I used to be a voracious reader, devouring books as if they were Benton’s bacon at a buffet, but then, I centered much of my world around the universe of food. I still read quite a bit, but my focus shifted from books to articles and social media, with much of my spare time now reserved for writing and photo-editing. Lately, however, I have tried to devote more time to literature, aided by the technology of audio books. Time spent driving is no longer wasted, as it spends double duty listening. A book that has been at the top of my reading list since it came out last year is Dan Barber’s The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food. I am acquainted with Chef Barber, have eaten at his restaurants Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns and have attended a number of his presentations at events like StarChefs International Chefs Congresses. In fact, it turns out, that over the years a lot of what he put in the book, he had also presented at various StarChefs ICC’s. While at first glance, that might seem redundant, it wasn’t. Overall, I found that the familiarity I had with a number of his points helped draw me in even deeper. In addition, he did not simply regurgitate what he had previously spoken. Time between the presentations and the book has added wisdom and insight, both for the author as well as this particular reader and he has utilized this writing as a vehicle for tying all of these insights together.
Besides having experienced his presentations, I have direct familiarity with a number of his human protagonists as well as a number of the places written about. This familiarity gave me great confidence in his sources, but it is not a necessary ingredient for appreciating what Chef Barber has to say.
The underlying theme of the chef’s thesis is that everything is interconnected, which holds especially true when discussing foodways. Humans, over the past few centuries have had an increasing tendency to try to simplify and control nature. At first, many of these attempts, especially those within the so-called “Green Revolution” have had staggering success when measuring specific parameters, such as yield. But yield, designed to provide the maximum number of calories to the maximum number of people, can be a deceptive statistic, when looking at a very complex, interwoven system. It turns out short term improvements do not necessarily mean long term gains and a lot of value may be lost in the process of searching exclusively for enhanced production. In addition, major environmental damage may be an unintended byproduct of the quest to increase production using modern monoculture farming techniques – a major contributor to global warming?
Barber, through contacts that he has made over the years, especially since opening and operating the iconic restaurant, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, an exquisite, farm based restaurant in Westchester County, New York, slowly came to learn about the deep interdependence of the natural world. To him, it is no longer simply enough to grow beautiful, heirloom vegetables and raise heirloom breeds, though that was his emphasis when he started on this path with his cooking.
He spends much of his time in this book exploring parts of Spain, a country that I personally hold dear, especially for its culinary culture. A good portion of that time was spent in the dehesas of Extremadura, an ecosystem that ultimately is much more complex than initially meets the eye. It is one that has existed little changed for centuries.
The usage of the land has evolved to not only produce and support one of Spain’s greatest and most cherished products – Jamón Ibérico de Bellota – but many byproducts of the montanera, the time when the Iberian pigs are grazed amongst the oak forests to gorge on fallen acorns. This feeding gives the pigs their distinctive, complex flavors.
What Barber makes apparent, though, is that the acorn feeding, while of major importance, is not sufficient in itself to produce the final product.
The very act of exercise involved in grazing is important for muscular development and fat distribution. None of this would be possible, though, without a highly developed, interdependent ecosystem that involves the trees, the soil and other animals both wild and domesticated, many of which have markets of their own.
Barber was introduced to Eduardo Sousa by my good friend, Lisa Abend, a former professor of European History, who has become one of the most knowledgeable and insightful food writers in the world writing for Time Magazine and elsewhere. Sousa is the Spaniard who works with geese in the dehesa of Extremadura to produce a natural foie gras without the controversial practice of gavage or force-feeding grain down the gullets of the fowl. Barber describes Sousa’s process and philosophy in detail, outlining how Sousa not only does not hold his geese captive – they are always free to come and go – but the production of foie depends on him making the geese happy and able to take advantage of the natural conditions necessary for the gorging necessary for liver (and goose) fattening.
Fish and seafood are important components of today’s culinary universe and Barber spends a lot of his book discussing issues that threaten the ocean’s resources. He writes about getting to know the revolutionary Spanish chef, Angel Leon, who at his southern Andalucian restaurant Aponiente is coming up with novel ways to utilize the underutilized products of the sea including its most basic culinary elements such as phytoplankton. While Leon is a trendsetter, respectful of the ocean and what it has to offer, he presents Barber with a bit of a dilemma, as Leon remains a proponent of the traditional Andalucian almadraba coastal bluefin tuna slaughter and serves bluefin unabashedly on his menu. The dilemma is the preservation of an age old tradition versus the existence of the species. The almadraba itself is not a significant part of the world’s bluefin harvest and its system of coastal nets to catch larger fish while allowing smaller ones to get away did not create the problems leading to the bluefin’s threatened extinction, but according to some, any fishing of the bluefin should be halted in order to recover the species.
Eating fish is more popular than ever and the world’s oceans are feeling the pressure. Much of the world’s appetite is currently applied to only a limited number of species, but as a new fish gets popularized – often by popular, influential and creative chefs – the species’ very existence can become threatened. He cites examples of how chefs like Gilbert LeCoze, Jean-Luc Palladin and David Bouley through their devotion to detail, freshness and creativity, brought attention the the deliciousness of certain fish like skate and monkfish, contributing later to strains on their populations as they have since transcended fine dining kitchens. Barber writes of Gilbert Le Coze, the founding chef of NYC’s legendary Le Bernardin,
Le Coze purchased seafood no other chefs thought to buy. He’s credited with creating the market for black sea bass and monkfish – his personal favorites¹- as well as skate and sea urchin. In those days, these fish were considered too lowly and flavorless for refined cuisine. So was tuna². As (Dave) Samuels³ explained, in the 1960’s and ’70s, bluefin tuna was hacked up with an ax and canned for tuna fish or made into cat food – at least until Japanese sushi chefs came to New York and began paying more for tuna that was killed and processed the right way. Le Coze was the first high-end chef to offer raw tuna on his menu. He is the father of the tartare and carpaccio craze that spread around the country in the 1980’s and ’90s.
It would seem that aquaculture might be the answer, but so far most forms of aquaculture actually exacerbate the problem by requiring large amounts of fish to feed their stocks, while also creating issues of disease and pollution. Barber did cite one example of what appears to be a very successful aquaculture situation, again in Spain and again introduced to Barber by Lisa Abend. Veta La Palma, once again in southern Andalucia, just off the Guadalquivir River near Sanlucar de Barrameda and its sherry production. What sets Veta La Palma apart from most other aquaculture farms is it total ecosystem approach to the farm. While its most salable products are bass and mullett, the farm has become a haven for birds and other wildlife, which in turn helps the health of the entire ecosystem.
It was in Barber’s discussion of the workings of Veta La Palma and applications of the Biodynamic teachings of Rudolph Steiner, that I disagreed with an analysis of Barber’s. Veta La Palma employs a continuous, adaptable pumping station to help control its water flow, though mostly as a reaction and supplement to existing tidal processes. Barber equated the system to a statement by Steiner that “the heart is not a pump.”
As Steiner explained, “The circulation of the blood is primary. Through its rhythmic pulsations -its systole and diastole – the heart responds to what takes place in the circulation of the blood. It is the blood that drives the heart and not the other way around.” The heart doesn’t pump the blood. The blood pumps the heart.
While there is certainly an element of truth to Steiner’s thinking here, ironically, given his anti-mechanistic, complex systems approach to Biology, I find, as a physician who has dealt with blood flow physiology day in and day out over the last thirty years, this analysis and Barber’s ultimate acceptance of it too simplistic. While the normal heart does indeed respond to the flow of blood, altering contractility and rate in the presence of changing volume and conditions, it does so working as a pump under the control of the autonomic nervous system. If the heart/pump fails, the circulation of the blood slows and eventually stops. While this is largely an academic argument, it serves to give pause to Steiner’s thesis, upon which Barber stakes a lot of capital. Fortunately, though, Steiner , despite a strong metaphysical bent, offers much that makes empirical sense and for Barber, this perturbation is too minor to diminish the remainder of his thesis.
Spain is a major locale for Barber’s explorations of connectivity amongst the natural world and its importance in agriculture, but he devotes the majority of his book to the United States, considering the origins of the “Green Revolution” and all that has been lost as a result. The big villain throughout the book is the widespread ascent of agribusiness focused monoculture. By changing from the traditional landrace form of agriculture, such as had been widely used in the southern United States, to intensive large scale agribusiness with single minded agricultural goals and growths dependent upon petroleum based nitrogen fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, Barber argues, offering many explicit examples, that we have lost too much of major importance without any long-term gain. Instead, the rich soil of places like the lowcountry of South Carolina or the American prairies, were almost totally destroyed by extensive land clearing and intensive monocultural farming practices of the last century and a half. The effects of this transformation have been widespread, leveling the culture of small family farming, soil health, ecological health, economic balance, human health and not least, delicious food. With the work of people like Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills, many of the delicious old, well adapted regional crops of the South are finding markets and making a comeback.
Time and time again over the course of the book, Barber marvels at products grown and raised using the complex inter-relationships of nature. Whether wheat, barley, rye and other grains grown in conjunction with other products necessary for the health of the entire system, Barber’s argument is that chefs are in a position to lead by example, much like what Le Coze, Bouley and Palladin, amongst others, accomplished with seafood. For Barber, it is imperative that chefs find ways to utilize and make delicious all of the products that come from integrated farming techniques, so that they can be sustained. It is also imperative to resist the corporate approach of large-scale agribusiness like Monsanto, which strives to reduce variety, while controlling the entire system and poisoning the earth. This is not to say, that Barber is anti-scientific. Far from it, his approach is logical and well organized, using scientific principles to explore and explain. It makes sense that the Earth is a complex system with its parts not easily separated. There are many variables involved and it is difficult to predict how changing one will effect others let alone how leaving only one variable extant will affect the whole. An analogy that I can offer from the world of Medicine and healthcare is an increasing understanding of the complexity of our own microbiota and the effects it has on our well-being. It used to be taken as a given that getting rid of any and all germs was a good thing. It has become increasingly apparent that that approach is mistaken and that we are highly dependent upon commensal relationships with a wide variety of microorganisms and that the introduction of broad-spectrum antibiotics can have catastrophic results disrupting the good as well as the bad. Antibiotics still have their place in Medicine and they remain quite valuable to be sure, but they are no longer widely viewed as the panacea they once were considered as.
This is an important book for anyone who cares about quality food, the environment, humanity and the ultimate plight of the Earth and its inhabitants. His analysis is deep, convincing and based upon extensive first hand research. I do not intend to write many book reviews, but this is one that I felt compelled to share.
¹ My own personal monkfish epiphany came in the mid 1990’s, the first time I dined at Le Bernardin. The monkfish tail was roasted and served with cabbage. It sounds mundane, but, along with a Zind-Humbrecht Goldert Gewurtztraminer was exquisite and obviously quite memorable.
³Dave Samuels was the fourth generation owner of Blue Ribbon Seafood, a major supplier to top end restaurants, who was there in the 1980’s as American tastes for fresh seafood metamorphosed and exploded.