Chef Dan Barber, author of The Third Plate, dishes out some keen knowledge about food, culture, and ecological diversity. If you’re game on a very natural and non-processed diet, you have to devote yourself to collecting diverse ingredients.
Dan Barber: The Third Plate came off of research about the history of our food culture. And what I came to realize is that we have a pretty bad history when it comes to food culture and really what that means is that we eat off of this — or we have been eating off of what I was calling the first plate which is a protein-centric plate of food. It’s a steak, a seven-ounce steak with a little bit of vegetable, a little bit of grain on the side. But essentially it’s protein; [it] takes center stage. And the second plate, as I describe in my book, is sort of we’ve come out of the first plate and enter the second plate with this farm-to-table movement. The good food movement. It’s really about knowing where your ingredients come from. So the steak is now grass-fed and the vegetables are organic and the grain is, you know, I mean instead of white rice, it’s whole grains.
But the problem with the second plate is that it looks very much like the first plate. The architecture is the same. So while it’s a better plate of food — gastronomically it’s better and from an environmental perspective it’s better. The architecture dictates a kind of caring capacity that the land can’t support; at least in our region it can’t support it for very long. For a growing population, for a cuisine or for a pattern of eating, you know, two times a day, seven days a week, to expect that kind of architecture from our diets is a huge expectation. And to export that diet to the rest of the world, the Western diet. It’s really the American diet is unfortunate and also the true definition of not sustainable. So the third plate is sort of a way to kind of circle out of that and take the progress of knowing where our ingredients come from, but changing the architecture and looking at a plate of food not so much as what we expect from our lunch or dinner, but what is the land telling us it can provide and then figuring out a cuisine, a pattern of eating that responds [to the] landscape and actually improves landscape.
The best farmscapes or the best farmlands in any region are always about an abundance of diversity. Those are the healthiest landscapes because in a natural setting there’s no such thing as a monoculture. There’s no such thing as lack of diversity. In fact the world — a natural environment is defined by its diversity. Even the most severe environments. And so what we need to do as eaters because as eaters we are disrupting a natural food system, a natural system, any natural system. Domestication is about disruption of a natural system. And the art in eating and the art in cooking and the art in farming, all three of the correspondents of all three is really about disrupting that natural landscape thoughtfully and with a thought to the future. How can it not only be disrupted, but disrupted well so that it improves the ecological conditions and functioning of nature and doesn’t take away from it? That’s really the true definition of sustainability. How do we think about improving ecological function, water use, diversity, life both in the soil and above the soil, diversity of life? It’s always about diversity. So one surefire way to encourage that is to eat with a diverse plate. So if you’re cooking at home — by the way, if you’re cooking at home, you’re already doing a lot because that means somebody else isn’t cooking for you. When someone else cooks for you, it generally means that they’re cooking less delicious food and they’re cooking food that’s less good for you. Because usually when we process food we end up denuding it and denuding it in ways that go beyond just health and just flavor as well. So the best thing you can do is cook your own food. And then the second best thing you can do is cook with diversity.