The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food

Dan Barber

Book cover

I listened to this as a book on tape, mostly over the course of a business trip. It is read by Dan Barber himself, which added a little something. In some sections of the book, he recounts conversations he had with people, and he often does his own impression of them–I don’t think a third-party reader would have tried that!

The subject matter of the book was quite interesting to me. If you think you might be interested, I’d recommend watching Barber’s TED talk “How I Fell In Love With A Fish,” which summarizes one of the parts of the book. At a high level, the book is about a vision of “agroecology,” or cultivating food (both plants and animals) in a way that is inspired by, and harmonious with, nature. Barber, as a chef, shows an admirable self-awareness, arguing that chefs–particularly high-visibility chefs such as himself–have a responsibility not just to cook with their favorite ingredients, but to develop dishes and cuisines that are grounded in an agroecological community, so that they can provide support to farmers who are doing the right thing and direct popular tastes in that direction as well. He describes how traditional communities and food cultures generally provided this support naturally (since there wasn’t much alternative), but in the age of capitalist food production, it takes a conscious effort.

There are tons of interesting tidbits in the book. One that comes up over and over again is the impact of the way in which an animal is killed on the taste of its meat. Basically, if it does not suffer, the meat supposedly tastes much better. I can’t speak to this myself, but it does seem credible from a biological perspective. This observation is cited for all types of animals, even down to fish! Another really interesting part of the book focuses on agricultural breeders at land grant universities. Despite growing up next to a land grant university, and living next to one now, I had never learned much about the role they were originally intended to play, or the role that they actually play today. The recent controversy over Berkeley’s “Gill Tract” farm area is a great example of how this tension is playing out, and while I did already know about that, the book gives a lot of relevant background.

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars