I recently gave birth to a tiny human in January which has resulted in being awake at such random intervals that the only sensible thing is to finally read (a few pages at a time) the long list of books on my shelves that I’ve saved for a rainy day. How many of us enter a book store and really have the strength to buy just one book? I find myself spiralling by the third bookshelf and god help me if there is a sale of my favourites on a center table. I will emerge with several volumes of work but between work and life these books may languish away in my library or be set aside as the newest purchase/release/twitter/blog/article recommendation steals my attention away. This was sadly the fate of Dan barber’s book The Third Plate when I initially bought it. It wasn’t until a 4am feeding that while watching NETFLIX’s Chef’s Table episode with Dan Barber that I turned again to the bookshelves and pulled out The Third Plate.
Chef Barber runs both Blue Hill in Manhattan, NY and Blue Hill at Stone Farms in Pocantico Hills, NY. Blue Hill in Manhattan was defined early by food critic Jonathan Goldstein as a farm-to-table experience. A concept that every millennial has grown up with but was popularized in large part to Chef Barber. Blue Hill at Stone Farms is a non-profit farm and educational center with Blue Hill restaurant featuring the produce and highlighting local cuisine. So to say the Dan Barber cares about flavour found in seasonal produce and the future of farming is an overwhelming understatement. His book The Third Plate focuses on “a new paradigm of American eating where good farming and good cooking intersect”.
Barber broke his book into four sections: soil, land, sea and seed. Not only is that perfect for a sleepy new mother (easier to focus on a highly organized topic when one can only reading a few pages between feedings) but it allows the reader to look at a very interconnected topic through specific pinholes. Each section uses personal experiences in Chef Barber’s career to highlight the science and introduce his experts which include farmers, writers, chefs and scientists. Instead of feeling like a lecture between two covers, The Third Plate feels like the conversations you have around a table post dinner several bottles of wine into the night.
It was his stories speckled throughout the book that kept bringing me back to my favourite parts of the Little House series. He discusses hay, livestock, weather, soil quality, even the Homestead Act. Which immediately brought me back to Laura tossing a pig’s bladder to Mary during butchery, Pa breaking sod for oats, the dash to stake out prairie claims in the spring. It was reminiscing between the two books that my disdain for the popular understanding of farm-to-table began. All restaurants use farms to bring food to the table. It may be a monoculture farm using genetically modified seed that you disagree with… but still a farm. It’s the modern farms using a symbiotic relationship between their crops or crops and animals that Chef Barber leans into. The chickens helping to spread the cows’ manure which improves the soil, the cows grazing the pasture which tramples down the leaves/dead foliage, the goats eating the brambles and encroaching weeds instead of using chemical sprays to ward back the forest from your crops. Laura and her sisters grew up on a sustainable farm in Dakota territory before it became popular due to Michael Pollan and chef TED Talks. Little Town on the Prairie shows cows grazing, chickens hiding their chicks, Pa planting corn and oats while Laura is weeding away the rows of radishes, greens, peas and onions.
The Ingalls & Wilder families are farm-to-table inadvertently as their diet was “about seasonality, locality and direct relationship with your farmer”. The agricultural landscape was changing though around Laura during her lifetime. Family farms began to shift into giant agribusiness and feed lots. This modern farm system produced an abundance and lowered costs which our pioneer ancestors may have envied but it also produced “eroding soils, falling water tables for irrigation, collapsing fisheries, shrinking forests and deteriorating grasslands”. The very prairies that the Ingalls built their claim shanty on would suffer from the influx of settlers displacing the native grass with seeds from back East. Farm-to-table emerged as a movement to celebrate the farmers and unplug from the conventional farming system that was creating to much periphery havoc. Standing in the center of the now popularized movement Dan found however that “the larger problem […] is that farm-to-table allows, even celebrates, a kind of cherry-picking of ingredients that are often ecologically demanding and expensive to grow”. Dan Barber creates a strong case looking through his chapters of soil, land, sea and seed to move beyond the biodiverse farms of the Ingalls and push Americans into a soil to tail diversity on their plates not yet experienced. From producing a sterile or dystopian vision we would create a uniquely American cuisine. “The very best cuisines -French, Italian, and Chinese, among others -were built around this idea. In most cases, the limited offerings of peasant farming meant that grains or vegetables assumed center stage, with a smattering of meat, often lesser cuts such as neck or shank. Classic dishes emerged—pot-au-feu in French cuisine, polenta in Italian, paella in Spanish—to take advantage of what the land could supply”.
I’m enjoying The Third Plate immensely and it’s become a remarkable jumping point in conversation between my husband and I in planning out this years garden. How will we be eating this summer and fall and do we stretch ourselves out of our comfort zone. I’ll post pictures on Instagram throughout the season and comment below with your recipes or gardening advice.
Barber, Dan. The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food. Penguin Books, New York 2014.