Book Review: The Third Plate

I finished Dan Barber’s latest book,  The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food.  It was published back in May 2014, so I’m not on any cutting edges here.  I enjoyed the book.  I also grumbled my way through it.

Dan’s point is that we need to continue changing our eating.  Lots of folks have pivoted away from fast food and non-organic food.  But he wants us to consider not just switching from grain fed steaks to grass fed steaks, or from unseasonal bland tomatoes to seasonal flavorful tomatoes, but to rethink an entire diet that can be sourced from locally appropriate varieties that have been selected for taste, that produces more edible food per acre, that waste less, and that nurtures deep ecological connections between all aspects of the systems producing those foods.

I believe Dan is articulating a profound truth, that we can’t just switch to organic or to grass fed and then congratulate ourselves that we’ve done all we need to do.  Our health and our stewardship for the prosperity of future generations demands a continuous process of reexamining our eating.

This is probably more my shortcoming than his, but the proletarian in me has a hard time getting past the position of privilege from which Dan’s perspectives are informed, the costs of the meals he is describing, and the very limited slice of the population that can afford those meals.  Dan’s experience with farming is valid and he is without qualification a great chef.  I don’t dispute that he is knowledgeable about both arts.  But his world is different from the context of all the farmers and cooks I know.  Running a farm-to-table restaurant on farmland donated by the Rockefeller family, working with budgets that allow multiple staff workers per acre (versus about 50 acres per person in our case), and serving meals that cost $198 per guest; his experience of farming is vastly different from mine.  Much of the book focuses on archetypically expensive and luxurious foods like Eduardo Sousa’s gavage-free foie gras (several hundred dollars per pound) and Jamon Iberico (more affordable at only about $100 per pound).  And while wheat cultivation is also an important topic in the book, the extended discussion of “uppity” foods distracted me.

I’ll admit that my perspective is at least partly at fault for being too narrow.  I love eating.  I love eating well.  I love what I perceive to be good food.  But I’ve never gone to fine restaurants to find it.  I have no experience eating at the table of any celebrity chef.  I’ve never tasted a bottle of wine that cost more than $25; I’ve never tasted foie gras or Jamon Iberico.  My favorite foods are pork butt, apples, carrots, sharp cheddar, fermented dill pickles, fried eggs, pale ale, raw whole milk, and strong coffee.  I can recognize grades of quality in all the above, but nothing in that list costs more than about $10 per pound, even in their organic, locally-grown or fair-trade varieties.  Everything Dan says may be true in the context of fine restaurants, but my world never intersects with that one.  I am intensely focused on satisfying home cooking.  That’s something I understand.  That’s something I deeply appreciate.

I deal with people who look at my $7.50 per pound ground beef and then decide to buy the stew meat because it is a few cents cheaper.  There is certainly good support for the idea that trickle-down theory applies among restaurants, that star chefs create food trends that are progressively imitated, amalgamated, and bastardized as the ideas descend the culinary quality scale (think Andy Ricker’s well-regarded Pok Pok restaurant on one end of the Thai food continuum and Wendy’s “Creamy Sriracha Sauce” on the other end), but I’m not persuaded that trickle-down flows very consistently from fine dining to home cooking.  A lot of Dan’s conceptions about the future of food are present realities in my customers’ kitchens.  They are already using shanks, soup bones, lard, and liver.  I’m not convinced that we need chefs to lead the way to a better future.  Many (perhaps even most) of our meat-buying customers have been vegetarians themselves or have vegetarians in their families, so they have gotten past the fixation on the dominant, ubiquitous meat platters a long time ago.  For families that have already taken the first steps toward home/scratch cooking, simple home economics dictates that the Porterhouse is an occasional treat and that beef stew is more likely to be served.  And Jamon Iberico?  Not ever on the table.

I’m aware that my criticism can also be turned back and used against me.  Any criticism of privilege or extravagance can be criticised yet again by someone with a lower threshold for luxury.  I’m stuck on this because I can’t imagine idealising a food economy that showcases $100 per pound for ham, but then there are people who can’t afford the $15 package of bacon I sell.  So again, I acknowledge what I see as weaknesses in the book are related to my inability to see past my perceptions of elitism.

Read the book.  Even if you are a fault-finding quibbler like I am, this is a book like The Omnivore’s Dilemma that deserves consideration from the eating public.  I guarantee your stomach will rumble through several descriptive passages.  In any case, it will be a better use of your time than reading the next feedlot-fattened, corn-fed, hormone-implanted, antibiotic-supported, methane-belching Clive Cussler novel.

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