I thought Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma was pretty much the last word about the food we eat, why we eat it, its cost to our health and the planet's health, and how we can do better.
I wasn't alone in that view. But the gold standard is now Dan Barber's The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food.
Dan Barber is the chef at Blue Hill at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, New York, and at Blue Hill New York. At those restaurants, as the foodies among you know, Barber has taken farm-to-table dining to its logical extreme -- he grows much of the food he cooks. The difference between his meals and the organic cooking of other chefs begins and ends with that fact. His carrots seem to be from a different, finer planet. Ditto his lamb. The wonder is that the source of his otherworldly food is this planet -- Barber has found a way to tastes that most of us have never experienced.
"Perhaps no other chef in New York City does as enthusiastic an impersonation of the farmer in the dell as Mr. Barber, and perhaps no other restaurant makes as serious and showy an effort to connect diners to the origins of their food as Blue Hill," Frank Bruni wrote in the New York Times, awarding Blue Hill three stars. "Here the meals have back stories, lovingly rendered by servers who announce where the chanterelles were foraged and how the veal was fed. It's an exercise in bucolic gastronomy, and it might be slightly cloying if it weren't so intensely pleasurable."
Sorry, but it is cloying.
There is something borderline obscene about weeping over roasted asparagus with beet yogurt and stinging nettles or swooning over purple potato gnocchi with green garlic, ramp shoots and hon shimeji mushrooms while, not far away, children go hungry. But as I understand it, Dan Barber isn't serving this food only because he's gunning to unseat whatever restaurant is regarded as the world's best. He's doing it to explore the concept of "delicious."
The story of this book is how the meaning of "delicious" changed for him and how he came to a fresh, larger definition: bringing that level of satisfaction and nutrition to people who will never know his name or eat in his restaurant.
Here's his understanding of the way food works in our country:
The "first plate" is a hulking, corn-fed steak with a few vegetables on the side.
The "second plate" is a smaller, grass-fed steak, no bigger than your fist, with vegetables that come from farmers who get name-checked by the waiters. This was what his restaurants served. As he writes, "It's better tasting, and better for the planet, but the second plate's architecture is identical to the first. It, too, is damaging -- disrupting the ecological balances of the planet, causing soil depletion and nutrient loss -- and in the end it isn't a sustainable way to farm or eat."
The "third plate" represents a non-violent revolution. The steak looks like an afterthought. The carrots rule.
Despite the book's title, the plate -- the food prepared by a chef and served in a restaurant -- is not the real subject of this book.
The Third Plate is about farming.
With that sentence, I'm in danger of losing half of you here, maybe more, so let's go to the video. Here's Dan Barber, at TED, talking about an astonishingly delicious fish and the man who figured out a way to farm it. It's a great story. A deeply entertaining, even thrilling story, completely worth your time. But if you want just the punch line, start around 14:45, because at that point this amusing observer ignites and breathes fire. His love story about a chef and a fish, he says, is also instructive: "You might say it's a recipe for the future of good food... What we need is a radically new conception of agriculture, one in which the food actually tastes good."
This is not a small point. You can make a good case for America's weight problem on the idea that our food does not supply us with the nutrition we need, so we eat more to get it. The way out? The merger of pre-industrial agriculture with great cooking. Or, to put it more elegantly: "The ecological choice for food is also the most ethical choice. And, generally, the most delicious choice."
Hold this thought. Underline it. It is on the final exam -- no, it is the final exam. I mean: for us, for the planet.
I'm making the book sound somber. In truth, it's mostly a collection of stories. Brilliant stories, mostly. (The ones you want to skip are in the first section of the book, where you can learn more about soil than you'll ever want to know.) Barber is as gifted a writer as he is a chef; he tells these stories largely in dialogue, as in a novel. Were they all taped? Did Barber rush home to scribble them down? There is no note about the accuracy of these conversations. That may not trouble most readers; it troubles me.
I know I bang on about the length of books. The Third Plate fills 447 pages. That is -- the metaphor is wrong, I know -- a very rich meal. I grasp that foodies will devour every word, but this book deserves the widest possible audience, and its completeness works against that. I wish worthy but overstuffed books like this were like DVDs: A studio version and a director's cut that includes scenes that had to be deleted for the sake of a crisp viewer experience. A chef's cut, if you will.
There's a solution to the book's length. It's the merger of great stories and Web 3.0. That is, TED talks, or videos like TED talks. In this case, you can read 50 pages about Eduardo Sousa, a Spanish genius who learned how to make the world's best foie gras without force-feeding his geese. It's a great story, worth 50 pages. For some. Me, I'd settle for Barber's beyond-great TED talk about Sousa.
Still, give The Third Plate four stars. Call it "delicious." Then join a CSA and start doing your part to save the planet -- and your life.