Today’s optimistic farm-to-table food culture has a dark secret: the local food movement has failed to change how we eat. It has also offered a false promise for the future of food. In his visionary New York Times–bestselling book, chef Dan Barber, recently showcased on Netflix’s Chef’s Table, offers a radical new way of thinking about food that will heal the land and taste good, too. Looking to the detrimental cooking of our past, and the misguided dining of our present, Barber points to a future “third plate”: a new form of American eating where good farming and good food intersect. Barber’s The Third Plate charts a bright path forward for eaters and chefs alike, daring everyone to imagine a future for our national cuisine that is as sustainable as it is delicious.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.20(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
A corncob, dried and slightly shriveled, arrived in the mail not long after we opened Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Along with the cob was a check for $1,000. The explanation arrived the same day, in an e-mail I received from Glenn Roberts, a rare-seeds collector and supplier of specialty grains. Since Blue Hill is part of the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, a multipurpose farm and education center, Glenn wanted my help persuading the vegetable farmer to plant the corn in the spring. He said the corn was a variety called New England Eight Row Flint.
There is evidence, Glenn told me, that Eight Row Flint corn dates back to the 1600s, when, for a time, it was considered a technical marvel. Not only did it consistently produce eight fat rows of kernels (four or five was the norm back then; modern cobs have eighteen to twenty rows), but it also had been carefully selected by generations of Native Americans for its distinctive flavor. By the late 1700s the corn was widely planted in western New England and the lower Hudson Valley, and later it was found as far as southern Italy. But a brutally cold winter in 1816 wiped out the New England crop. Seed reserves were exhausted to near extinction as most of the stockpiled corn went to feed people and livestock.
The cob Glenn had sent was from a line that had survived for two hundred years in Italy under the name Otto File (“eight rows”), which he hoped to restore to its place of origin. By planting the seed, he wrote, we would be growing “an important and threatened historic flavor of Italy while simultaneously repatriating one of New England’s extinct foodways. Congratulations on your quest, Dan, and thank you for caring.” Glenn added, in case I didn’t care, that the Eight Row was “quite possibly the most flavorful polenta corn on the planet, and absolutely unavailable in the U.S.” At harvest he promised another $1,000. He wanted nothing in return, other than a few cobs to save for seed.
If his offer sounds like a home run for Stone Barns, it was. Here was a chance to recapture a regional variety and to honor a Native American crop with historical significance. For me, it was a chance to cook with an ingredient no other restaurant could offer on its menu (catnip for any chef) and to try the superlative polenta for myself.
Yet I carried the corncob over to Jack Algiere, the vegetable farmer, with little enthusiasm. Jack is not a fan of growing corn, and, with only eight acres of field production on the farm, you can’t blame him for dismissing a plant that demands so much real estate. Corn is needy in other ways, too. It’s gluttonous, requiring, for example, large amounts of nitrogen to grow. From the perspective of a vegetable gardener, it’s the biological equivalent of a McMansion.
In the early stages of planning Stone Barns Center, I told Jack about a farmer who was harvesting immature corn for our menu. It was a baby cob, just a few inches long, the kernels not yet visible. You ate the whole cob, which brought to mind the canned baby corn one finds in a mediocre vegetable stir-fry. Except these tiny cobs were actually tasty. I wanted to impress Jack with the novelty of the idea. He was not impressed.
“You mean your farmer grows the whole stalk and then picks the cobs when they’re still little?” he said, his face suddenly scrunched up, as if he were absorbing a blow to the gut. “That’s nuts.” He bent over and nearly touched the ground with his right hand, then stood up on his toes and, with his left hand, reached up, high above my head, hiking his eyebrows to indicate just how tall a corn’s stalk grows. “Only after all that growth will corn even begin to think about producing the cob. That big, thirsty, jolly green giant of a stalk—which even when it produces full-size corn has to be among the plant kingdom’s most ridiculous uses of Mother Nature’s energy—and what are you getting for all that growth? You’re getting this.” He flashed his pinky finger. “That’s all you’re getting.” He rotated his hand so I could see his finger from all angles. “One tiny, pretty flavorless bite of corn.”
One summer when I was fourteen years old, Blue Hill Farm, my family’s farm in Massachusetts, grew only corn. No one can remember why. But it was the strangest summer. I think back to it now with the same sense of bewilderment I felt as a child encountering the sea of gold tassels where the grass had always been.
Before Blue Hill Farm became a corn farm for a summer, I helped make hay for winter storage from one of the eight pasture fields. We began in early August, loading bales onto a conveyor belt and methodically packing them, Lego-like, into the barn’s stadium-size second floor. By Labor Day the room was filled nearly to bursting, its own kind of landscape.
Making hay meant first cutting the grass, which—for me, anyway—meant riding shotgun in a very large tractor for hours each day, crouching silently next to one of the farmers and studying the contours of the fields. And so, by way of no special talent, just repetition, I learned to anticipate the dips and curves in the fields, the muddy, washed-out places, the areas of thick shrubbery and thinned grasses—when to brace for a few minutes of a bumpy ride and when to duck under a protruding branch.
I internalized those bumps and curves the way my grandmother Ann Strauss internalized the bumps and curves of Blue Hill Road by driving it for thirty years. She always seemed to be going to town (to get her hair done) or coming back (from running errands). Sometimes my brother, David, and I were with her, and we used to laugh in the backseat, because Ann (never “Grandma,” never “Grandmother”) rounded the corners in her Chevy Impala at incredible speeds, maneuvering with the ease and fluency of a practiced finger moving over braille. Her head was often cranked to the left or to the right, antennae engaged, inspecting a neighbor’s garden or a renovated screened-in porch. (She sometimes narrated the intrigue happening inside.) During these moments her body took over, autopiloting around corners without having to slow down, swerving slightly to avoid the ditch just beyond Bill Riegleman’s home.
Often, on the last leg of the drive, Ann would tell us the story of how she came to buy the farm in the 1960s, a story she had told a thousand times before. Back then, the property was a dairy operation owned by the Hall brothers, whose family had farmed the land since the late 1800s.
“You know, I used to walk up this road every week for years; sometimes every day,” she would say, as if telling the story for the first time. “I loved Blue Hill Farm more than any place in the world.” At the top of Blue Hill Road was four hundred acres of open pasture. “But what a mess! I couldn’t believe it, really. They had cows pasturing in the front yard. The house was run-down, and so dirty. They didn’t have a front door—climbed in and out through the kitchen window, for heaven’s sake. And you know what? I loved it. I loved the fields, I loved the backdrop of blue hills, I loved that I felt like a queen every time I came up here.”
Whenever Ann saw the Hall brothers, she would let them know she wanted to buy the farm. “But they just laughed. ‘Ms. Strauss,’ they’d say, ‘this farm’s been in our family for three generations. We’re never selling.’ So I’d return the next week, and they’d say the same thing: ‘Never selling.’ This went on for many years, until one day I arrived at the farm and one of the brothers came running over, out of breath. ‘Ms. Strauss, do you want to buy this farm?’ Just like that! I couldn’t believe it. He didn’t even let me answer. ‘This morning my brother and I got into the biggest fight. If we don’t sell now, we’re going to kill each other.’ I said I was interested. For sure I would buy a piece of it. ‘Ma’am,’ he said, ‘we’re selling it now—the whole thing, or forget it. Right now.’
“So I said yes. I hadn’t even been inside the farmhouse, and I didn’t know where the property began and where it ended. But it didn’t matter. What else was I going to say? I just knew this was the place.”
The dairy part of Blue Hill Farm disappeared with the Hall brothers, but Ann began pasturing beef cattle, because she wanted the fields to remain productive and because she enjoyed showing off the view to her friends; the image of cows dotting the iconic New England landscape is still fit for a coffee table book.
At the time, I didn’t know about the importance of preserving that kind of view. I just enjoyed the tractor rides, the look back at the field lined with the long, curving windrows of just-cut grass, and then, as I got older, the hard work of baling and storing hay for the winter.
Which, as it happened, suddenly came to an end because of the summer of corn. The maize invasion meant the cows grazed at another farm, which meant the hours of fixing fences and lugging salt licks and watching the herd lie and chew cud before a rainstorm came to an end, too. And since you don’t tend to a field of corn—in the same way you don’t really tend to a houseplant—it meant the baler and the hay wagons, the farm interns, the red Ford F-150 pickup truck, the big iced tea jug, and all the sweaty work went with them.
To look out from the front porch at what had always been fields of grass transformed suddenly into amber fields of corn felt not quite right. Same home, new furniture. Endless rows of corn are one of those things that are beautiful to behold at a distance. They tremble in great waves with the slightest breeze, and you think of beauty and abundance. Up close it’s a different story. For one thing, the abundance is relative. We can’t eat feed corn—I tried to that summer. The enormous cobs line the stalks like loaded missiles, tasting nothing like the sweet stuff we chainsaw through in August. And there’s little in the way of beauty. The long, straight rows take on a military-like discipline. They cut across bare soil, hard corners and creased edges replacing the natural contours of the field that I once knew so well.
I handed Jack the Eight Row Flint cob from Glenn and explained the situation, fearing that if the idea of growing corn offended him, the check for $1,000 might upset him even more. But I was wrong about both.
He loved the idea. “Look,” Jack said to me—and in Jack’s parlance, “Look” is a happy thing to hear. “Look” says: I know I may have given you some differing opinion in the past, but there are exceptions to my rule, and this is one of them. “This corn is the rare case of flavor driving genetics,” he said, reminding me of the generations of farmers who had selected and grown Eight Row Flint for its superior flavor, not solely for its yield, as is the case with most modern varieties. “How often do you get to be a part of that in your lifetime?”
So far, so good. But Jack went a step further. He planted the Eight Row Flint like the Iroquois planted most of their corn—alongside dry beans and squash, a companion planting strategy called the Three Sisters. On the continuum of farming practices, Three Sisters is at the opposite end from how corn is typically grown, with its military-row monocultures and chemical-fed soil. The logic is to carefully bundle crops into relationships that benefit each other, the soil, and the farmer. The beans provide the corn with nitrogen (legumes draw nitrogen from the air into the soil); the corn stalk provides a natural trellis for the climbing beans (so Jack wouldn’t need to stake the beans); and the squash, planted around the base of the corn and the beans, suppresses weeds and offers an additional vegetable to harvest in the late fall.
It was a masterful idea—mimicking the successful Native American strategy while taking out a small insurance policy on the Eight Row Flint. Even if the corn failed to germinate, Jack could still harvest the other crops, and in the meantime he’d show visitors to the Stone Barns Center a valuable historical farming technique. And yet I couldn’t help but feel skeptical as I watched him plant the corn kernels and companion seeds into mounds of rich soil. I had nothing against honoring agricultural traditions, but I didn’t need a sisterhood of beneficial relationships. I needed a polenta with phenomenal flavor.
As luck would have it (or maybe it was the sisterhood, after all), the Eight Row Flint had nearly perfect germination. Following the harvest in late September, Jack hung the corn upside down in a shed and waited for the moisture to evaporate. By late November, just in time for the long winter march of root vegetables, he triumphantly set a dried cob on my desk. It looked nearly too perfect, like a prop for an elementary-school production of the First Thanksgiving.
“Voilà!” he said, so pleased with himself he seemed to wriggle with the sheer joy of it. “They’re ready to go. Tell me when you want them.”
“Today!” I was feeding off Jack’s energy. “We’ll make polenta and then . . .” And then I realized something I hadn’t considered: the corn needed to be ground. I didn’t have a mill.
The truth is that I had never really considered the corncob behind the cornmeal. It hadn’t crossed my mind once in twenty years of preparing polenta. Polenta was polenta. Of course I knew it came from corn, just as I knew bread came from wheat. Beyond the obvious, I had never needed to know more.
A week later, just before dinner service, our new tabletop grinder arrived. The engine whirred as it pulverized the kernels into a finely milled dust. I toasted the ground maize lightly and cooked it right away in water and salt. I’d like to say I cooked the Eight Row Flint the way Native Americans cooked it, stirring a clay pot all day with a wooden spoon over an open hearth. But the pot was carbonized steel, the spoon metal, and the hearth an induction cooktop that heats by magnetic force. It didn’t matter. Before long the polenta was smooth and shiny. I continued stirring, which is when suddenly the pot began smelling like a steaming, well-buttered ear of corn. It wasn’t just the best polenta of my life. It was polenta I hadn’t imagined possible, so corny that breathing out after swallowing the first bite brought another rich shot of corn flavor. The taste didn’t so much disappear as slowly, begrudgingly fade. It was an awakening. But the question for me was: Why? How had I assumed all those years that polenta smelled of nothing more than dried meal? It’s really not too much to ask of polenta to actually taste like the corn. But back then, I couldn’t have imagined the possibility until it happened. Jack’s planting strategy, as artful as a sonnet, combined with the corn’s impeccable genetics, changed how I thought about good food, and good cooking.
With remarkable, almost ironic regularity, I have found myself repeating this kind of experience. Different farm, different farmer, same narrative arc. I am reminded that truly flavorful food involves a recipe more complex than anything I can conceive in the kitchen. A bowl of polenta that warms your senses and lingers in your memory becomes as straightforward as a mound of corn and as complex as the system that makes it run. It speaks to something beyond the crop, the cook, or the farmer—to the entirety of the landscape, and how it fits together. It can best be expressed in places where good farming and delicious food are inseparable.
This book is about these stories.
If that sounds like a chronicle of a farm-to-table chef, it is—sort of.
What People are Saying About This
Dan Barber is not only a great chef, he's also a fine writer. His vision of a new food system--based on diversity, complexity, and a reverence for nature--isn't utopian. It's essential.--Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation and Command and Control
In this compelling read Dan Barber asks questions that nobody else has raised about what it means to be a chef, the nature of taste, and what “sustainable” really means. He challenges everything you think you know about food; it will change the way you eat. If I could give every cook just one book, this would be the one. --Ruth Reichl, author of Garlic and Sapphires and Tender at the Bone
Dan Barber writes with the restrained lushness with which he cooks. In elegant prose, he argues persuasively that eating is our most profound engagement with the non-human world. How we eat makes us who we are and makes the environment what it is. It all needs to change, and Barber has written a provocative manifesto that balances brave originality and meticulous research. His food is farm-to-table; his eloquent, impassioned book is farm-to-heart. --Andrew Solomon, author of Far from the Tree and The Noonday Demon
I thought it would be impossible for Dan Barber to be as interesting on the page as he is on the plate. I was wrong. --Malcolm Gladwell, author of David and Goliath and The Tipping Point.
“Not since Michael Pollan has such a powerful storyteller emerged to reform American food.”
“There hasn’t been a call-to-action book with the potential to change the way we eat since Michael Pollan’s 2006 release, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Now there is. Dan Barber’s The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food is a compelling global journey in search of a new understanding about how to build a more sustainable food system….The Third Plate is an argument for good rather than an argument against bad. This recipe might at times be challenging, but what’s served in the end is a dish for a better future….Barber writes a food manifesto for the ages.”
The Chicago Tribune
“[A]uthor Dan Barber's tales are engaging, funny and delicious... The Third Plate invites inevitable comparisons with Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, which Barber invokes more than once. And, indeed, its framework of a foodie seeking truth through visits with sages and personal experiments echoes Pollan's landmark tome (not to mention his passages on wheat cultivation, which, astonishingly, best Pollan's corn cultivation chapters by many pages.) But at the risk of heresy, I would call this The Omnivore's Dilemma 2.0... The Third Plate serves as a brilliant culinary manifesto with a message as obvious as it is overlooked. Promote, grow and eat a diet that's in harmony with the earth and the earth will reward you for it. It's an inspiring message that could truly help save our water, air and land before it's too late.”
The Wall Street Journal:
"Compelling... The Third Plate reimagines American farm culture not as a romantic return to simpler times but as a smart, modern version of it...The Third Plate is fun to read, a lively mix of food history, environmental philosophy and restaurant lore... an important and exciting addition to the sustainability discussion.”
“When The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan’s now-classic 2006 work, questioned the logic of our nation’s food system, 'local' and 'organic' weren’t ubiquitous the way they are today. Embracing Pollan’s iconoclasm, but applying it to the updated food landscape of 2014, The Third Plate reconsiders fundamental assumptions of the movement Pollan’s book helped to spark. In four sections—'Soil,' 'Land,' 'Sea,' and 'Seed'—The Third Plate outlines how his pursuit of intense flavor repeatedly forced him to look beyond individual ingredients at a region’s broader story—and demonstrates how land, communities, and taste benefit when ecology informs the way we source, cook, and eat.”
The New York Times:
"Each grain represents an agricultural virtue: Rye, for example, builds carbon in the soil. Taken together, they argue for a new way of thinking about the production and consumption of food, a 'whole farm' approach that Mr. Barber explores, eloquently and zestfully, in The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food... Mr. Barber’s subjects tend to be colorfully eccentric and good talkers, capable of philosophizing by the yard. To put their efforts in context, Mr. Barber unobtrusively weaves in a hefty amount of science and food history. Readers will put the book down having learned quite a bit about the dehesa system of agriculture in Spain, and about the agricultural innovations of land-grant colleges. Mr. Barber also makes good use of his own CV, which yields some highly entertaining set pieces. From his early days training in France, he recalls a Vesuvian blowup by the chef Michel Rostang, enraged by a vegetable cook who uses the wrong potatoes in a fricassee. A dinner for a group of Gourmet editors at Stone Barns goes the wrong way fast when he sends out endangered bluefin tuna — and the plates are sent right back, the tuna untouched. ('I’m not going to lie to you, Chef: Cat’s got their tongue,' the distraught waiter reports.). Mr. Barber is a stylish writer and a funny one, too."
Los Angeles Examiner:
"In his engaging book, Barber illustrates through examples, and stories how flavor, food and culture are tied to place. Like wine, carrots, tomatoes, other produce and pastured livestock all have their own terroir that’s tied to soil, the micro climate and what livestock eat which, in turn, helps or should help define regional cuisine. As Barber repeatedly notes in his book, you are what you eat eats, and to have healthy flavorful and nutritious foods, you have to begin with healthy and well-nourished soils that are interdependent upon both plants and animals."
Vice President Al Gore:
"Dan Barber’s new book, The Third Plate, is an eloquent and thoughtful look at the current state of our nation’s food system and how it must evolve. Barber’s wide range of experiences, both in and out of the kitchen, provide him with a rare perspective on this pressing issue. A must read.”
"Here’s a welcome addition to any library. Dan Barber, justifiably renowned chef of Blue Hill in New York City and at Stone Barns and its farm in Westchester, writes as well as he cooks—and that’s very well indeed."
Ruth Reichl, author of Garlic and Sapphires and Tender at the Bone:
“In this compelling read Dan Barber asks questions that nobody else has raised about what it means to be a chef, the nature of taste, and what 'sustainable' really means. He challenges everything you think you know about food; it will change the way you eat. If I could give every cook just one book, this would be the one.”
Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation and Command and Control:
"Dan Barber is not only a great chef, he's also a fine writer. His vision of a new food system—based on diversity, complexity, and a reverence for nature—isn't utopian. It's essential."
Malcolm Gladwell, author of David and Goliath and The Tipping Point:
“I thought it would be impossible for Dan Barber to be as interesting on the page as he is on the plate. I was wrong.”
Elizabeth Kolbert, author of The Sixth Extinction and Field Notes from a Catastrophe:
“The Third Plate is one of those rare books that's at once deft and searching—deeply serious and equally entertaining. Dan Barber will change the way you look at food.”
Eliot Coleman, author of The New Organic Grower and The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook:
"After my first meal at Blue Hill, I paid Dan the ultimate farmer compliment. I told him that he made vegetables taste almost fresher after he had prepared them than when the farmer harvested them. Now I am equally impressed with his writing. Food has stories and Dan tells the stories as well as he cooks. If you want to know about food, read this book."
Andrew Solomon, author of Far from the Tree and The Noonday Demon:
“Dan Barber writes with the restrained lushness with which he cooks. In elegant prose, he argues persuasively that eating is our most profound engagement with the non-human world. How we eat makes us who we are and makes the environment what it is. It all needs to change, and Barber has written a provocative manifesto that balances brave originality and meticulous research. His food is farm-to-table; his eloquent, impassioned book is farm-to-heart."
Bill McKibben, author of Wandering Home:
“Dan Barber is as fine a thinker and writer as he is a chef—which is saying a great deal. This book uses its ingredients—the insights of some of the finest farmers on the planet—to fashion something entirely new: a recipe for the future.”
“Barber’s work is a deeply thoughtful and–offering a ‘menu for 2050’–even visionary work for a sustainable food chain.”
Dan Barber's new book, The Third Plate, is an eloquent and thoughtful look at the current state of our nation's food system and how it must evolve. Barber's wide range of experiences, both in and out of the kitchen, provide him with a rare perspective on this pressing issue. A must read. --Vice President Al Gore
Dan Barber is as fine a thinker and writer as he is a chef--which is saying a great deal. This book uses its ingredients--the insights of some of the finest farmers on the planet--to fashion something entirely new: a recipe for the future. --Bill McKibben, author of Wandering Home
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The Third Plate is a brilliant and challenging look at our food system, aimed at moving the farm-to-table conversation forward. It's one part manifesto, one part chef's memoir--Michael Pollan meets Anthony Bourdain. (I especially loved the kitchen scenes, which pick up after the first section.) It will change the way you think about food.
I thought the book was educational and helped explain how we produce food. I enjoyed some of the stories and will be more thoughtful on what I choose to eat.
Dan Barber's The Third Plate is required reading for anyone interested in the future of our increasingly unsustainable food system (and, frankly, that should be everyone). Barber goes beyond simply espousing a farm-to-table ethos. He notes that still puts the farmer in the service (or beck-and-call) of the restaurant. Barber argues that it should be the other way around. The book is broken down into four parts, each addressed thoughtfull: Soil, Land, Sea, and Seed. Although I'm quite cognizant about food issues, I've learned much from this book. People, our futures truly are at stake.
Amazing book, i would definatly recomend it.
Amazing! As a foodie, even I don't think I was ready for a book like this. It is to the point and makes you take a serious look at what we eat and how. It is amazing!