Farming For Flavor Chef Barber heralds cuisine driven by considerations of soil, land, sea, and seed

The Third Plate: Field Notes On The Future Of Food

Dan Barber (Penguin Press, 2014) 496 pages with index and notes

In my first month of field research in rural India, I was invited into the home of a friend for dinner. The chicken had been cooking since noon in a pot over the fire. The cuts were unrecognizable to me, a smattering of meat and bones simmering flavor and marrow into the thick stew of tomatoes and chilies. The stew was served over rice grown behind the house, untreated with pesticides as it was destined for their kitchen and not for the market. Ladled over one corner was sambar, the south Indian soup of lentils and vegetables that allows the flavors to mix and blend. It was doubtless the chicken-y-est chicken I have ever eaten. Chicken has earned a reputation as bland or boring, but this bird clucked out with a savory richness. The chicken, vegetables, and rice all came from within a hundred feet of where I was eating them, and all were part of an agricultural ecoystem: the chickens ate insects in the garden; the lentils helped to fix nitrogen that increased soil fertility; the fields were rotated to avoid exhausting the land. In sum, our dinner was cooked to feature the nutritious and fresh products of this peasant agriculture. We have lost touch with this integrated system, writes chef Dan Barber of Manhattan’s farm-to-fork Blue Hill restaurant in The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food. As such we have lost the flavor, agricultural knowledge, and sense of place necessary for a truly sustainable agriculture.

There is an anxiety of influence hanging over food studies, and it asks how to write a food book for a popular audience in the age of Michael Pollan. Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006) marked a revolution in food studies, selling hundreds of thousands of copies, remaining on the New York Times Bestseller list for years, appearing as required reading on college syllabi around the country, and demystifying the industrial agriculture system’s labyrinth of corn and politics in a way that made farming cool again. Scholars of American agriculture and food writers loved Pollan’s books because they provided an introductory roadmap for the political machinations that have guided the development of our industrial food system (2006) and nutritional awareness (2008; 2014). And so food books in the Pollan age take a different tack, focusing, for example, on the politics of food regulation (Nestle 2007) or the joys of becoming a food producer yourself (Kingsolver, Kingsolver, and Hopp 2007).

Dan Barber is first and foremost a chef and his book defines sustainability and food against their utility as vehicles for taste. This is a welcome addition to food studies. Trained in the French Nouvelle style that privileges ingredients and the terroir affectations that transform place into taste, Barber asks what it means to produce truly delicious food given that American food production is so often disconnected from the people eating the food. Scholars like food anthropologist Sidney Mintz (1997) or ethnobotanist Gary Nabhan (1997) have asked similar questions, and like them Barber imagines a cuisine as the marriage of place and culture. Cuisine is cultural, a thing borne of the necessary alchemy by which peasant agriculture turns local breeds of plants and animals into an ecologically integrated and nutritious balance of vegetables, grains, legumes, and meats (found in the form of sauces and gravies).

Even in this latest chef-driven organic, farm-to-table, bourgeois iteration, the plate lacks a true cuisine in the sense of a system of agriculture suited to its climate and farmers. The problem is that the players have changed, writes Barber, but the roles have stayed the same.

Lacking the specific ecology or peasant agricultures that produced the great national cuisines of Europe and Asia that Barber studied in culinary school, Americans set their tables with a kind of anti-cuisine. Barber asks us to imagine a seven-ounce, corn-fed, confinement-raised steak served with steamed baby carrots. This is the dinner of postwar America, dominated by a large choice cut of meat and a small side of uninspired vegetables. For a high-end New York City chef charging close to $100 per meal, it has become passé.

We live in the age of the second plate, where a grass-fed organic steak grazed contentedly on local pastures shares space with heirloom carrots picked fresh that morning from a local organic farm. Yet even in this latest chef-driven organic, farm-to-table, bourgeois iteration, the plate lacks a true cuisine in the sense of a system of agriculture suited to its climate and farmers. The problem is that the players have changed, writes Barber, but the roles have stayed the same.

To approach the ecologically adapted and refined peasant agriculture that he celebrates, Barber suggests the third plate, where grains and vegetables dominate and the ingredients reflect that which has been suited to the landscape. As this is a food-driven question, Barber believes that chefs like himself have a special responsibility in designing a cuisine that calls upon the local environmental (soil, water, living things) and social resources (farmers, markets). Throughout The Third Plate, Barber presents a series of food production systems: a New York grain farm, a Southern moonshine operation, the Spanish dehesa, the Mediterranean almadraba fishery, or the estuary system of the Veta la Palma. All mimic natural systems, produce enough to feed people living nearby, and create a superior-tasting product by nature of their connection to culture and ecology. Barber divides this exploration of cuisine into four parts: soil, land, sea, and seed.

To discover what good soil has to do with good cuisine we meet New York grain farmer Klaas Martens. Martens abandoned the annual wheat grown by farmers in the United States, and here Barber sets up the leitmotif that undergirds his narrative. Especially in the last century, farmers have abandoned heirlooms purposively cultivated to fit taste and ecology in favor of plants and animals suited to vertically integrated and mass produced agriculture. In doing so, they turned over the knowledge and means of food production to corporate experts—weeds and pests became problems solvable by technology rather than signs to be read and manipulated by the farmer. Barber calls this process of increasing capital penetration specialization after the way that farmers become increasingly tied to technologies of monoculture, although rural sociologists may be more familiar with this process as appropriationism (Goodman, Sorj, and Wilkinson 1987), which refers to the way in which discrete elements of agricultural production have been commodified by specific technologies.

This is problematic for two reasons: First, it has been environmentally destructive to the conditions that allow good food to grow. Replacing perennial wheats and prairie grasses with annual wheats and then tilling them with deep plows allowed the rich, glacially-endowed blessing of Midwestern topsoil to blow away, leaving the dust to settle on the largest farms. Second, and more grounded in the kitchen, the plants and animals that fit the demands of large corporate farms were bred for yield and reliability. Such plants weathered the market crisis but sacrificed their ecological value and the flavors that made them truly distinctive and delicious.

Barber travels to Spain for the next two sections celebrating land through the Spanish dehesa and sea through Mediterranean fish cuisine. Just as Klaas Martens gauged the health of his land by its response to opportunistic weeds and pests, the farmers and fishermen manage a landscape (and seascape) defined by the health of its predators. Leaning on his culinary experience, Barber admits his love for foie gras, the forcibly fattened goose liver standard for fine dining. But a truly delicious foie gras is hard to find in modern times, in part because the feeding operations rely on the same formula as grain farmers: hybrid animals bred for yield and divorced from a habitat where they get to live according to their biology. Touring Eduardo Sousa’s dehesa, an integrated pig, goose, olive, and oak savannah, Barber learns to equate the natural, confident, and happy geese with a delicious foie gras. In a landscape without fences and full of hawks, the wild and potential danger offered by the dehesa encourages the fattening instinct that produces the famous livers, just as the vitamins from carrots grown in Martens’ improved soil makes them more nutritious. The pigs eat acorns and grasses, the geese eat his olives, the hawks eat the geese, and in exchange for these losses Sousa gains well-marbled jamón ibérico and free-range foie gras produced without forced feeding. As if to placate the scientifically minded, Barber balances stories based in the soft science of food’s affect, the terroir of Eduardo’s marbled ham or the majesty of carrots that led a ‘happy’ life in rich, productive soil, with hard chemistry and biology. The phytonutrient balance is better in the happy carrots, and we love the taste of happy pigs, geese, or fish because their active lives allowed the fat to marble. Food scholar Warren Belasco (2006) calls such writing recombinant, in that it attempts to marry the feel-good intangibles of food with the chemically-based science that Americans have come to respect in nutritional science.

By the second half of the book, Barber hits his stride, drawing more heavily on his experience as a cook in restaurants across the United States and France and providing a glimpse into the kitchen conversations between particular chefs and their suppliers. After horrifying visiting reviewers from Gourmet magazine by serving endangered Bluefin tuna, Barber brings together conservationist Carl Safina, chef Ángel León, and fish farmer Miguel Medialdea of Veta la Palma, an estuary system in Southern Spain. Just as Martnes measured his wheat health through weeds and Sousa measured his land health through the balance of dehesa predators, Veta la Palma measures its success through the fish snatched up by migrating birds, sacrificing as much as twenty percent of the catch to the highly productive environment Medialdea has created.

One of the central conclusions of the book is that cuisine must include these contradictions: Barber writes, “What’s become clearer to me, after spending time with farmers like Miguel, Klaas, and Eduardo, is that farming with nature’s frustrating complexities—even, or especially, with supposed enemies of the system—is inherent to their success.” Those seeking taste-based moral guidance, however, will be less satisfied. Barber stumbles as he tries to balance his chef’s bias toward the joys of seafood cuisine with their clear and present environmental disaster.

The ethics of eating the endangered Bluefin that open this section speak to one of the fundamental disputes of sustainable agriculture, namely, should culture and tradition trump ecological conservation? The almadraba tuna net fishing system is far more sustainable than deep sea fishing, just as Makah whaling is far more sustainable than commercial whale harpooning. But for those who see hunting and conservation as mutually exclusive, Barber offers no clear suggestions. Instead, we see a supremely uncomfortable lunch in which chef León and tuna advocate Safina spar over the tuna course —“It was as if you were arguing for the slaughter of chimpanzees with Jane Goodall,” Barber laments. We are not sure who to agree with, and Barber leaves open to interpretation Safina’s suggestion that capitalism in agriculture is destined to overexploit. León’s dishes use bycatch fish, animals caught in nets designed for other fish that would normally be ground into low-cost chum, which Safina warns will start new designs toward these unwanted fish that will lead them to be mass produced or overharvested like the others.

The final quarter, Seed, returns us to Klaas and to Barber’s apolitical history of agricultural technology, the book’s most glaring flaw. He attempts a brief history of seed capitalism, but his person-centric writing fails to capture the larger picture that drives American agro-capitalism and its flavor consequences—Jack Kloppenburg’s First the Seed (2004), explains this in far more comprehensive, if dense, detail. Interspersed with vignettes from agriculturally engaged chefs and heirloom seed savers, Barber describes bovine somatotropin as a profit-increaser for dairy farmers when in fact it was introduced to farmers in the midst of a dairy glut. Later, he describes white flour and packaged bread as foods that “capitalize on preferences” rather than take advantage of a series of vertically integrated industrial processes that were happy to value preservation over flavor in the age of long commodity chains. This same writing choice allows him to meets chefs and modern bootleggers who use an ecosystem-level farm to preserve heirloom grain (presumably for heirloom moonshine). While faltering on the ‘what happened’ of American farming, he shows how each plant on those farms fits into the ecosystem and maintain nutrition, fertility, and terroir. In the epilogue, Barber finally constructs his third plate, soaking up a hypothetical American cuisine where chefs and farmers work together to create great food.

This book excellently links taste with place and knowledge: “Either the nutrient balance in the soil is wrong or your crops aren’t being rotated properly or the variety cultivated is wrong for the area—or any one of dozens of other possibilities. Your job is to figure it out. Since the chemical farmer has the option of spraying the problem away, he tends not to bother” (Barber 55). This contingent knowledge is at the heart of sustainable small farming throughout the world, and it is the same kind of farming celebrated by scholars who see knowledge and practice as keys to a sustainable agriculture revolution (Netting 1993; Richards 1985). However such practice is impossible within the confines of economic or agricultural institutions that limit the choices of farmers. Barber missteps by naturalizing this context throughout the book, relegating technological change to the adoption of superior products or rational economic choice. The transition from animal manure produced on-farm to industrially produced nitrogen fertilizers, for example, would not have been possible without the navy directives to gather interesting germplasm or the nineteenth-century guano island acts that legalized annexation of islands containing nutrient-rich bat guano (Kloppenburg 2004).

The Third Plate introduces a cast of farmers and chefs working to create a cuisine that fits the landscape: good ingredients bred for their taste or local suitability, prepared fresh, and built into an agricultural system where the plants and animals support each other in a functioning ecosystem. At its worst, this book presents platitudes applicable only to a fraction of the population willing to shell out the vast time, money, and energy necessary to divorce themselves from the industrial-modern cuisine of the first plate still eaten by the vast majority of American consumers. In addition, Barber’s inconsistent research largely ignores the structures that produce and reproduce the unhealthy, unsustainable, un-delicious food system in which we live. We get a smattering of politics when Barber describes the influences of corporations or particular businessmen like chicken pioneer Frank Perdue in changing how we eat, but no mention of the legal structure, subsidies, or tax breaks that make the system Barber finds so offensive to taste possible.

We get a smattering of politics when Barber describes the influences of corporations or particular businessmen like chicken pioneer Frank Perdue in changing how we eat, but no mention of the legal structure, subsidies, or tax breaks that make the system Barber finds so offensive to taste possible.

Barber talks about breeders, individual land-grant universities, or plants as though these simply exist in the world, and farmers or eaters have stumbled upon them as a rational choice or marketing trick. The hybrid plants that Barber describes were not the inventions of breeders taken on by farmers seeking a better product—indeed, the rotations, seeds, and chemicals of our modern conventional agriculture were pushed hard by the USDA and planted only after extreme social and economic pressure. Hybrid plants only express their famed hybrid vigor if farmers are willing to shower them in fertilizers (Kloppenburg 2004); the Green Revolution only staved off hunger because the United States flooded Indian grain markets with surplus wheat in the early years of the program (Perkins 1997); academic research can support industrial profit because of a combination of patent laws and the publication-based reward structure of the academy (Charles 2001). In obscuring such context Barber presents the history of American foodways as a series of increasingly better mousetraps and rational economic decisions that somehow got us to unhealthy and un-tasty food. The story is so much more interesting and tragic when considered in its entirety.

As a scholar of food and agriculture, there is so much to criticize in this approach, spanning a sloppy consideration of the American yeoman farming foodways, the normalizing of a pretentious farm-to-table cuisine that is out of reach of most American eaters, or the indifference to history and politics in creating the landscapes of nationalist culinary possibilities in the French, Italian, Indian, or Chinese cuisines. Such critiques are a little unfair as Barber is a chef not a scholar, and wrote this book to discuss culinary arts and the possibilities of a sustainable American cuisine. Although it touches on them, this is not a book about food justice or global capitalism and it should not be read as such.

Barber’s ultimate observation that good food stems from good farming is right on the money. As any chef knows, good food comes from good ingredients. As any farmer knows, good ingredients come from healthy land, soil or water systems that are not overexploited but carefully managed by farmers with an intimate knowledge of their ecology. As any anthropologist knows, this sustainable practice is the product of culture, a knowledge rooted in place. With every step away from local genetic and chemical farmer knowledge, the food tastes worse because of its dissociation from a working socio-ecological environment—healthy food tastes good and is better for us, says the chef. While it can stumble in the politics of agriculture, The Third Plate should be commended for asking us to consider the taste and composition of our meals in light of the earth, water, and hands that produce them.

Works Cited:

1. Warren Belasco, Meals to Come: A History of the Future of Food, (University of California Press, 2006). 

2. Daniel Charles, Lords of the Harvest: Biotech, Big Money, and the Future of Food, (New York: Basic Books, 2001).

3. David Goodman, Bernardo Sorj, and John Wilkinson, From Farming to Biotechnology: A Theory of Agro-Industrial Development, (Blackwell Pub., 1987).

4. Barbara Kingsolver, Camille Kingsolver, and Steven L. Hopp, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, (New York: Harper, 2007).

5. Jack Kloppenburg, First the Seed: The Political Economy of Plant Biotechnology 1492-2000, (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2005).

6. Sidney Mintz, Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom: Excursions into Eating, Power, and the Past, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1997).

7. Gary Paul Nabhan, Cultures of Habitat: On Nature, Culture, and Story, (Washington, D.C: Counterpoint, 1997).

8. Marion Nestle, Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition, and Health, Revised and Expanded Edition, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).

9. Robert Netting, Smallholders, Householders: Farm Families and the Ecology of Intensive, Sustainable Agriculture, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993).

10. John H. Perkins, Geopolitics and the Green Revolution: Wheat, Genes, and the Cold War, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

11. Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, (New York: Penguin Group, 2006); In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, (New York: Penguin Group, 2008), and Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. Reprint edition, (New York: Penguin Books, 2014).

12. Paul Richards, Indigenous Agricultural Revolution: Ecology and Food Production in West Africa, (Boulder: Westview Press, 1985).