Sunday, July 27, 2014

Dan Barber's The Third Plate - a MUST READ

The Third Plate

I'm recommending that you read this book because I can't stand over you and demand that you read every page, which is what I really want to do.  Fortunately Barber is a good story teller, so it's not like I'm asking you to eat Twinkies every day for a  week.

Since Dan Barber is fairly local we should read this book in the spirit of supporting our home town boys, but there is a deeper reason. He's really got a perfect sequel to The Ominvore's Dilemma, not only in terms of the two books, but in terms of where food culture could go next. Pollan laid the groundwork for us to think about our food system being based on monoculture agribusiness and the dangers that underpin our current mainstream agricultural practices. Barber, a chef, discusses in fascinating ways the role of the chef (and I would emphasize also home cooks) in making diversity and organic methods in agriculture truly sustainable.

His thesis is that we've selected (he means chefs, but I think we're all culpable) a narrow range of foods and flavors as attractive and thus forced our  organic and sustainable producers into throwing away everything else or not bothering to produce foods that are unfashionable.  Small farmers have to make money too. He argues that our attempts to turn the ocean liner of modern agriculture around and into a system that will create sustainable food systems won't work unless we re-think what we are eating once again. We have to increase the variety of foods that are considered good, cool, hip and worth buying in order for our landscape to continue to be healthy. Diversity is essential to viable ecosystems. He especially charges chefs to take the lead and make unfashionable foods that are flavorful and nutritious into popular and attractive dishes.

For this book, he selects a few men (ahem)  who are basically dedicated fanatics. Each has taken the landscape, or perhaps more precisely, the ecosystem into consideration and with their full attention on flavor (something no large agribusiness corporation takes seriously) they have carefully cultivated and produced food that maintains a viable hearty ecosystem while producing food that Barber considers to be the world class standard of its kind in terms of deliciousness. The stories are engaging while being educational.  I bow to his knowledge and willingness to present his case.

Many of the stories involve farmers and producers who have looked back in time to older traditions and older varieties of foods, but a few involve modern breeders who are using contemporary techniques to produce varieties that are based on older stock, but that are essentially  new, expressing characteristics that have not been seen in the past.  Each man works with nature rather than attempting to dominate nature.

I think New York State is ripe for Barber's ideas. I hope the country will at least hear out his argument, although I know the power of huge agribusiness, and it's not like they are going belly-up any time soon. I hope you will see what he has to say, go to his restaurant, Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, New York, and start looking around for food that is grown sustainably, tastes great, and helps your local farmers sell the diversity of products they need to grow to keep our food landscape viable.

I've only captured a small portion of the valuable thinking in Barber's book.  So go buy it from a local bookseller and give a copy to all your friends.

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