Review: “The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food”

barber, third plate

Looking out one morning at the flea beetle-infested and quickly deteriorating spring kale crop left me pretty discouraged and fairly sure the entire crop was a loss. Not sure how much longer we should keep the kale around, I asked the other farm manager what he supposed we should do. Without any hesitation and a big sigh of relief, he told me, “Blue Hill said they will take all of it.” Luckily for us, Blue Hill at Stone Barns—situated on the property and farm of Stone Barn’s Center for Food and Agriculture in New York’s Westchester county—was one of our restaurant buyers, and they will buy most anything so long as it has not rotted or severely depreciated in flavor. Blue Hill’s executive chef, and acclaimed farm-to-table expert, Dan Barber, seemed to consider a pest-ridden kale crop as just another part of a cuisine that supports the struggles and successes of a sustainable agriculture. Still, what would Blue Hill do with a few hundred pounds of beat-up kale that other farm-to-table restaurants wouldn’t touch?

Dan Barber’s The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food provides an urgent critique of the farm-to-table movement, insisting that developing ecological and culinary principles that compel you to buy and cook something like flea beetle-ravaged kale is imperative to a sustainable agriculture and its accompanying cuisine.

Imagining what Americans may be eating in thirty-five years, Barber constructs the third plate, which is one of three distinct, but related, metaphorical plates that reveal an evolution in the ecological and ethical imagination of cooking and dining. The first plate, a seven-ounce steak and side of steamed baby carrots (all produced by industrial agriculture), begins with the mid-century’s post-war expectations and continues to the present. The second plate, just beginning to find convention in farm-to-table dining, contains the same ingredients but the steak is grass-fed and the heirloom carrots have been grown locally in organic soil. For the third plate, thirty-five years from now, Barber envisions a reversal of proportions, a carrot steak with a braised beef sauce, using second cuts.

This provocative third plate does not intend to simply challenge meat consumption or venerate the humble carrot, nor suggest gross generalizations of a homogeneous American plate, but proposes a paradigm shift, an imaginative leap out of industrial patterns, a movement beyond farm-to-table’s recognition of ingredients’ origins, to what Barber argues is the origin of all great cuisine: what a particular landscape can provide. Emerging out of a negotiation between farmer and land, Barber asserts that a great and humble cuisine asks: what can be sustainably produced on the land, what does the land need, and how can we make healthy and flavorful use of what is produced?

And while it is tempting to point out the glaring absence of diverse communities represented in Barber’s three plates, and the increasing number of people without access to any of his three plates, he nonetheless contends that the industrial imagination that constructs the first two plates increasingly pervades most American communities’ cuisine, and is largely responsible for such exclusionary food politics. In short, our kale only has value on the third plate.

Good old Alexis and the author working in the greenhouse at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture. Photograph by Tyler Dennis.

While The Third Plate provides a lengthy popular history of agriculture, fisheries, and cuisine in North America and Spain, divided into four sections, Soil, Land, Sea, and Seed, Barber’s use of certain ecological models transcends these categories and provides ripe sites for unpacking his third plate project. In drawing out the explicit relationship between healthy soil and heightened flavor, Barber tells the story of head farmer at Stone Barns Center, Jack Algiere, bursting into the kitchen one winter morning with a handful of mokum carrots from the greenhouse (a half acre, state-of-the-art, nearly million-dollar four-season greenhouse), giddy over his morning’s Brix measurement (a gauge of sugar content). Jack had got a reading of 16.9 that morning, 4.9 percent higher than the carrot was known to reach, and 16.9 percent higher than the organic commodity carrots used in the kitchen regularly (a measurement later that morning read 0.0). Thrilled by the superior flavor, Barber followed Jack down to the greenhouse to get an idea of how this could happen. The carrots lay in beds of soil “where there is sufficient and varied food for the organisms,” maintaining a “thriving, complex community of organisms,” and nutrients. Specifically, under such vibrant organic conditions, plants form phytonutrients, which act as the building blocks of taste and are vital to a plant’s overall health and vigor. As most farming practices over the last two centuries have progressed towards heavier dependence on industrial inputs and mechanization, completely eliminating microbial life and reducing plant health to the crutch of chemicals cocktails, remarkably fewer phytonutrients are produced, and health and flavor are lost.

Although more than half of The Third Plate takes place in Spain, it was the curiosity of eating a “natural” foie gras that led Dan Barber to the Dehesa, a unique agricultural and pastoral landscape in the south of Spain that produces Jamón Iberico, the famous ham from acorn-partial black Iberian pigs. After being lured back many times to observe Eduardo Sousa’s natural free-range (no force feeding) foie gras farming practices, he planned a visit to Aponiente, a small restaurant at the very southwestern tip of the Iberian peninsula. The owner and chef of Aponiente, Angel Leon, “Chef of the Sea,” wants the first thing you taste at his restaurant to be “the expression of the sea.” And unlike most chefs, Angel infuses the sea into every dish he serves, even leavening the bread with the help of phytoplankton. Yet what is truly unique about Aponiente is Angel’s insistence upon preparing and serving barely usable bycatch and damaged fish, cultivating a delicious cuisine, and demonstrating he has “every intention of creating a market for what the fishermen would otherwise treat as a loss” (226).

On average, for every ton of fish caught only about sixty percent stays on board and the rest (dead or damaged) are dumped back into the sea. Angel not only considers it his responsibility to care for the other forty percent, but also to create an alternative cuisine and market, a sea ethic, that preserves the endangered fisheries and supports small-scale fishermen by utilizing the abundance of waste in bycatch, second cuts, and unwanted fish.

Returning to the American farmscape, Barber stumbles upon the problems of scale and seed in attempting to defend and secure a viable alternative to industrial agriculture. While there is a growing abundance of small family farms with access to good heirloom and organic seed going to market and selling to CSAs, the medium-sized farms that are too big for market and too small to legitimately compete in commodity agriculture—the farms that were supposed to “get big or get out”—lack access to regionally-adapted seed, local infrastructure, and operative markets. Because so little of the American diet depends on food produced for expensive restaurants and bakeries, Barber seems to forget for a moment that many of these medium-sized farms possess the potential to alter the market elsewhere, to permeate the nutritionally dead American groceries, where only the first plate is for sale.

In the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, mid-sized grain farmers Klaas Martens and Mary-Howell switched from conventional to organic grains in 1994 (following temporary paralysis after spraying in the fields), and since then have moved increasingly closer to a complete, closed-loop, whole-farm system. In addition to growing acres of a diversity of crops and grazing livestock, they have opened a mill in town for medium-sized producers and started a regional seed distribution center (promoting regional grain varieties that are bred for flavor and resistance), as well as providing alternative education and support to farmers in their community. And although some of these products, such as the wheat, have a market, Barber knows that to cook with the whole farm, to cultivate a great cuisine, he must create a market for what a farmer would otherwise view as a loss, such as our damaged kale. In order to guarantee a remarkable wheat flour from Klaas, Barber insures Klaas’ rotational system continues by creating Rotation Risotto—rye (carbon building in soil), barley (weed suppression), buckwheat (cleanser of toxins in the soil), millet, legumes (nitrogen fixer), and puree of brassicas—making delicious use of the plants needed in Klaas’s wheat crop rotations, and providing Klaas with the resources to continue a sustainable system.

Imagining a cuisine evolved from a land and sea ethic that principally relies on quality of flavor to guide and direct its practices sounds as potentially hubristic and perilous as conventional agriculture’s single-minded goals of efficiency and yield. And although industrial agriculture very recently seduced the American imagination and reached its zenith of global power and influence, the motives of yield and efficiency have insidiously advanced throughout agriculture’s long history. Thus, proposing an arbitrary ethical measurement, such as flavor, could quickly transform into rhetorical bedlam, battling over qualities of taste and their varying production models, leading to a flurry of broken, single-minded agricultural systems. Yet, Dan Barber fervently believes otherwise, insisting that the best farming and fishing practices necessarily produce the best-flavored food. Regardless, it is a significant and welcome shift from the shallow aesthetics of farm-to-table dining.

Despite the fact that our kale crop was covered with holes—a sure sign it would not sell at market or to other restaurants—it was sweet and tender, and Blue Hill had no trouble serving it. In fact, clear-cutting the kale in spring purged the plants of their stress and provided a strong and healthy recovery, giving us the opportunity to sell the kale at markets and to restaurants all summer. Ironically, summer kale lacks much of the sweet flavor and tender leaves the spring encourages.

Lacinato Kale. Wikipedia Creative Commons.

Luke Hingtgen is a graduate student in the Department of Rhetoric at DePaul University. Recently, the bulk of his work is reflected in the past two seasons co-managing small farms in the Hudson Valley, while conducting ethnographic research into new agrarian discourses, particularly in relation to land ownership and gendered labour. Additionally, he is researching farmers’ roles as collector and preserver of cultural and genetic diversity in seed banks and cuisines. Contact

1 Response

  1. Tapper says:

    Hello. A fine review. Your Kale example throughout the review is spot on and I fully understand what you are saying there. Please help me as I struggle to understand the “shallow aesthectics farm-to-table dining.” and the drawbacks there.
    I have a particular interest in the farm-to-table schemes that the trendy, high end restaurants around NYC( and other food cities) operate on and what goes on in those relationships with the farm, fishmonger, chefs, managers, and investors of said trendy eateries. Could you point me in the direction of some reading if any is out there on this. When I see restaurant reviews with those little plates of only the finest ingredients meticulously fussed over it is obvious that something is rubbing up against ecology and ethics in the creating of these plates. I cannot be the only one that sees this… But I have no way to articulate, no reference point regarding the disconnect.
    Thank you for this piece.
    Bon appetite,
    -Tapper

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