It’s been more than eight years since I read “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan. For some reason, and as incongruous as this is, I remember reading part of it at a BW3s in the middle of eastern Ohio on my way home from my latest campaign excursion. Pollan’s book was important in many ways. It signaled the advent of a food culture and awareness that has blossomed and developed since the book was published. It’s led to copycat books up and down the spectrum–some offered new perspectives and some were poor imitations of the original. And it showed that it is possible to write beautifully about food.
Someone could probably argue that Pollan’s book wasn’t the original in this genre (it wasn’t) and someone else could argue that his theories have holes (they do), but anyone who denies the significance of the book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” isn’t being straight with you. It was a seminal book and I would highly recommend reading it.
This blog isn’t about “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” (though I would enjoy rereading it this year). It’s about Dan Barber’s “The Third Plate.” And the reason I lead with the background on Pollan is because I think Barber’s book, eight years later, is as important, as potentially trend-setting, and as impressively written as “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” Barber has added to the canon, as they say, and if you are interested in food and how we eat, you’ll want to read this book.
First, a bit about Dan Barber. He’s the chef-owner of Blue Hill restaurant in Manhattan. Blue Hill also has a restaurant at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, just about 45 minutes outside of NYC, where the chef and his colleagues grow and harvest much of the food they use at the restaurants. Much of “The Third Plate” centers around the innovative agricultural efforts that are inspiring the work at Stone Barns. I’ve been assured that the restaurant in NYC is excellent but the restaurant at Stone Barns is now on my list of places to visit in 2015.
Though Blue Hill would be described by most as a farm to table restaurant, Barber’s book recognizes the limitations and pitfalls of farm to table cooking. He gives chefs credit for working with local farms, but says that when they order specific types of products–say, carrots or grass-fed lamb–they are encouraging these products to be grown or raised, when instead the farmers might be better off raising or growing other products that are more sustainable to the natural environment.
Speaking in the language that some chefs may recognize, he’s encouraging chefs to adopt a different method of determining what foods to prepare and how to prepare them. He’s concerned about monocultures, about soil development, about a lack of diversity in grains, and about overfished oceans. Importantly, he’s also concerned about taste and flavor, which is where Barber’s talent as a writer really shines through.
Structurally, the book is similar to Pollan’s. It’s organized around four central themes: soil, land, sea and seed. He writes about growing heritage grains and more flavorful produce. He visits the dehesa in Spain, where he notes how the famous jamon iberica is raised. He learns about Bluefin Tuna fishermen, also in Spain, and meets others who are finding new and sustainable techniques to farm fish naturally. (The preface to his chapter on “sea” involves a humbling anecdote where he prepares Bluefin Tuna for food writers who send it back because it is not sustainable.) He writes about natural foie gras, better tasting meat that is a result of better cared for animals, and of course, about chicken.
Now, after reading that last paragraph, you might be thinking this is one of those books that imagines a food system that could feed maybe 6,000 people instead of the 6 billion plus that our global food system requires. I don’t think so. Barber isn’t off in la la land here, and that’s part of the beauty of the book. He takes readers along on the journey as he learns and explores our global food system, considering new approaches and asking questions that ultimately illuminate the challenges we face. In this book, he’s not a demagogue on GMOs or animal welfare, looking to pick fights with big food or Monsanto. It’s more of a gentle touch and thoughtful approach.
Ultimately, the theme of “The Third Plate” is the importance of–and current lack of–a local cuisine. He decries how we cook what we want and not what makes most sense for the land/environment. If we want carrots, that’s what we grow, even if the natural environment indicates we should be encouraging the growth of other vegetables to encourage soil development and the long-term health of the world we live in. He envisions a future in which we are better at cooking with all parts of the animal, where we eat different and unusual vegetables because they are improving the agricultural lands where we farm, and where we are more conscious of the impacts of what we eat.
I started this post with Pollan and so I am obviously putting the two authors in the same category. Pollan is not a chef and Barber is–and that’s why I think (hope?) “The Third Plate” will have lasting influence. Barber is laying the challenge down to fellow chefs rather than just consumers. He explains clearly how gourmet and high-end chefs drive trends that eventually go mainstream. When great local fish started showing up in the five-star NYC restaurants, it wasn’t long before America’s seafood consumption started rising. He is advocating for a chef-driven revolution that focuses not just on specific sustainable products, but on an overall American and local cuisine that can still feed the masses and at the same time respect the overall environment.
Even if you don’t buy all this, and believe me, I absolutely acknowledge some of the limitations in what Barber offers here, I think Barber should get credit for presenting simply wonderful writing about food and cuisine. His descriptions of tasting various foods made me hungry. He evokes the natural beauty of the world when he describes fields in Spain or farms in upstate New York. His English major got a workout for this book.
I highly recommend this book. But really I’m just looking forward to writing a followup post where I can rave on about the food I ate at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. One can hope.
Thanks for reading.