Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Reading Rainbow: The Third Plate

Ever since I came back to the US, I've been pretty paranoid about what I eat. I have a pretty serious problem with the way America farms, raises, and grows its food. I think most of us are pretty familiar with a lot of those problems. But aside from pesticides, chemicals, and hormones, there's this other aspect which I've been worried about for a while.

Remember in elementary school science, when we learned about soil nutrients, crop rotation, and seven year cycles of fallow earth? (I do. Largely because I am frequently using it as a metaphor for creativity. Also because I regularly help a fourth grade boy with his homework.) 

The new book I'm reading talks about the future of food-- from the failures and missteps of the farm to table movement to how farmers and chefs can work together change the public image of certain foods. Foods can be and are just as trendy as anything else. Sometimes just to the benefit of big agri-business (like the terrible terrible soy trend. Processed soy jacks with your estrogen levels.) but also for real health. Did you eat kale three years ago? Or quinoa? Or ramps? No. You do now because chefs got creative and made delicious recipes with those ingredients. 

Dan Barber, author of the The Third Plate is the executive chef of Blue Hill in Manhattan. I haven't had the pleasure of eating there-- alas, the price tag is outrageous...more on that later-- but I've heard nothing but good things about the quality and flavor. 

From the book's review in The Wall Street Journal:

Yet after reading Mr. Barber's compelling book, "The Third Plate," I realize the problem may be with my conditioning: I associate value with top-of-the-food-chain proteins like tuna and beef. But the truth is, it takes 13 pounds of grain to produce 1 pound of beef, and the Bluefin tuna is almost depleted. Ours is a food culture based on the expectation of immoderate consumption, and that's just not sustainable. Mr. Barber's solution is no less than an overhaul of American cuisine, so that the value of an ingredient is based on flavor, not folly.
Mr. Barber uses the metaphor of the plate—as in plates of food—to describe three stages of modern eating habits and the agriculture that has supported them. The first plate contains a 7-ounce corn-fed steak and a small vegetable side, say, carrots, produced by industrialized agriculture as it developed over the course of the 20th century. On the second plate, where we are today with the farm-to-table movement, the steak is free-range, the carrots organically grown. But the two aren't that different. The future, Mr. Barber suggests, is the third plate: a carrot dish flavored with a sauce made from a secondary cut like beef shank.
The third plate sounds a lot like the way my Italian grandmother used to cook on her subsistence farm. Her tradition called for managing the land. Soil health, seed diversity, crop rotation and diverse animal husbandry kept the farm fruitful and also produced delicious, healthy food. There was modesty to her cooking: The family primarily ate vegetables and killed one pig a year that had been fed on table leavings. There was no deprivation. We've replaced this model with industrialized farming and fishing, and we aren't eating well. We feed.
Let's go back to price. Part of how we can bring down some of the cost of flavorful, nutrient-rich foods is by giving new light to the crops that farmer's plant in between the main crop. If those farmers can make the same amount of money on mustard greens or buckwheat or milkweed that they can on wheat, they do better and then we can do better. And there's incentive for other farmers to return to this way of farming before industrialized farming manipulated the ecosystem into oblivion. I mean, sure, it's important to produce enough. So much of how we farm is a reactionary product of The Dust Bowl, The Irish Potato Famine and other plague of locusts style crop failures. But at some point, you have to ask, is my all-you-can eat more important than the flavor and nutrition of what I eat? And then no wonder we're fat. We have to keep eating and eating to get less flavor and less nutrition. It's hard to stay aware of all this all the time, but you gotta try, right? 

Check out the book, and Dan Barber on NPR. I listened to a much longer version of this interview and I wish I could find it. This is the closest I could find. Scroll to the bottom.

FYI: I'm probably buying this book as a gift for everyone I know for holidays for the next year. 

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