Perched on a farm along the Hudson River is Dan Barber's award-winning restaurant, Blue Hill at Stone Barns. The food that's harvested on the farm year-round is what is served to diners daily.
But this champion of the farm-to-table movement noticed that farming and consuming foods locally still wasn't all that sustainable.
"Tomatoes are the all star of the farm-to-table world. But in fact, they're like the Hummers of the vegetable world," he tells NPR Morning Edition host Renee Montagne. That's because they require more water and nutrients from the soil than a lot of other vegetables.
"At the end of the day what we need to support is all of the farming decisions that lead to that one great tomato," he says.
In his new book, The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food, Barber proposes rotating the most desirable and valuable foods, like tomatoes, with more humble offerings like buckwheat or barley or mustard greens — which are often overlooked when it comes to dining. Farm-to-table should include different foods and different portions that support the land, Barber says.
"It's a way of creating a pattern of eating," he tells Montagne. Take Italian cooking. We love the tomatoes and cheese, but the basis of Italian cooking is beans. The beans nourish the soil and make the tomatoes better, he says.
In the American South, it was beans, collards and some ham. "In a dish, you had everything that supported that ecology," he says.
But American tradition has fallen out of touch with the land. "There's no cuisine you can point to that has a 12-ounce center cut protein for dinner. ... That is an American phenomenon," Barber says
Historically, American farmers moved west to farm new land when their old land no longer produced, or they turned to technology rather than change their methods to rotate and vary the crops. "It's unsustainable and it's not realistic," he says.
And the problem with the current farm-to-table movement is that it hasn't challenged the system enough, he says. "It's too passive." But, Barber says, chefs are in a "unique position" to change that because they "curate flavors and they really curate, in the end, a culture, and then I think it can permeate the everyday eating habits of Americans."
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Perched on a farm along New York's Hudson River, is Chef Dan Barber' award-winning restaurant, Blue Hill at Stone Barns. The food that's harvested there is served to diners daily, which is how Dan Barber became synonymous with the farm-to-table movement. Eventually though, he noted that farming and consuming foods locally still isn't all that sustainable.
DAN BARBER: For example, we're about to head into tomato season. And tomatoes are the all star of the farm-to-table movement. But, in fact, they're like the Hummers of the vegetable world.
MONTAGNE: Hummers because they suck up more water and nutrients from the soil than most other vegetables.
BARBER: So while we think of a local heirloom tomato as incredibly sustainable and a model of what farm-to-table eating is all about, at the end of the day, what we need to support is all of the farming decisions that went in to give you that great tasting tomato.
MONTAGNE: In his new book, "The Third Plate," Dan Barber points to one key farming decision: rotation, aimed at enriching the soil. It turns out the most desirable foods, like tomatoes, are rotated with more humbler vegetables like buckwheat or barley or mustard greens which, Dan Barber says, could and should be served to diners.
So "The Third Plate" is metaphorically a way of eating. It's a way of putting different sorts of things on the plate, or different portions.
BARBER: Right, it's a way of creating a pattern of eating. And we think about Italian cuisine, we celebrate the cheese and, you know, tomatoes. But really, the underpinning of Italian cuisine is beans. And it's that way because beans are leguminous and because they trap nitrogen from the air and they provide to the soil. And what that does in essence is provide you with this great tasting tomato.
MONTAGNE: Because the beans have nourished the soil.
BARBER: Yes, the beans are nitrogen-fixers. So they take nitrogen from the air and they implant it in the soil. So they provide this very real function for a great tasting tomato. In America, the only place that you can really look where that relationship evolved into a pattern of eating is Southern cooking, in dishes like Hoppin John, right, which was beans and rice.
MONTAGNE: And sometimes ham hocks.
BARBER: And ham hocks and collards, exactly, where you had the beans there because the beans supported the rice. And then the collards were there because they cleanse the soil of the salt. And you had a little bit - a smattering, really - of pork because the pigs roamed the forestry. And so, you had this natural ecology and, in a dish, you had everything that supported that ecology.
At farm-to-table, unfortunately though - I'm a card-carrying member of it, I've got a skin in the game here - we're not doing that enough. We were never forced into a pattern of eating that supported the land.
MONTAGNE: Well, let me just hit the nail on the head here though about this. When you offer examples from Southern American cuisine to Italian cuisine, you are offering examples that use meat in a small way. It's part of a much larger mix of ingredients.
BARBER: Yeah. No, that's - yeah, that's true of all cuisine. I mean there's no cuisine that you can point to that has a 12 ounce center cut protein as part of their every day expectations for dinner. That's an American phenomenon.
MONTAGNE: And that is key to better handling of the environment, better handling of soil, right?
BARBER: Yeah, we've got to change our expectations of dinner. And I don't think that mean less enjoyment of food. I actually think it's more. Imagine a 12 ounce piece of steak. I really enjoy steak so I'm not maligning a steak dinner. It's one of the great pleasures of life, but it's a pleasure.
BARBER: And the idea that it's an every day indulgence is a bizarre American agricultural phenomenon that became a cultural phenomenon. It makes no sense. What it is, is this incredible fertility and abundance that is American. You know, we think of the yeoman farmer, the Thomas Jefferson ideal of what built America, but we were never great farmers in the truest sense of the word. We have great technology and we have great farmers, but farming systems.
Like, the people came over here weren't landowners. And when they came over here they were lucky that they had rainfall and they had incredible soils on the East Coast. But when those started to fail, what did we do? We moved West. And we picked up the plows and moved all the way to California. That's really the short history of our country from an agricultural perspective in the last 200 years. There's a lot to be proud of but that's truly unsustainable and it's not realistic.
MONTAGNE: Much of what you describe in the book, it's a return to the natural. But in a visit to Spain, you eat foie gras. And you know how controversial foie gras has become. It's even been here in California. And yet you talk about how natural it is, how so?
BARBER: Well, I met a farmer that is raising geese that is producing foie gras with this incredible flavor. This farmer, Eduardo Sousa, since 1812 - his family - has been raising this unbelievably delicious foie gras based on the natural system. So there's no force-feeding. So all the controversy of foie gras slips away. And if the college is right, if the farming system is right, the geese eat whatever they're presented. And they fatten really well and they produce these livers that, like, you wouldn't believe.
And so, what it taught me is sort of a parable for agriculture in general, which is that if we feed the system we end up getting all these bonuses - nature's bonuses. And that's the kind of stuff that we need to support. You know, that's the problem with farm-to-table, it's too passive. It allows us to cherry pick what we want for dinner when, in fact, what we need to do is look to a system of agriculture that puts it all together.
And I think chefs are in this, like, unique position to do that because they curate flavors. And they really curate, in the end, a culture, and then I think it can permeate the everyday eating habits of Americans. That's a very exciting and delicious future.
MONTAGNE: Dan Barber, thank you very much for joining us.
BARBER: Thank you, Renee Montagne.
MONTAGNE: It was a pleasure. Dan Barber's new book is called "The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.