Book Review: Dan Barber’s The Third Plate

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The Third Plate by Dan BarberThe Third Plate is a book about how eating responsibly can make food taste way more delicious.

This is not a typical Feral Cuisine post.  I’m not showcasing a fast recipe, or curating tips on kitchen streamlining, or even outlining a busy dude’s workout plan.  Instead, this post is about how what we eat impacts the world around us, and how we can do better, and how that opportunity to do better is really frikkin’ exciting.

I touch on this subject ideologically a lot, because just the act of getting in the kitchen and cooking from scratch (instead of relying on convenience and fast foods) fosters a deeper awareness of the food we eat.  But I just finished reading a book that delves much deeper, and comes to a really badass conclusion.

Dan Barber’s The Third Plate is based around an idea that should be obvious but had to be pointed out to me: the fact that ‘Eating is an agricultural act.’ 1  That is to say, by the very act of eating, we are participants in the system of agriculture that provided the food.  What we buy influences, even dictates what the agricultural system provides.

The American agricultural system is… well… f***ed.  We used petroleum-derived fertilizers to feed vast fields of corn, wheat, and soybean clones, all engineered solely for yield, then we put all that grain through the laboratory factory, which breaks it down and repackages it as processed food products.  Or we feed the grain to animals raised in factory farms with barely room to move, squashed together by the thousands, then slaughter them with callous mechanical regularity.  Almost all of our vegetables are grown in California’s Central Valley in similar monoculture style, again using plant breeds built for yield rather than nutrition or flavor.

The problem is reflected in our health, as well.  Barber puts it so: ‘Rising rates of food-borne illnesses, malnutrition, and diet-related diseases such as obesity and diabetes are traced, at least in part, to our mass production of food'(p9).

This is not new territory; books like Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma 2 and Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation 3 have loudly publicized the many sins of the American food system, and Dan Barber takes it for granted that his audience is familiar with the problems caused by modern industrial agriculture.  But instead of using that stance to blandly trumpet the joys of organic farming or heritage tomato breeds, he makes a much more interesting proposition: that new, regional cuisines must be invented, based off of what the land is built to support.

Barber is the chef and co-owner of the Blue Hill at Stone Barns, a restaurant located on the grounds of the Stone Barns Center For Food and Agriculture, a non-profit farm and research center for sustainable agriculture.  The Blue Hill restaurant centers around products from the Stone Barns farm, which are incomparably fresh because of the restaurant’s proximity to the farm; restaurant guests can literally look out the window and see where the food they’re eating was grown.  The Blue Hill system is the epitome of farm-to-table dining.

But Barber believes that this is not enough.  The farm-to-table movement, he says, fails in that it bases the demands from the land upon the preferences of the eater.

Farm-to-table chefs may claim to base their cooking on whatever the farmer’s cooked that day… but whatever the farmer has picked that day is really about an expectation of what will be purchased that day.  Which is really about an expected way of eating.  It forces farmers into growing crops like zucchini and tomatoes (requiring lots of real estate and soil nutrients) or into raising enough lambs to sell mostly just the chops, because if they don’t, the chef, or even the enlightened shopper, will simply buy from another farmer.

 

Farm-to-table may sound right–it’s direct and connected–but really the farmer ends up servicing the table, not the other way around.  p15

For most of human history, Barber notes, food creation happened in the opposite direction: ‘We foraged and then, out of sheer necessity, transformed what we found into something else–something more digestible and storable, with better nutrition and flavor'(p12).  His hope is that new regional cuisines, based around what the land can sustainably provide, will be created.  He calls this concept the Third Plate.

The Third Plate idea is based around Barber’s sketch of how Americans eat.  The first plate he describes is a corn-fed steak with a side of steamed carrots.  Classic 1950’s style meal, based around industrially agriculture.  The second plate is a grass fed steak, with a side of heirloom carrots.  We’re moving into more ecologically aware territory now, but the paradigm of a prime cut being the focal point is still very active.  Barber sees this second plate as the point we are now at.

The Third Plate is Barber’s vision of the future.  He sketches a carrot steak, topped with beef sauce made from the less desirable cuts of meat.  Now, this doesn’t sound terribly appetizing to me, and Barber recognizes that this is not a direct vision of what food will look like in thirty years.  But it represents a paradigm shift, away from a focus on steaks on chicken breasts and salmon fillets, into a food system that incorporates all the plants, all the animals, all the parts of a place: an entire ecosystem.

Most of the books involves Barber’s discoveries of and talks with farmers who are breaking industrial molds.  There’s Klaas Martens growing wheat without chemicals in New York State, Eduardo Sousa managing a system that produces all-natural foie gras without any force feeding in the Spanish countryside, a Mediterranean fish farm built around and in and through a wetlands nature preserve, the farm enriching the preserve and vice versa. Barber fills the book with stories from these farmers; some broke away from conventional farming, some (such as Eduardo Sousa in the Spanish dehesa 4) farm in an ecologically conscious manner because that’s the way that their culture operates already.

There are stories of successful local cuisines (the Carolina Rice Kitchen) and plant breeders (Anson Mills’ Glen Roberts and Dr. Steve Jones at Washington State University 5) and chefs turning industry castoffs into fine dining (Ángel León’s work with trash fish at Restaurante Aponiente).  Barber examines all of parts of an environment that go into its cuisine, from soil to plant to animal to water.

I do not recommend this book for its quality of writing (though Barber’s writing is quite good).  I do not recommend this book for the stories (though they are very interesting).  I recommend The Third Plate because the central idea of new regional cuisines is FREAKING AWESOME.  

‘We need to eat more sustainably…’  Probably true but really boring.  

‘Industrial agriculture is killing the planet!’  Sure, yeah, maybe debatable, but what do we do about it?

‘We can create a whole new way of eating, a way of using all of the stuff the land around us can provide, and the resulting food will be way more delicious than anything we are eating now.’  

Um… YES.  

I am behind that.  All of me.  I want to figure out what the hell a regional Kansas City cuisine would look like, and what would make it different from food everywhere else, and what the river would provide, and what kind of crops the area supports well, and how we can uniquely incorporate soil-building plants like pulses into dishes…

Excuse my gnurditude.

So because of this book, there’s going to be some drift in the focus of Feral Cuisine.  My number one priority is still getting dudes in the kitchen, cooking from scratch, using fast and cheap recipes.  But I’m starting to look for ways to incorporate locally grown foods and open up conversations on historic and future foods of the Kansas City region.

There’s one premise of Dan Barber’s book where I disagree with him.  Barber is a chef, and his focus is on promoting regional cuisine creation in the restaurant sphere, where it can eventually filter down to the popular and common.

I am the poor.  I am the common.  And I am going to be a part of creating this new cuisine from the ground up.  A new way of eating: fast, cheap, delicious, and healthy for both me and the land around me.  I am looking for any and all input on this: bloggers, chefs, farmers, home cooks.  If you want to talk, shoot me an email at josh@feralcuisine.com.  And if you’re as excited about all this as I am, sign up for my mailing list so we can keep up with each other!



This is a really exciting time to be an eater, guys.  : D

-Josh is listening to Queen

Notes:

  1. This is a quote from Wendell Berry, an American novelist and nonfiction writer who is today known mostly for providing that quote.  I’m sure he did a lot of other great stuff, too.
  2. Which is a great book.
  3. Which is… pretty good… I think.  I’m pretty sure I’ve read it.  I don’t actually totally remember.  A lot has happened in the last few years.  What I’m saying is, if you read it and it sucks, don’t blame me.
  4. An agricultural region and farming style in Spain that Barber notes for the relationship it fosters between the natural and farmed environments.
  5. A search on Dr. Jones’ name while I was researching this article turned up The Bread Lab, the discovery of which opens up a whole new avenue of nerdery to me…

Say something crazy!