I remember it was a Tuesday afternoon in July, sometime during the mid-nineteen nineties, right near the end of that peaceful era before cell phones, at the earliest dawning of the internet. The courtyard of Magic’s Pub in Westhampton Beach was a good place for lunch in those days, and I sat there re-reading The Sun Also Rises. A few chapters deep and a few cold beers deeper, I found myself on a landline phone at the bar with the ticketing desk at JFK booking myself, and the waitress, on the most direct flights possible to the festival of San Fermín, in Navarre, Spain. Two days later, on a Thursday, we arrived.
For the nearly two decades since that spontaneous summer tour, I have often tried to explain the captivating and ever-alluring nature of that region. I have studied the culture, learned the language, obsessed over their recipes and returned to Spain a number of times. To date, I have never been able to accurately describe or even understand the ethos, the magnetism or the electrical charge surrounding Spanish cuisine. Although my very first experience had stamped a permanent imprint on my visceral understanding of what really, genuinely good food was all about, the precise and exact reasons why have eluded me. Until now.
In his celebrated first book, The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food, chef and author Dan Barber nails it. Using Extremadura, a region of western Spain as a backdrop, this quick-witted rapid-fire story teller has managed to fluently illuminate the dehesa, or Spanish countryside, using bright and descriptive language that teases a vicarious experience out of the reader.
Here in this monumental time in the history of food in our country, Barber takes off the gloves and digs deep, providing a “subterranean view” of the movement from (beneath) the ground up. Starting at the roots, he simplifies the often complex kaleidoscope of historical food regions, players, trends, ingredients, influences and philosophies, and then paints a broad-stroke picture of neo-American cuisine using a fine-point brush. From the dynamic and unique perspective of a chef on a farm, who was initially on the hunt for better flavor, Barber carefully plots a Sherlock Holmes style story line at times filled with clues, discoveries and a-ha revelations. From beneath the soil he then moves upward to the land, or tierra, which he explains, quite convincingly, means much more in a holistic sense than “just what is under your feet.”
Neatly categorized with sections on “Sea” and “Seed” following those on “Soil” and “Land,” his book takes you on a series of exhilarating and strategic adventures. Although there is a palpable undercurrent of urgent societal crisis pulsing between the front and back covers, the pages are also sprinkled with laugh-out-loud moments, replete with heroes and villains. Through exhaustive bouts of trial-and-error in the field and in the kitchen, at home and abroad, this “story of Dan Barber” fundamentally details one man’s pensive explorations for solutions to the ominous industrialized agri-business food system in the United States.
What I was stunned to discover in this book was that, like all good things, the farm-to-table movement will one day come to an end and it is in our interest if that day comes sooner than later, according to Barber. “Cherry-picking the best of the best at the farmers market while touting the flag of sustainability, is not the answer,” he told me recently. Instead we must collectively begin to “seek ways to disturb nature in a more thoughtful and elegant way, by beginning to ‘cook with the entire farm’ not just with the most popular produce.”
By humbly describing his own growth and evolution as a student, a chef, a husband and a father within the context of the modern day food movement, Barber’s down-to-earth practical advice for the future of food resonates strongly as a recipe for positive change. His assessment, essentially, is that this is a journey and we are all on it and although there has been some progress with local and organic sourcing over the past decade now is the time to really engage and take the next steps.
To gain an educated, informed and candid perspective on what the American dinner table should begin to look like as the peaceful era of farm-to-table dining dies on the vine, The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food, is a must read.