Book review:The Third Plate, by Dan Barber
Updated: Mar 27, 2018
I am a student of sustainability. I have therefore read many books on this subject that have influenced my thought process over the years and has also allowed me to influence other people’s thinking. But it is not often that you come across a book that opens up new worlds and pastures for you of a landscape you thought you knew so well and does so in such a pleasant and delicious manner. I was so impressed by this book that I considered gifting it to all giftees that I will for sure come across this year.
For those of us who consider ourselves serious foodies (myself not included), this book is a must read because it really talks about food as something that not only nourishes our souls (and perhaps our dreams too) but also is part of our culture (as in the case of the almadraba or the dehesa in Spain) and in many ways shapes our geopolitical future ( as was the case in the making of this country’s Dustbowl.)
As I was reading the book I was looking forward to writing a book review on it but then realized, no book review IMHO could do it justice. So I decided to do the next best thing (again IMHO.) I decided to include this link from NYT’s review of the book and word by word transcribe a few passages from each of the four sections of the book which I found so exquisite that I wish I was there in first person to experience the feelings behind the word.
Like a well cooked and served meal, enjoy!
When asked by the moderator to describe his work, Wes simply said, “I’m solving the ten-thousand-year-old problem of agriculture.” To his mind, agriculture’s problem is not mega-farms or feedlots or chemical fertilizers. The problem is agriculture itself. On the walk back to the hotel that evening, I asked him about the possibility of his perennial wheat appearing anytime soon, a question I later learned annoys Wes, because he hears it so often. But he only cranked up his slow prairie drawl and said, not immodestly, “If you’re working on a problem you can solve in your own lifetime, you’re not thinking big enough.” He said he wanted to show me what he meant.
I followed him to his room, where he handed me a cardboard shipping tube. I started uncorking the tube. He stopped me. “Go ahead and roll it out, but do it in the hallway. It won’t fit in the room.” I unfurled the photographic banner onto the hallway carpet. It was twenty-two feet long and reached down the corridor, past the doorways of two other rooms. Wes bent down and evened out the crinkles. On the left was a life-size profile of perennial prairie wheat, showing the plant both above and below the soil. Above ground, the stalks, leaves, and seed head took up less than half the photograph. Below ground, the wheat’s root system was at least eight feet long–a Rapunzel-like tangle of thick fibers anchored deep in the soil. I stepped back. The roots merged into what looked like the trunk of a sequoia tree, only growing down instead of up. “That’s nature investing–digging into the soil, seeking nutrients and moisture,” Wes said as I studied what once had been the underbelly of the prairie.
To the right of this, a photo showed another patch of wheat, above and below ground. But this was modern wheat, the kind that’s planted each year and, as Wes reminded me, “occupies sixty million acres of real estate in this country alone.” Above ground, the wheat was a much shorter copy of its perennial cousin. But below ground, the roots were wispy, thin hairs, barely an arm’s length in depth. Compared with the perennial, they looked laughably anemic, needle threads next to those dreadlocks. Such are the roots that blanket the prairie and fill those bags of white flour dumped into the bin in front of my office. I was looking at the roots of my cuisine. “Those wimpy little things,” Wes said, smiling. “There’s your problem right there.”
Until the 1800s, almost everyone who visited the Great Plains thought the problem was the prairie itself. The massive land area was called the Great American Desert, which, from the perspective of people accustomed to things like trees, is a forgivable first impression. But also a mistaken one. In fact, there was plenty of aboveground diversity in the prairie. Add to the grasses the surrounding two hundred or so broadleaf flowering plants, the forbs, shrubs, and sedges, and what you had was a kaleidoscope of natural variety–a richly purposeful system in which grass and plant depended on one another to thrive. And yet, the true wealth of any prairie exists in the soil, where the majority of the biomass resides (unlike, say, a rainforest ecology, where the richness, or biomass, is mostly above the surface).
Over the course of the next decade, our country’s midsection heaved hundreds of thousands of years’ worth of incomparably rich soil into the air. Some regions lost more than 75 percent of their topsoil. The decade came to be known as the Dirty Thirties, and it marks one of the worst environmental disasters in our history. In his book The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl.
During one of my first nights in the kitchen at Chez Panisse, in 1994, a desert leaving the pastry station caught my eye. Actually I more or less gasped in disbelief, and that’s not because the desert was so beautiful (it was) or because I hadn’t seen a dessert like it before (I hadn’t). I gasped because it was a single peach on a dessert plate, no sprig of mint, no swish of raspberry sauce. It was Peach, unadorned.
A few weeks of observation on the kitchen turned into several months of exploration of the farms that supplied the restaurant. I stayed largely on account of that peach. When I took a bite of it later that night, did the lights dim and the warmth of a religious spirit come over me? No, but I’ve never tasted something quite so peachy. As I bit into it, I remember thinking that the peach had a fullness of flavor to it- bold, like a stew of meat- that made you think you had in your mouth something much richer than fruit.
It was the best peach of my life, but I have to qualify that, because, like most Americans born in the past fifty years, I didn’t know what a peach should taste like. Breeders in the 1970s and ‘80s created new varieties for functionality, not for flavor.
Masumoto’s peaches were incredibly delicious. Alice was saying. Taste what Mas Masumoto created; I can’t do better.
When you eat in season, you are close to nature and get the best of nature’s products. Even a perfect peach when it’s flown halfway around the world to be eaten can’t provide that same sense of satisfaction or flavor or nutrients.Eating with the seasons allows us to experience peak freshness and intense flavor.
Barbate is the most famous of the almadraba towns along the coast, and El Campero, as restaurants go, is bluefin ground zero. Nose-to-tail dining is how a place like El Campero would be described in Brooklyn or Berkeley. (And that may be underplaying it; you can order tuna face, heart, ear, and semen.) As we waited for Miguel, Lisa explained how bluefin is a way of life there.” Like Eskimos and their fifty name for snow, the people of Barbate have twenty-five words to describe parts of the tuna,” she told me.
“The almadraba tuna are at the peak of flavor. All of the energy goes into great intramuscular fat, producing a tuna that is at the moment of perfect flavor.” I thought of the Copper River salmon that David Bouley had exalted in his kitchen. I had always assumed the Japanese purchased from the almadraba because of dwindling stocks-a desperate move to satiate their world-leading appetite for tuna. But now I realized that the superior flavor must have driven the interest as well.
“The legend is that the tuna hear a siren call from the Mediterranean at a certain point in their lives. It’s at the point that their meat is at its best- the most optimal point to eat tuna. So they go to spawn. But what brings them into the nets?” “ There’s a legend to this too. It’s that the tuna’s fatty belly gets an itch, like a pregnant woman. They are drawn to the shallow waters to satisfy the itch. This is when they stumble into the nets.”
While Pepe shared his legend of the tuna, I impulsively dunked a slice of toro in the soy sauce and dropped it into the mouth. I couldn’t believe the flavor. It was richer and more intense than any tuna I had ever tasted, a fact that I noted to Pepe.
The day Klaas’s wheat first arrived at the restaurant, no one knew what to do with it. That night, Alex couldn’t sleep. “Because I am the pastry chef,” he said. “So of course, I should know flour. A carpenter knows a hammer, doesn’t he? If you hand him another kind of hammer, an older hammer, maybe it’s longer and heavier and really weird, and maybe it takes him a moment to adjust, but he can still use the hammer, no? He doesn’t put the hammer down and say, ‘I am sorry, but I can no longer build this table here.” The next day, he rebounded with an idea. He made a classic brioche loaf but substituted the whole emmer wheat for white flour.
Alex milled the emmer wheat in the same tabletop grinder we had used for the Eight Row Flint corn. “The more we ground”, he said, “the more the kitchen started to smell like dirt. No, not dirt. Nature. It smelled like nature, like going on vacation with my parents in the summertime when I was a kid, in the field when the wind blows through the wheat.”
For me the tip-off came from the dusty-smelling brioche that Alex made with conventional wheat flour. It didn’t taste good. The truth is, most of the whole wheat grown in this country does not taste good. So the question is why- why did that batch of pre-ground conventional whole wheat flour taste so different from Klaas’s?
One answer has to do with fresh milling. The natural oil in the wheat germ are what imbue it with flavor, but they have a short shelf life. Seriously short, they begin to spoil as soon as they are released. That’s true for nutrients as well- flour has been shown to lose almost half its nutrients within just twenty-four hours of milling. Another answer is soil. Whereas Klaas employed thoughtful crop rotation and careful soil management, the conventional batch undoubtedly came from chemically doused fields, starved of nutrients.
But I have come to understand that even soil doesn’t dial back far enough. You can still end up with flavorless wheat- because modern wheat is not bred for flavor. We’ve lost the taste of wheat, in part, because we’ve stopped breeding it for flavor.