This is a Red Delicious apple. You’ll notice it looks nothing like the dry, mealy mahogany fruits in your grocery store. I can tell you it tastes nothing like them either. It’s wonderfully sweet, crisp, and apple-y.
This apple came from a tree over 60 years old in the Mimbres Valley of southwest New Mexico, and you’ll have to visit a local farmer’s market to buy one.
I seem to be on a food kick lately. America’s food industry gives us more, safer, and cheaper food than ever before, but at a price. Are we poised to take a step forward to a better system?
This reminded me of a book I read recently.
Dan Barber is a chef concerned with 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, I do not recommend drinking raw milk, more strongly 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 Farm.com.
Blue Hill at Stone Barns is an elegant restaurant where jackets and ties are preferred for gentlemen, though 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 of entree-sized portions), Barber serves “multi-course tastings” for about $200 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 a social function. They are early adopters for things that can 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 so, 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 produce stand. Farm-to-table is a popular idea.
Barber presents interesting stories about growing heritage varieties of crops and rotating crops and livestock to maximize soil fertility. This is not mass market organic farming that retains America’s industrial mindset to grow monocultures and supply slabs of meat to serve 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.”)
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 mild 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 trained to expect? Maybe popular, super-spiced snacks prove that American’s want flavor.
Barber always comes back to flavor. His farming methods are labor intensive, generate less profit even at higher boutique prices, and produce uneven and limited supplies, but Barber says the food tastes better.
Gardeners will find the stories Barber tells fascinating. Non-gardeners may find some sections too long.
What others are saying
The Third Plate remains popular four years after it was published, with 4.7 stars on Amazon from 237 reviews.
“It has taught me so much about making sustainable food choices.”
“Pretty cool take on the food industry.”
Rebecca had a pros and cons review: “This is one of the most interesting books I have read that discusses everything wrong with our food culture today. That said, it’s also one of the most obnoxious… His book is dripping with elitism, and most of the time I felt like he was so out of touch with reality it was laughable.”