The Third Plate – Dan Barber
Trickle down system for our food
I’ve started reading this book after having been through plenty of similar ones in the past – books about crop rotation, impact of mono-cultures on soil, impact of soil in the relationship between fertilizers and the lack of in organic farming. I’ve also read books about aquaculture, that explain why tuna catching is a one-way trip to extinction, why some fish are better for farming than others and why the ocean really is the perfect example of the tragedy of the commons – something everyone can use but you can never regulate it as it belongs to everyone.
Reading one negative review of this book (a 3 star review on Amazon) that depicted the book as a neo-hippie wishful thinking for rich people also put me in a different state of mind than I would have wanted. Truth be told, I think it was the perfect way to start the book – a bit skeptical, thinking I will fast forward through chapters.
I was taken aback multiple times on the amount of research that went into this book. The personal relationships that this book forged span over decades. I’ve learned a great new deal of things that the previous books I’ve read haven’t captured:
- Dehesa – the acorn forests where the jamon iberico is farmed, rotational grazing and fattening of the animals on acorns, the people that use it, the love for the animals and the lifestyle that leads to one of the most expensive cuts of pork.
- Almadabra fishing in Cadiz – a centuries old fishing method, that returned in popularity in the 80s once the Sushi frenzy started. Before that, anchovies were the main catch in the region. The region also has a strong seasonal wind, called levante. The locals say it’s strong enough to bring ghosts from the grave, if it blows over a cemetery. I thought this phrase captures the deep cultural link that the author is trying to portray about the local villages and their relation with nature, overarching with the main theme of the book.
- I’ve learned of farmers that are able to make foie gras without force feeding. The paragraph with Eduardo (the geese farmer) calling his geese “Hola bella!” and talking daily to them is something that I will probably always have in mind remembering about this book.
The author also goes into detail to explain the different processes and systems that need to exist for a farm-to-table movement to be mainstream – all of this through the different characters and people he has visited over the years – wheat farmers that went organic and expanded their model to their entire community, grain farmers that created grain mills for organic grains, seed farmers that helped the community through buy-back schemes for seeds and other by-products; rice farmers that are experimenting with 40 thousand(!) varieties of rice.
Sometimes the, what I suspect, faked ignorance of the author to push the story line further seems out of place. When juggling with multiple story lines, timelines and characters you would expect to have plenty of natural reasons to explain the topic. However the author is a famous chef, not an experienced writer, and this is just my personal observation that doesn’t take away from the main topic.
Although I feel books like this one increased in popularity after the great success of Pollan’s Omnivores Dilemma, I have found this book to be on par with that.
Overall the book delivers, it provides plenty of stories and arguments for other ways of farming our food. When eating meat, cooking nose-to-tail means using everything from the animal, not just the good parts – something that probably I am guilty of as well. When cooking with vegetables, the equivalent is cooking with all the grains and vegetables that are not as popular as the main ones. The book makes a great case for why we should do that. I left convinced that I would love to do just that if I find myself somewhere with all the different types of grains and vegetables.
Although I feel books like this one increased in popularity after the great success of Pollan's Omnivores Dilemma, I have found this book to be on par with that.
Now I understand the 3 star review that influenced my initial mood – I will probably have a hard time using anything from this book to have a better ecological or environmental impact. While the book isn’t an advocacy book, it does encourage change – what type of change can I have an impact on? Hard to say. I won’t be buying organic fish from Spain as much as I won’t be able to convince my local farmers to start experimenting with different types of grains that I will mill myself into a perfect bread that tastes like nuts or chocolate (as it does in the book).
While the book isn't an advocacy book, it does encourage change - what type of change can I have an impact on? Hard to say.
The book tells us it’s a trade-off that exists by chance. However it’s not coincidental, it ended like that by design with the purpose of reducing starvation. It came with a cost – a big environmental cost and a big flavor-deficient one as well. The elusive aromas and flavors that the author describes leave one in a state of never ending day-dreaming. Is this enough for a rallying cry, for us to push the industry in a place where we get flavor and affordability? Most experts think it’s not possible, at least the ones cited in the book. It’s definitely not easy and the flavor comes with a big trade-off of itself – seasonal variance and lack of uniformity. If that sounds like a paradox, you are correct.
But having your bread have a different taste every morning, based on the type of grain and the location of where it was farmed, might put away a lot of risk-averse food enthusiasts. This is where the author got the title of the book, The Third Plate, as he realizes there is a need for a change, but it can and should mostly come in the form of an alternate parallel system that will exist with the mainstream agricultural one.
"Our excess has been made possible by the largesse of industrial agriculture, but nothing about it has been inevitable, and in the end there's very little that's truly delicious.[...] Chicken breast, lamb loin, filet mignon, rack of pork - in other words, the cuts we covet most - come from muscles that rarely work when the animal is alive. It's hat makes them desirable tender, but also bland."p.132
I think the area left to explore, from an economical and cultural point of view, is something that the book mentions very briefly at the end – the current wave of microbreweries. Their risk-embracing culture, their relentless experiments with a simple recipe, the appeal it has and the culture it has created. Most importantly, the economics and the market it has around it. It is exactly The Third Plate, but for beer.
As with every movement, it will need to reach critical mass for it to be walking on its own feet, people like Barber and this book explains beautifully the most important questions in this: why we should change it.
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