Friday, July 3, 2015

The Third Plate - Dan Barber

The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of FoodDan Barber is a chef, known for farm-to-table cooking at his restaurants Blue Hill in NYC and Blue Hill at Stone Barns outside the city in a slightly more rural part of New York state.  He was also the subject of one episode of Chef's Table, a recent documentary mini-series produced by Netflix.  The episode, as far as I can remember, didn't mention this book at all, but it left enough of an impression that when I saw the book chilling out in the waiting area of local DC restaurant Founding Farmers (delicious, simply delicious; if  you're ever in Washington, DC, you should make this a stop, but I would suggest a reservation) I was interested.  I didn't have enough time to pick the book up at the restaurant, but it was at the library the next time I stopped by, and so home it came.  I then had to share it with one of my coworkers, who is also a food fanatic, and so when she went out of town I took my chance and devoured it.  (Devoured.  Haha.)

Let me put one thing out there about Dan Barber: I don't know him personally, but in the documentary...he's a jerk.  A real asshole.  He has a tendency to be verbally abusive towards his staff, with a terrible temper, which he freely admits; he also says it's a problem, but admitting it doesn't make it better.  He came off so poorly that when a contestant on Chopped mentioned having interned at Blue Hill, my only thought was, "Oh, that poor kid."  So I was a little leery about the book at first; would he be as much of an ass on the page as he was on the screen?  The answer is, resoundingly, no.  On the page, Barber comes across as charming and a little naive but willing to learn, which is a weird juxtaposition with his documentary persona and I'm not quite sure how I feel about that.

The book is divided into four sections: Soil, Land, Sea, and Seed, and each one focuses on a different aspect of food and relies heavily on Barber's interactions with different farmers who specialize in each section.  Soil revolves around just that: a farmer in New York who switched his farm to organic and uses different crop rotations to enrich the soil and improve the quality of the food he grows, a process that Barber considers vital to the future of good, sustainable food.  Land and Sea both take place mostly in Spain, where Barber looks at sustainable foie gras made without force feeding ("freedom gras") and at a sustainable fish farm that's smack dab in the middle of a national park, both of which produce superior products on a smaller scale.  Seed moves back to the United States and talks about breeding different varieties of vegetables and grains (the focus is mostly on wheat, though a few other things are mentioned) without genetically modifying them.  Overall, the message is one of encouraging diversity of foods, supporting smaller-scale production on a wider scale (more small farms instead of a few big farms, less farms with monocrops, etc.) and generally shifting the way we eat and view food to make the future of cuisine more sustainable.  It's a movement that has to take place at every level, because if one level doesn't change, the others are stuck in the same loop.

Barber's writing (or did he have a ghostwriter?  I don't know; I'm never sure about these things...) is easily readable and very engaging, with a literary nonfiction feel; he tells the stories of the people he works with in the book, so this doesn't feel like a textbook read at all.  I think this is really how nonfiction needs to be written, so that it is enjoyable and educational at the same time, a balance with which some nonfiction writers struggle.  He's clear in explaining his ideas and doesn't repeat himself over and over again, which can be onerous.  The farmers he works with and the locales he visits are note-worthy enough that you might have heard of them in passing at some point, but small enough that learning about them is enjoyable and doesn't feel like a rehashing of something that's been covered time and time again.  And, perhaps most refreshingly, Barber has a positive outlook on the future of food.  As he points out in the introduction, opinions on food's future often tend toward the dystopian, with pills and drinks providing necessary nutrition while food itself becomes scarcer and scarcer and a thing of the past.  This isn't Barber's opinion at all; he belongs to a school of thought that believes yes, food is headed in a bad direction on the large scale, but positive change isn't impossible, and will benefit everyone involved (except, perhaps, Monsanto).

Despite the book's hefty page count (it clocks in at about 450 pages) I found this a quick and easy read, not bogged down by chapters the length of short novels, sensible transitions, good writing, and a logical progression.  This one will probably have to find a permanent place on my bookshelf.

5 stars!

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