The Future of Food Could be Flavorful

Third PlateDan Barber is a chef concerned about the farm-to-table journey of America’s food. He works with boutique farmers in upstate New York, including the Stone Barn Center for Food and Agriculture – a farm built in the 1930’s in a “Normandy style,” by wealthy philanthropist John D. Rockefeller to “preserve a memory – the place where he sipped warm milk from the lid of the milking jug.” (No matter how nostalgic, Ponderer does not recommend drinking raw milk, more especially the longer it’s been out of the cow.)

Barber is owner and chef at two New York restaurants, Blue Hill in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Tarrytown (45 minutes from Grand Central Station). I visited his website at Blue Hill before reading the book.

Blue Hill at Stone Barns is an elegant restaurant where jackets and ties are preferred for gentlemen. (Apparently fancy restaurants have given up trying to tell women what to wear.) In keeping with the ideal of serving the day’s harvest (and perhaps because of shortages for entree portions), Barber serves “multi-course tastings” for $138 to $198 per person. You’ll be happy to know you can buy Dom Perignon by the glass ($80). Most Americans are unlikely to dine here. But rich or extravagant people serve an important social function. They are the early adopters for things that become everyday benefits – air travel, electric cars, television, ocean cruises – so perhaps they can blaze the trail to better eating. Trends from expensive restaurants can affect the local grocery store, for example, designer pizzas are now available in your frozen food section.

New York is the right place for this venture – judging from my travels in lower upstate New York, you can’t throw a rock without hitting a farmer’s market or stand. Farm-to-table is a popular idea.

This is not a text book. It reads as conversation story-telling. Barber presents interesting stories about growing heritage varieties of crops and rotating crops and livestock to maximize soil fertility. This is not standard organic farming which retains the old American mindset: grow monocultures and serve slabs of meat with a few vegetables. It must be wonderful for a farmer to have the financial support to try these ideas and we meet many such farmers (at least one who, by the way, eats “hulking pork chops” and butters bread so thickly Barber “thought he was joking.”)

Barber proposes cooking the complete range of plants and animals a farm must raise to be sustainable. He says traditional peasant cooking reflects this and has produced beloved dishes. For example, Hoppin’ John is a regional America dish that combines rice, peas that are grown with the rice to provide nitrogen to the soil, and collard greens that pull salt from the region’s soil to allow other crops to grow. There is “a small taste of pork.” This is the style of eating that truly uses the day’s harvest.

Farming is presented as an endless, ever changing puzzle that requires a lot of observation and knowledge. “How soil is managed, and how a farmer negotiates weeds and pests, is the single best predictor of how food will taste.” Weeds and insect pests are symptoms and it’s better to treat the cause – usually poor soil that grows weak crops. “Milkweed is a sign that the soil lacks zinc; wild garlic means low sulfur.” If cows break through a fence to eat grass on the other side, the farmer doesn’t need better fences but better pasture, better soil, and a diversity of plants. “Healthy soil brings… the wealth of a nation. Bad soil… threatens civilization.”

Barber presents various histories, such as raising chickens in America. Americans have been so successful that chicken is not just used to feed people, but also for pet food, cattle feed(!), and fish food, and we still can’t consume it all. Fortunately, there are overseas markets for the dark meat which sells poorly in American. Jalisco, Mexico was once a major chicken farming and processing region. As American chicken put the industry out of business, unemployed Mexicans crossed the boarder illegally to take jobs in the US – ironically, in chicken processing plants.

The story of wheat follows Europeans to America, first to small farms on the east coast and later to the deep rich prairie soil built up over eons. Flour milled on stones had a short shelf life, but when roller mills could separate out fiber and germ, a bounty of cheap flour was produced on the prairie and shipped to cities. Unfortunately 80% of the nutrients were lost and white flour is “dead, chalky powder [that] no longer tasted of wheat. We killed the flavor.”

Barber wanders through the connections he discovers with famous chefs and across various farming regions. The trip is often interesting. He writes extensively about an area of mixed farming in Spain called the dehesa, an area where strips of forest separate savannah-like pastures with widely spaced ancient oaks. Inconsistently described as “uncultivated” in 1300 and “a two-thousand-year-old agricultural landscape”, the dehesa is known for producing magnificent hams. He visits an eccentric dehesa farmer who also raises foie gras geese – he can charge ten times the price per liver as his traditionally raised competition, but doesn’t get rich on the birds. The exceptionally flavorful liver relies on a free-range pasture rotation of pigs, cattle, geese, and sheep that limits production.

Free-range birds and pigs develop muscle differently from confined animals. Factory farming can’t duplicate the taste even when feeding an acorn-enriched diet. Barber’s free-range attempt to duplicate the geese in New York also fails. The dehesa raises unique foods, but poverty still remains common in the area.

He offers the same level of detail for seafood. Tales from Barber’s own restaurants are interwoven with fish farming and how cooking the harvest applies to fisheries. This includes one chef’s phytoplankton bread because he “had this infatuation with being able to use the primordial form in my cooking.” He is a hero to fishermen for buying the “ugly” fish in their catch.

Gardeners will find the stories fascinating. Non-gardeners may find the sections too long.

It’s not clear the average American wants the foods Barber champions. He notes that while “feeding grain [to animals] flattens flavor” and modern crops are not bred for flavor, the system produces bountiful, low cost food. “[T]he cost of one pound of meat is cheaper now than at any time in history.”

Americans prefer “soft, almost flabby meat” and “have a singular preference for blandness.” We want bland butter that tastes the same across the country and the year, rather than tastier butter that varies by region and month. But is this truly our preference or what we’re accustomed to?

Barber always comes back to flavor. The farming methods may be labor intensive, may produce less profit even at higher boutique prices, and may produce uneven and limited supplies, but Barber says they taste better.

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