Book Review: The Third Plate by Dan Barber
I still remember the first time a tried a real tomato. Until I was 21, I hated tomatoes. I thought they tasted weird, had a weird texture and were just gross. I did not understand people who liked them. Then, while working in the organic garden in college, I knew I had to try again. I plucked one of the heirloom cherry tomatoes off the vine and popped it in my mouth. Oh. That’s why people like them. Only having tried industrial tomatoes, grown devoid of nutrients, ripened from green to red in warehouses rather than on the vine, it’s no wonder I never liked them before. I had several other “ah-ha” moments that summer, retrying vegetables I had long written off ofter eating their frozen, canned or industrial counterparts.
I am currently in the middle of rereading Chef Dan Barber’s The Third Plate. I obsessively read it a few months ago and could not put it down. Besides being extremely interesting, Chef Barber is a fantastic storyteller. Though there’s lots of tidbits about ecology, biology and nutrition, they’re interspersed between anecdotes and case studies of fascinating people and places (and dotted with Chef’s self-deprecating humor). After studying anthropology and environmental studies in college, reading a book that is all about different cultures and their relationship to nature through food, it’s no wonder I loved it so much.
The main point of the book is arguing for what Chef Barber calls the need for a “third plate” or a change in American cuisine:
“The first plate was a seven-ounce corn-fed steak with a small side of vegetables— in other words the American expectation of dinner for much of the past half-century…The second plate represented where awe are now, infused with all the ideals of the farm-to- table movement. The steak was grass-fed, the carrots were now a local heirloom variety grown in organic soil. Inasmuch as it reflected all of the progress American food has experience in the past decade, the striking thing about the second plate was that it looked nearly identical to the first. Finally the third plate kept with the steak-dinner analogy—only this time the proportions were reversed. In place of a hulking piece of protein, I imagined a carrot steak dominating the plate, with a sauce of braised second cuts of beef.”
The rest of the book discusses the current state of American cuisine and the general person’s disconnect from nature, the rise of diet-related disease and the abject state of agriculture. Chef Barber’s clear view of the future is provided by examples of farms from all of the country and the world that are producing food that is based on growing for flavor and understanding ecology and culture as a whole instead of reducing the complex, incomprehensible systems to just a few of their components.
Chef Barber would argue that our diet needs to diversify. We’ve built a whole system around being very picky eaters. We only want a few cuts from the cow, or this specific kind of wheat for bread. This is what has created the monoculture industrial agriculture system. If we could expand our tastes, change our eating habits, farmers could grow more things, rotate crops and livestock and work with the natural environment rather than against it. As Dan Barber puts it, we need to address the causes, not the symptoms, of the food system. We can do the industrial organic thing, grow monocultures with mountains of organic fertilizers, but that doesn’t really solve the ecological problem. We can try to teach good nutrition by tell people they need X amount of this vitamin or mineral, but taking multi-vitamins doesn’t solve the lack of a balanced diet. Over the last several decades, we’ve tried to break complicated things down into tiny boxes, little pieces that we can more easily understand. But “nature is not more complex than we think, but more complex than we can think.” (via Frank Egler, quoted in The Third Plate).
However dismal the outlook may be, I think what really inspires me about this book is that it’s hopeful. There are so many books, lectures, TV shows and documentaries that talk about the problems with a few minutes at the end talk about how to improve. This entire book is about how people are improving things. The problems are brought up, but before you have time to get all angry or depressed, there are 20 pages detailing the way a farm is working to combat it and how chefs are helping the farmers get their food to people. It’s why the subtitle of the book is “Field Notes on the Future of Food.” Though there’s obviously still a long way to go, this book makes be feel hopeful. It also makes me inspired as a chef-in-training, that the work that we do can actually matter.
if you don’t want to read the book (which I highly recommend you reconsider), a few of the farms Chef Barber writes about in the book he also talks about in a few TED talks. Here are the videos.