While I’m on the tractor or driving to a market, I frequently listen to books on tape. Audible is one of the best things for farmers, allowing us to get two things done at once. I usually listen to a mix of history, business, and food books.
The last book I finished was The Third Plate by Dan Barber. I have been privileged to meet him several times while at the Stone Barns Center where one of his Blue Hill restaurants is located. What I didn’t realize is that he was named one of Times 100 most influential people in 2009, or had won several coveted Chef awards.
The Third Plate is a history of agriculture, but told in a fascinating and taste-centric way. It is a culinary smorgasbord, describing various flavors, foods, and chefs. It is a hopeful book, describing the few in this country that are trying to right the culinary wrong that we have perpetuated over the last 200 years in this country. But overall, it is a storybook, bringing you to far off places like the Dehesa of Spain, the grain fields of western NY and Washington state, and many more. There are stories of wheat, tuna, emar, rice and corn and the infamous Foie Gras.
The overall premise of the book is Dan’s wrestling with sourcing ingredients, and how chefs have inadvertently singlehandedly caused the exploitation of resources. Demands for a consistent wheat has caused the proliferation of just two varieties, when there are over forty thousand available, with specific varieties having overtones of chocolate and other fascinating flavor profiles. The demand for greater and greater yields has diluted the flavor that was once known by our ancestors. Tuna used to be a canner fish, and now has been fished almost to extinction because chefs popularized it.
Back in the day, oatmeal, porridge, and corn meal mush were staples. One of the reasons for the lack of interest in these inexpensive, nutritious foods is because all the flavor has been bred out of the modern varieties. Dan talks about using ancient corn for polenta, and how the flavor and smell changed his opinion of this dish.
This book is definitely worth the read. It is a great education about food, food culture, and how some of the best chefs in the world are wrestling to affect change in an industry which relies primarily on a refrigerated tractor trailer backing up to their door twice a day.