In an earlier post Summertime Reading, I had recommended Dan Barker’s The Third Plate, and having bought a copy myself, I can wholeheartedly recommend it. Farming is no different from gardening – both involve a human relationship with the environment and both In recent years, the locavore movement has gained significant traction in United States as farmers market and restaurants have sprung up to accommodate the public demand for local, sustainable food and cuisine. Alice Waters, the mastermind behind Berkeley’s Chez Panisse and the nationwide Edible Schoolyard program, was one of the early proponents for organic and healthy food sourced from a network of local farmers and producers, and her influence is still felt today in today’s farm-to-table ethos (one would argue that Italian and other European immigrants had been eating their food this way – I remember visiting this Italian family in northern Long Island where vegetables and fruits, save for meats and dry goods, were produced on-site. It was always a treat to see the grapes ripening from the arbor, the endless rows of plum tomatoes for saucing, and unusual greens). At his eponymous restaurant Blue Hills in New York City and upstate New York, Dan Barber takes this philosophy to a obsessive level of detail.
The title ‘The Third Plate’ takes its name from a survey prominent chefs were asked to depict and describe the future plate, and Barber envisions the third plate as a carrot dish flavored with sauce made from secondary cuts. Industrialized agriculture exemplifies the first plate – the 7-ounce corn-fed and a vegetable side like potatoes or carrots, and the farm-to-table movement characterizes the second plate – the free range sustainable steak and organic carrots. Barber points out that these two plates are essentially the same – the protein as the big portion, the vegetables as the small portion. As the world’s population grows, raising meat to sustain the masses will likely be untenable, taxing the earth’s already strained resources. Rather than nourishing ourselves in a healthy manner, we continue to subsist heavily on meat, including seafood, at the expense of vegetables. Barber recognizes the challenges of swaying people into eating more vegetables when flavor has been mostly sacrificed, and the elevated prices charged at Blue Hills only reach a subset of the US population who won’t balk at paying $95 for a set course.
The book is divided into four sections -‘Soil’, ‘Land’, ‘Sea’, and ‘Seed’, all of which brim with food history, memorable characters, and environmental sensibility. ‘Soil’ is best encapsulated in Barber’s succinct point: “How soil is managed and how a farmer negotiates weeds and pests, is the single best predictor of how food will taste.” For ‘Land’, Barber travels to the dehesa, the cultivated agricultural landscapes of Spain where the famous jamón ibérico is made from Iberian pigs cavorting underneath century-old oaks and natural foie gras from naturally-reared geese. ‘Sea’ focuses in Spain too, this time at a fish farm Veta la Palma that merges ecological stewardship with delicious fish production. ‘Seed’ drills in the danger of our dependency on a few narrowly genetic crops and the beauty of embracing diversity to address food shortages and broaden the flavor profiles of food.
Barber simply wants us readers to advocate a more holistic food-to-table philosophy – rather than buying the ‘charismatic’ vegetables like sweet corn and tomatoes or fruits like strawberries, we consider cooking with more ‘experimental’ grains and greens like emmer wheat and mustard greens. Because the ‘charismatic’ vegetables are hungry feeders, they take a lot from the soil and require the farmers to compensate for the output. Only do a rotational basis of grains and greens that rehabilitate or maintain the soil’s health and fertility will modern farming be more meaningful and ecologically sound.
What will a Blue Hills tasting menu look like in 2050? Its six courses include a farmed trout with farmed phytoplankton and a parsnip steak with a Bordelaise sauce wrested out of grass-fed beef bones. This menu gives genuine momentum to Barber’s vision in the Third Plate.