate, pragmatic farmers and experimenters who have in common a passion for the land, for nature’s diversity, and the joys of producing and eating fresh flavourful food. Barber is a great story teller, and engages with colourful, eccentric characters who could talk the leg off an old iron pot. The story is masterfully told, and one can take from it some inspiration and hope for ways of growing and preparing food that don’t destroy the nature that feeds us. Yet, as his New York Times reviewer points out, he is “up against the massed armies of modern agribusiness” like Monsanto and the commercial interests of the industries of farming and fishing that are working to deplete and exhaust, perhaps extinguish, the life forms we depend on.

What the book advocates is no simple solution. It is a way of producing food and preparing and eating it that respects the food’s origins and the connection of all life. As diners, we should accept what our local environment offers us, not demand food out of season and out of place, like oranges from California or frozen berry fruits from China. His emphasis, as a chef and restaurateur, is on cuisine, but one can step back from the end result, the plate, and look at the process, and apply it to the way we produce food, or, if we don’t own a garden or plot of land, to the way we shop for it. Looking for wholeness, for vitality, for diversity not sameness, for freshness and flavour, not cheapness and reliability. A way of living that honours agriculture that’s in harmony with nature and uses the by-products of a plant or an animal rather than discarding them. A revolution, which is in some ways, a return to the way our ancestors grew and ate food.

A good read, and an important book which is sure to spawn many conversations and inspire some changes in the way we live.


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