At a Glance
Title: The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food
Author: Dan Barber
Publisher: The Penguin Press
Release Date: 2014
Cover Price: $29.95
Target Audience: Hobby farmers and home cooks interested in the American food system as a whole; anyone who desires a wholesome, natural and integrated path from farm to table for their food
How much do you really know about your food? Sure, you know an awful lot about the heirloom tomatoes you pulled off the vine this week, and you may be cognizant of everything that went into raising and processing the grassfed lamb chop you’re preparing for dinner, but how much do you know about the flour you dredge the chop in before you sauté it? Or the vinegars and spices you use in dressings for your homegrown salad? What about the yogurt, mint and lemon you’re using to sauce your lamb? Chances are, not much.
Early in his manifesto on the past, present and future of American cuisine and agriculture, The Third Plate, renowned chef Dan Barber comes to a similar realization as he watches his kitchen staff wind down after a busy evening of cooking. Only days earlier, he had spoken to a local wheat farmer about how wheat was so closely tied to our American culinary identity—56 million acres of American farmland are currently used for wheat production—yet we care so little about it, and as he observes his staff dust meat with flour before cooking and fill a 50-pound flour bin for the second time that day, he truly comprehends the omnipresence of wheat in the American restaurant kitchen and the average consumer’s ignorance of its farming practices.
"As the owner of a farm-to-table restaurant—actually a restaurant in the middle of a farm—I’ve gone on and on (and on and on) about local fruits and vegetables with no more apologies for repetition than a peanut vendor in a ballpark,” Barber writes. "We root around obsessively for all these things because they taste better, and we know the people, and the practices, that produced them. The soft, white dust dumped into the container in twice a day was the most generic thing in our kitchen, but I knew more about the construction of our stove than how the flour had been farmed.”
This "odd duality” of wheat led Barber on a journey of culinary discovery from the forests and fields of the Spanish dehesas to mixed-crop farms in Washington and New York states. He’s collected his findings and synthesized them into an illuminating mix of memoir and analysis that never slips into preachy, boring discussion. The Third Plate is very much in the vein of Michael Pollan’s best work—The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Cooked, et cetera—which is high compliment: Pollan is in a food-writer category all his own.
Barber tackles a difficult subject with aplomb—it would be very easy to sit back and call out everything that is wrong with the American food system from a pedestal on high, but he frequently outlines "mistakes” that he has made in the past, and his critiques herald a desire for change, not an empty condemnation. One of the most enjoyable parts of The Third Plate, however, is seeing Barber’s overwhelming passion for food.
"I am reminded that truly flavorful food involves a recipe more complex than anything I can conceive in a kitchen,” he writes. "A bowl of polenta that warms your senses and lingers in your memory becomes as straightforward as a mound of corn and as complex as the system that makes it run. It speaks to something beyond the crop, the cook, or the farmer—to the entirety of the landscape, and how it fits together. It can best be expressed in places where good farming and delicious food are inseparable.”
Barber’s gift for descriptive language is present throughout, but it seems that humble polenta is his true muse. On cooking his first batch of homegrown, self-ground polenta from Eight Row Flint corn in his restaurant kitchen: "It wasn’t just the best polenta of my life. It was polenta I hadn’t imagined possible, so corny that breathing out after swallowing the first bite brought another rich shot of corn flavor. The taste didn’t so much disappear as slowly, begrudgingly fade. It was an awakening.”
Well, then. Um, Dan, my eyes are still closed—you mind sharing some of that life-changing polenta with me?
So, how much do you know about your food? No matter where on the spectrum your answer falls, there’s something fundamental to be gleaned from The Third Plate—good farming and delicious food are indeed inseparable. Here’s hoping we keep that in mind 20 years down the road.
The Final Word: If you’re interested in our national food system and you’re passionate about local cuisine and farm-to-table cooking, you owe it to yourself to check this book out. It’s hefty, but it’s with your time.
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