Farm-to-Table Gives Us Food That Tastes Good—but Chef Dan Barber Wants More
Last night, like so many nights, I spent some of my very limited leisure time reading about native California plants on the Internet. I don’t remember what tempted me to Google “native wild plum California,” but there I was, and lo and behold, there are more than 10 different species and subspecies of Prunus that grow wild in the Golden State (including our own desert almond). The mountains that hem in the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, home to the largest expanse of Class 1 (read: supremely fertile) soil in the world, are the southernmost range of one such tree, the Klamath plum.
The fruit is edible, if not altogether delicious, but it’s adapted to the ecology of the mountains, unlike the cultivated plum trees that are grown in the snowmelt-fed orchards in the valley below. Between the measured rows of plums below and their scattered, shrub-like cousins above is a space that describes the difference between agriculture and nature, showing in rather close quarters how something wild can be wrangled in order to dependably feed people. But even if you happen to live near those plum orchards—or the countless other farms that dot the valley—it’s hard to argue that the food grown there is sustainable, even if it’s local. The San Joaquin is rife with ecological problems—the drought being foremost of those concerns, but there’s the blowing dust, the erosion, the sinking water table and irrigation-depleted aquifers, the increasing salinity, in some places, of that world-class soil. Farming here works against the ecology, not with it.
In southwest Spain, where the weather is similarly dry and the soil isn’t imbued with preternatural fertility, for centuries, local farmers and ranchers have worked with the ecology to phenomenal end. The woodlands, called the dehesa, are dominated by widely spaced cork and oak trees, providing cover and fodder for the famous acorn-fed pigs from which jamón ibérico is made. It also happens to be a prime example, according to chef and author Dan Barber, of truly sustainable agriculture. In the dehesa, farmers work within the parameters of the ecology to get the most out of it in terms of food—but not at the expense of the land itself.
The dehesa—not so much as a place, but as a concept—is the future we need to be working toward, Barber contends, rather than evermore farm-to-table tomatoes.
He spends a significant amount of time in the semi-wild forest—the trees are managed by farmers so they’re adequately spaced and, in the case of the oaks, produce heavy acorn crops—in his recent book, The Third Plate. Clocking in just shy of 500 pages, it’s a hefty tome, and although I read it on vacation in Mexico this summer, it isn’t your average breezy beach read. But thanks to a new podcast called Gastropod (looking at food “through the lens of science and history”), you can spend an enthralling 45 minutes with hosts Nicola Twilley and Cynthia Graber as they discuss the themes of the book with Barber
“I want to be careful to not get negative about the farm-to-table movement,” Barber says in the interview with Twilley and Graber, seemingly distancing himself from the reductive headlines about his supposed indictment of the movement he helped spark with his restaurant Blue Hill.
“But the problem is when you engage in this connection with farmers at farmers market or through CSAs or through any of the other ways that we now increasingly engage with local farmers, we do it in a way where the chef or the eater decides how they’re going to be engaged,” he continues, “In other words, they decide what they’re going to cook with and how much they’re going to cook with, and that becomes part of their everyday diet.”
That’s as much the model of large-scale agriculture in the San Joaquin Valley as it is the small farmer you buy tomatoes from at the market. They grow as much of the thing that the market wants as possible, rather than growing a variety of crops that would provide the most benefit to the soil and the environment itself. As Barber says, the system we’re accustomed to, where the consumer decides what’s for dinner, is “not truly sustainable for any ecology or culture.”
But the very un-American notion that the customer is not always right doesn’t need to be proscriptive—rather, it’s an opportunity to broaden our palettes and experience new flavors. As Twilley puts it, “Your plate is a tool for designing an entire ecosystem.”
Barber cites Hoppin’ John, the classic Southern dish, as a particularly delicious example of how that can work. You have beans, which give nitrogen to the soil, allowing farmers to grow rice, the other primary ingredient. Then there’s the collards, which suck salt out of the soil—a problem in low-lying parts of the South—and “smattering of pork” from the hogs that you let run through the forest.
It’s because of Hoppin’ John, in a sense, that Barber believes chefs can bring the spirit of the dehesa to regional agriculture and regional cooking in the United States. “To get a delicious carrot on your plate is to support the right kind of soil,” he tells Twilley and Graber. And while the relationship between soil nutrients and plant nutrients—and flavor—remains murky, as Gastropod’s review of the scientific literature shows, there’s a basic logic to that equation that rings true. And to hear tell of the carrots served at Blue Hill—life-changing carrots, I’ve been told—Barber appears to be onto something that can’t all be chalked up to kitchen skills.
Which brings us back to California—a state that, as Barber notes, could fit all of Italy within its borders. Although it was here, in Berkeley, where Alice Waters arguably started this whole farmer-centric notion of American cooking at Chez Panisse, he points out in the Gastropod interview that California is far too vast to have a singular cuisine.
“What is California cuisine? I don’t know what that is,” he recalls telling an audience in Los Angeles. The crowd, he said, was none too receptive to this notion that, say, their $15 farmers market kale salad might not represent the epitome of sustainability.
But what Barber is arguing for is so much more exciting than the suggestion that food grown nearby without chemicals is the revolutionary response to the ills of industrial farming. Instead, we should be working toward regional cuisines informed by regional ecologies—foods based on ingredients that tend more toward those wild plums growing in the mountains than the irrigated ones down in the Valley. Like in the South, California’s myriad regional cuisines would rely on crops regionally adapted to growing a given part of the state in a way that’s in accord with that ecology, that improves that ecology, rather than working against it.
“We decide what we want, and then we demand that the land produce it,” Barber tells Gastropod. “When in fact it should really work the other way around.”