Review: The Third Plate by Dan Barber
If there are two causes I can jump behind, it's healthy, local eating and being kind to the environment, two major themes in Dan Barber's book, The Third Plate. I'd read the reviews and was intrigued by the hype about this book when it first came out this past summer. The premise of Barber's ideas and findings, is that America, specifically, needs to find a different way to eat because the country isn't doing itself any favours with the way it produces and consumes food now. Barber has managed to shock, insult and amaze an entire nation before he finishes the introduction to his work.
The book is titled after Barber's vision of the future of the American dinner plate. Unlike the first and second plates, which focus heavily on meat, this third plate will focus on locally grown and organic vegetables, with only a small focus on the meat, which will also be local. The future of food is not only something that becomes closer to home but relies heavily on products that can be grown in the ground instead of products that feed off the ground. Making sense?
What I found most interesting about this book was not this new concept of the third plate, but the very old concept of farming, and how the process of tending to the land, even for just one season, can affect the taste, growth and environment of the crop and its surrounding area. The microbes and protozoa and ants and worms and birds all need each other to make the soil a place when crops can grow, just like all the diagrams in the high school biology text books show.
With urbanization and modernization, something as basic to our human needs as producing our own food is a process I know little about. Growing up in the suburbs with a backyard, my mother kept a small garden, most notably with snap peas and fence climbing sun flowers, where I learned as a child that food comes from the ground and you have to take care of it while it's growing or it won't turn into anything edible. But understanding soil conditions, crop rotation and harvesting techniques? Not a clue.
One such example of a food ecosystem is the dehesa. Located in South Western Spain and Portugal, the dehesa is a place when all aspects of the environment, from the soil to the animals that live there, are connected and benefit from each other in some way. The region is famous for producing jamon iberico, a cured ham that is produced like an art form in this region. The environment, with its dense grasses and oak trees, provides the proper nourishment for pigs and the pigs, in turn, roam around the land fertilizing the grasses along with the sheep and cows that graze in the pasture.
Taking any one of these elements away will greatly affect the entire area, maybe not tomorrow, or next spring, but in years time it could mean the slow rot of the oak trees of the stoppage of bird migration to the area and eventually the slow decline of a system. When I go to the grocery store and ask the butcher behind the counter for 100 grams of sliced ham, it does not cross my mind how many factors go into creating the filling for my sandwich.
A simple takeaway from the book: "What we refer to as the beginning and the end of the food chain - a field on a farm at one end, a plate of food at the other - isn't really a chain at all. The food chain is actually more like a set of Olympic rings. They all hang together." pg. 21
Despite the fact I didn't care for the writing style of the book (Barber is a chef, not a writer, after all), I think it raises points about the interconnectivity and sustainability of our food system which need to receive more attention. I encourage picking The Third Plate up to learn and understand the true practice of growing food, and how we can all be humbled and excited about the process.