Dan Barber

The Third Plate

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The Third Plate Summary

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The Third Plate is a 2014 novel about cooking and its relationship to ecology by contemporary chef Dan Barber. In it, Barber argues for a new way of thinking about food that he believes will be the future of dining in America. Backgrounding his argument, he traces the evolution of American food starting with the main “plates,” or conceptions of the meal, since the Industrial Revolution: the first was highly industrial and meat-heavy, due to factory farming; and the second involves more grass-fed meat and organic greens. Barber argues that these two conceptions of the American diet are insufficient from both a human health and environmental perspective. The “third plate” that he proposes is a type of food production rooted in the natural, seasonal cycles of produce, including the natural rhythms of livestock, whole grains, and much smaller amounts of free-range meat. Barber’s book thus functions also as a guide ordinary people can implement to eat healthier.

Barber begins the novel by exploring the complexity of environmental issues in America and the world that are raised by the methods humans currently use to farm and fish. He argues that the factory model of the industrial revolution has all but vanished from food production, merely existing in more subtle forms than before and obfuscated by language such as “grass-fed” and “free-range.” Barber argues that if we treat our land and water kindly, then the food we produce will both taste better and be better for human health and environmental flourishing.

Next, Barber explores some examples from along his quest to find new raw materials for cooking. He explores not only the ultimate products, but also the different people and systems that produce them. He recalls a fish farm in Spain where he noticed the depth of environmental health that their methods produced, remembering the large number of birds of all different species that naturally flourished in the area. He recalls another farm in Spain, where he observed a different kind of farmer who utilized a combination of geese, pigs, acorns, and olives together in one cyclical system to create healthy products. Barber also recalls a man named Glenn Roberts, a miller viewed internationally as fanatic, who has revived original, non-genetically modified versions of rice and other crops in the farms of South Carolina, creating palettes that are both historically true and healthier components of his farm system.

Barber also talks about his own farm. Called Stone Barns, Barber explicates his philosophy for the limits of the farm acting as the only borders for the system of the farm itself. There, each organism is raised as well as possible, its own environmental factors and consequences compounding into the next. He observes how thoughtfully his farmer has to react and draw from the farm’s resources when Barber communicates his requests for ingredients.

Barber next traces the ingredients he incorporates outside Stone Barns as a case study for how the “third plate” can work. Some of his ingredients come from the area surrounding western New York; specifically, the town called Penn Yan, mainly the farm owned by Klaas and Mary-Howell Martens. He states that there is more organic farmland than people realize: in this area alone, there are 5,000 acres of continuous space for organic farming, all created newly within the past 20 years. The development of this land started a chain reaction, as neighboring farmers observed that the Martens family was wealthier both financially and in the quality of their crops.

Yet, Barber acknowledges the nearly insurmountable resistance there is to any “third plate” farming ecology, only exacerbated by common ignorance. He mentions how overfishing is going stronger than ever, mass trawling destroying the very seabeds that are critical to the cyclical flourishing of fish communities, and dumping nearly dead, unused fish back into the sea. The popularized meals of the moment lead to the overfishing of their component fish, nearly wiping them out. He mentions that today, we have almost consumed the totality of truly wild fish. The destruction of the rainforest is almost insignificant relative to the destruction of the seas.

Moving onto land farms, Barber explicates the ecological crimes of the Big Wheat industry. He explains that the average person residing in the U.S. consumes 130 pounds of wheat each year; this supply is grown together in a huge monoculture spanning the Midwestern states. The monoculture’s prevailing strains of wheat are much shorter than in the past, and have shallower roots that can absorb fewer nutrients. This compounds into other ecological issues: the shorter roots require more wasteful use of fertilizer and water.

Barber’s book intricately links the issues of human public health, environmental flourishing and sustainability, and deliciousness. The conclusion of his experience of ecological food systems is that the best farming is systems-minded. A systems-minded farm not only acknowledges that it is a universe of interrelated organisms that depend on each other, but also that to draw from one also requires thought about humans’ role in the same system. Barber’s final remark is that people should put pressure on celebrated chefs to change our eating habits toward systems-minded thinking and “enlarge our sense of what is delicious.”