Last week I promised you a book review that would complement my post about not taking food for granted, to include in a (nature) spiritual sense. I have to admit that that post was strongly influenced by having just completed my rather eager reading of Dan Barber’s The Third Plate: Field Notes From the Future of Food. It’s a dangerous book in the best way possible–it got me to thinking.
See, as I’ve gotten older I’ve become something of an aspiring amateur foodie, with a particular emphasis on sustainability. I’m much too cash-strapped to afford any restaurant that has a constellation of Michelin stars, and my partner and I are more likely to shop at CostCo and the farmer’s market than Whole Foods. But we have our community garden plot and a few pots on our tiny apartment balcony, and these help me feel a little more connected to the terrifyingly complex systems that bring food to most Americans’ plates.
Truth be told, I’m probably more aware of these systems and their impacts than the majority of people in this country, which is why The Third Plate has been added to my short list of books I think everyone ought to read. There’s a severe lack of food literacy in the U.S., and in recent years several authors ranging from Michael Pollan to Jane Goodall have offered up their written reasonings on why we need to be paying more attention. We can be a tough audience, though; five decades of being told the environment’s going to hell, life-giving soil included, has served to overstimulate and then numb us to the problems we face. Apathy may very well be our downfall, if we aren’t careful.
But this is why I absolutely loved The Third Plate. It’s a delightfully inviting read, where Barber brings us all along on his journey from his own farm on the skirts of New York City, to an inventive seed facility in the Skagit Valley in Washington, and even far across the Atlantic to coastal Spain where pigs and geese alike root through acorn-studded fields. Each stop brings us face to face with some creative individual working to stop the corporate-harnessed juggernaut that is the American food system, whether through resurrecting old resources, or mindfully inventing new ones (or, quite often, some combination thereof).
This is no dry agriculture textbook, though; instead, the true-life stories of farmers, chefs and other innovators illustrate each chapter as Barber discusses how soil, land, sea and seed all come together to feed us. Right off the bat, we enter into the world of Klaas Martens, a wheat farmer who started with being poisoned by his own chemicals, and embarks on a journey that leads him to perennial wheat with roots as long as Rapunzel’s hair. There’s Veta la Palma, an aquaculture facility (read: fish farm) that defies the stereotype of environmental degradation and instead has become a prime spot for migrating birds (even if they do pick off fish with some frequency). Fans of Southern cooking may be surprised to find that what’s being offered to them is a lie, and Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills is determined to shine light on the truth. And far in the Northwest farmlands, Steve Jones works to bolster the available variety of seeds with something old and something new (but nothing GMO), further insuring us against the collapse of a mainstream agriculture that is all too reliant on monocultures and a tiny seed catalog.
These and other key movers and shakers in the grassroots “let’s eat better, more sustainable food” movement share their stories and their motivations through Barber’s words. Not everything goes smoothly; a key critic of overfishing is served a piece of bluefin tuna, and not even the ancient manner in which it was fished can mollify him. And Barber’s own attempts to recreate the “field gras”, a more humane way to grow tasty goose liver, takes some serious trial and error to even get out of the gate (spoiler: opening the gate solves the problem).
But in the end, we’re left with a glowing sense of optimism, even with its realistic tempering. The real beauty of The Third Plate is in its ability to inspire and motivate the reader. Barber (like Pollan, Goodall, and their ilk) presents both the problems inherent to our current food system, and a variety of real-world solutions. Where he really shines, though, is in showing how people more deeply involved in the relevant industries than the average consumer are making real changes. We here on the eating end of things all too often feel like our ability to create change is limited to our buying power (such as it is). Barber shines light on a handful of the growing number of people who are doing extraordinary things in restaurant kitchens, in fields and estuaries, on farms and in research facilities, all aimed at a more sustainable–and flavorful–future of food. By showing where each of these innovators started, what their root problems were, and then sharing the sometimes long and winding paths they took to their current and ongoing solutions, he breaks down the process of changing the world into more accessible portions. And in doing so he reveals that every one of them is just an ordinary person doing their best right along with the rest of us.
I find that to be incredibly inspiring, particularly as a person of rather limited means and resources. Even before I was finished with the first section of the book on soil, I was already researching options for getting the soil in my little 10′ x 20′ community garden plot tested, and wondering if I should try to plant a winter crop of emmer wheat next to my red clover cover to help the soil this autumn. This is a book for creating dreams, even if they’re a little over the top. Because it’s that willingness to break out of established parameters and be a little crazy that has given the people in this book–and Barber himself–the power and impetus to make change happen. I’ll be doing more reading and research into organic farming beyond “no chemicals”, but I’ll also return to The Third Plate whenever I feel my enthusiasm flagging.
As to who should read this book? Like I said in the beginning: everyone. Even if you don’t garden, even if you’ve never even been on a farm, no matter what your dietary choices and restrictions may be–if you eat food, this is a must-read. And don’t be scared by the almost 500 pages contained between the covers; it’s a fast, compelling read that has the power to keep you up well past bedtime.
More information on the book, as well as ordering options, may be found here on the book’s official website.