Review: The Third Plate by Dan Barber

Author: Dan Barber
Title: The Third Plate
Format/Source: eBook/Library
Published: May 2014
Publisher: Penguin Press
Length: 496 pages
Genre: Non-fiction
Why I Read: Interested in food; haven’t read a book like this in ages
Read If You’d: Like to learn about improving a food’s flavour or how eat more ‘naturally’
Quote: “The food chain is actually more like a set of Olympic rings. They all hang together.” (33)
Rating: ★★★½ [ratings guide]
Challenges: Foodies Read 2015
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“But we weren’t addressing the larger problem. The larger problem, as I came to see it, is that farm-to-table allows, even celebrates, a cherry-picking of ingredients that are often ecologically demanding and expensive to grow. Farm-to-table chefs may claim to base their cooking on whatever the farmer’s picked that day […], but whatever the farmer has picked that day is really about an expectation of what will be purchased that day. […] Farm-to-table may sound right – it’s direct and connected – but really the farmer ends up servicing the table, not the other way around.” (26)

 If you’ve passed by this book thinking “Well, I’ve already read Pollan’s In Defense of Food and The Omnivore’s Dilemma” – as I initially did – think again! My apologies to Dan Barber. I noticed this book when it was released last spring but I didn’t rush to it because I thought it would rehash books I’d already read. When I added it to my Foodies Read 2015 list, I prepared for a repeat read, thinking I could use a refresher. Instead I found a new perspective that looks beyond what I already knew (Barber assumes you’ve read Pollan and that Barber’s taking the next step from there). As I made my way through the introduction, I got excited about what I was going to read. My note on the quote above was “AHA, that’s still the problem. Great, this is the next angle/step!” Barber sets out to look once again at the big picture, moving beyond how we can make single ingredients (like tomatoes or beef) more sustainable.

“The Third Plate goes beyond raising awareness about the importance of farmers and sustainable agriculture. It helps us recognize that what we eat is part of an integrated whole, a web of relationships, that cannot be reduced to single ingredients. It champions a whole class of integral, yet uncelebrated, crops and cuts of meats that is required to produce the most delicious food. Like all great cuisines, it is constantly in flux, evolving to reflect the best of what nature can offer.” (33)

The early part of the book involves much discussion of Barber’s restaurant and farm endeavour. Well, of course his restaurant plays a role throughout the story, but in the beginning I felt dropped in the middle of it. Barber writes as though you’re familiar with his business endeavour, or as if knowing the background isn’t important – but I think it is because I didn’t really understand how he ran the farm and how it would accommodate the techniques he learns about. I would have appreciated a few pages fleshing out the background of how he came to run Blue Hill and how the Stone Barns operation functions.

Barber breaks the book into four large sections – soil, land (focused on foie gras), sea (focused on fish) and see (focused on bread). The soil chapter focus on soil, because it’s so integral to growing anything. A good place for the book to start. I felt too much space was devoted to fish, but I really don’t like fish so I wasn’t totally captivated. At least I was able to feel a bit better that I don’t eat unsustainable fish! There wasn’t a lot of direct talk about vegetables, because I suppose they’re covered under growing things in the soil chapter. I was very happy to come to the bread chapter (especially after reading so much about icky fish). Bread is my soul food (sometimes life in Japan is very hard when I can’t get nice bread ;-;).  My exact note was, “Oooh bread now we’re talking” (370). Barber references a book about the chicken industry (168). I love chicken but while reading this book I realized – I don’t think I’ve ever had a really good chicken, only chicken from the supermarket. Now that I understand more about where flavour comes from, I think it’s my duty to try a well-raised chicken.

I learnt a lot about different methods of agriculture. One passage that struck me was about Klaas, a farmer who went looking for books about weed control before the use of manufactured chemicals. He finally found a book written in the 1930s that said “Vigorous plant stands are the best means for eradicating weeds”. Klaas says, “I read that to [my wife] Mar-Howell and we just looked at each other and said ‘Duh! Focus on the best plants! How come we didn’t think of that” (66). Of course, it seems so obvious once you say it. Around page 108, with all the talk about how plants grow and overcome adversities, I was hit with the thought that it’s amazing plants just work, they just grow and do what they need to, and they would keep on growing and nature would keep balancing itself out, even if no one knew about it. I think that’s pretty freaking amazing. I learnt a bit about the USDA’s historical influence on farming systems and how that was recently overcome by the private sector’s influence:

“By the 1990s, private industry had surpassed the USDA in the funding of agricultural research at land-grant institutions. And the spending gap continued to expand. In a little more than a century, the spirit of a regional food system encouraged by land-grant colleges was effectively turned on its head” (434).

I also learnt a lot about how flavour occurs naturally in foods. It’s something I realized I had no idea about, despite being someone who loves flavourful food (who doesn’t?). I always kind of thought great flavour could only come from using extra seasonings like herbs. I never thought much of food tasting great on its own – which really sums up the problems with the food industry that Barber tackles in this book. For example, one thing I learnt is that exercising animals (such as pigs) makes room in the muscles for fat deposits, which means better flavour (190). Hmmm, interesting! Some parts of the book could have been strengthened by more scientific evidence (although see my comment in the final paragraph about notes). One part that struck me early on was the discussion of how killing soil kills nutrients and thus flavour (sorry, missed the page number). Sounds logical but I’d like some concrete scientific explanation, please, because it’s all new to me.

Barber’s focus here is flavour and how that can be achieved through chefs pursuing sustainable agriculture. He’s not talking about large-scale feasibility of the systems he explores, which is okay, I suppose. It’s not the focus of this book, but it’s definitely an important question. The ideas he writes about sound great, but how can we widely implement them beyond the privleged world of a chef’s fancy restaurant? The forms which Barber explores are definitely not affordable for most people. The numbers are indirectly mentioned about 1/3 of the way into the book (165). He acknowledges not everyone has the money to buy great flavour, and flavour is the focus of his book – not health, ethics or environment (if those areas are benefited in Barber’s cases, it’s because they’re a side effect or means to great flavour). At another point (293), he asks how do we keep in check the drive for economic returns? However, I’m still left wondering who can afford this and how many can you feed with these systems? That’s my question, but it’s not the one Barber sets out to answer. That’s fair, but I think it’s a topic that shouldn’t be avoided and could have had a chapter devoted to acknowledging it.

Barber does touch on environmental benefits, as the way to grow flavourful food comes from growing it in an environmentally friendly manner. He also writes that such systems could be better adaptable in a world affected by climate change.

“In the face of weather that is less predictable and more unforgiving, a diversity of locally adapted crops is one way for farmers to hedge their bets. Glenn’s landrace system isn’t just repatriating a lost cuisine. It’s gathering the seed stock for the future of eating” (409).

Something this book has that I haven’t really noticed in other food books is a certain style of humour. There’s some light cussing, small jokes, and colourful personalities. My favourite bit:

“I went with yellow mustard”‘ Klaas said, and then he leaned his head back and smiled mischievously. My expression didn’t change, which I could tell confused him. Had I known about the improbability of planting yellow mustard, I would have said, “Holy shit, Klaas. You planted a weed in your already weed-infested field?!” That’s what his Penn Yan neighbors said. (79)

Okay, I’m almost finished! Here are some notes on the end of the book. When I reached the end, I exclaimed “OH epilogue?!” because I found on myself on page 465 of 579.  Just as I was thinking “I’d like some encompassing wrap up idea”, Barber presents a new menu (475). Okay, that’s fine, but as I discuss above – it doesn’t really offer the practical answers of implementation that I was hoping for. But by the time I got to the end, I had accepted that wasn’t what Barber was exploring. His writing maybe opens the door for that practical discussion.  I’ll be picking through the bibliography for more food books to check out. A final comment on an ebook issue: I didn’t realize there were any notes until I manually flipped through to those pages at the very end. You can click the note to go back into the text, but you can’t go from the text into the notes, which would obviously be the more useful feature. I had no idea there were any citations while I was reading. Come on, ebook, let’s get with the game! You have so much potential.

“Fixtures of agribusiness such as five-thousand-acre grain monocultures and bloated animal feedlots are no more the future of farming than eighteenth-century factories billowing black smoke are the future of manufacturing” (20).

The Bottom Line: The Third Plate is a big book, yet there were parts I still wanted more of! Barber tackles a huge topic, giving the reader plenty of food for thought. I learned a lot, but would have appreciated some science-based explanations as I don’t know much about how farming works. Barber explores how to bring great flavour back into food while eating more of what nature provides. Although he is unable to provide answers to the global issues of food supply and sustainability (as this is beyond the scope of his book), he provides some great insights and an informative read.

Further Reading: 

  • I've been eyeing this one but passing on it for the same reason you did — I thought it was a Pollan repeat. But the focus on flavor looks interesting. Too bad about the notes section in the ebook, though.

  • Hah, glad to hear I'm not the only one who passed on it for that reason! I think the marketing for this book could have been done better. Connecting it to Pollan is a good idea, but if I had known it went beyond Pollan's ideas (such as with the flavour focus) I would have been more interested initially.

  • Sounds like an in depth book which I could learn a lot from. Thanks for a great review!

  • Thanks for stopping by, Vicki! I'm glad you enjoyed this post.