Every time someone tells me what I shouldn't eat, I reach for the revolving lazy Susan. Far too often the food police are joyless scolds or dieters in disguise—people of the upper quartile who fashion moral superiority out of consumption made conspicuous on their Facebook feeds.
What a wonder, then, to read Dan Barber's The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food (Penguin Press, 496 pages, $29.95). Barber, executive chef at Manhattan's swanky Blue Hill restaurant, wants nothing less than to reimagine "sustainable food." Your local, organic tomato is, he says, the "Hummer of the vegetable world." (It's also a fruit, but never mind that now.) Tomato plants use a ridiculous amount of water and nutrients to form a single Roma. And as each bycatch fish at Bamboo Sushi is rehabilitated for trendy consumption, it's like it landed the role of understudy for the endangered list.
But Barber isn't advocating that we give up on tasty, tasty foods. Much the opposite. His argument is that flavorful foods are the extension of smart growing habits that keep the soil healthy, the sea fecund and the Iberian pig fat and happy. A fish farm produces stocks that surpass wild by supporting a broad ecosystem that makes the fish more flavorful even if it means letting herons eat the stocks, and crop farmers support their soil by—as the Native Americans always knew—meticulously rotating and co-growing crops that are good for the soil, rather than whatever's fashionable on seasonal-organic menus.
Barber is a passionate, lovely writer, and with two glasses of wine you could weep while reading him describe the economy of the Spanish dehesa, where itinerant pigs plug themselves full of acorns and nurture the soil with fertile poo. Even your staunchest Republican would have to admire the ingenuity with which organic farmer Klaas Martens rotates and co-plants crops to maximize flavor and yield.
But these farmers are outliers, and Barber allows his book to include the most damning criticism of the notion that such practices will save food. "Sooner or later," agriculture expert Wes Jackson tells him, "someone is going to do something stupid to degrade the land."
And Jackson is probably right. But the history of this country is governed as much by reverent aesthetic ideals as short-term stupidity. We have proven we will chase idylls with shekels. And it is rare to read a book about food that inspires such reverence as this one.
GO: Dan Barber reads at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., on Monday, June 2. 7:30 pm. Free.