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Book review - The Third Plate

Occasionally I imagine what would happen if Pete and I ended up on one of those reality TV cooking shows where you have to prepare a meal in your own home as a couple.  The first part of the show usually involves the couple rushing around the supermarket buying ingredients.  I wonder what they would think when most of our ingredients came from the garden or the freezer (no rushing required), would we be disqualified because we don't need to buy much to create a wonderful meal?

eight acres: review of Dan Barber's book The Third Plate
"shopping" for ingredients

Dan Barber's book The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food is about creating a sustainable meal.  His first plate was the conventional meat and three vege, his second plate was organic meat and three vege, but the third plate (the sustainable one) was a steak made from carrot, with a beef sauce, he goes on to develop this concept into an entire meal of plates.  You would think that a chef with a nose-to-tail farm-based restaurant wouldn't have to search for a sustainable plate, but throughout the book, Dan comes to realise that sustainability isn't so much about growing food for the table, more like using the food that's available, or eating what you can grow.

While I often read about farming and nutrition, I haven't read the chef's view before.  It was interesting to learn how different foods fit into cuisines and how chef's have influenced food culture and how we eat.  The book is split into four sections: Soil, Land, Sea and Seed.  The first section follows an organic grain grower and discovers the link between soil, flavour and good health.  It explains the organic approach compared to a conventional chemical farm.  The advantages of perennial plants over annual plants are discussed, however there remains an underlying assumption that we need to grow grains and that we need to plough.

eight acres: review of Dan Barber's book The Third Plate
Roast Rooster

In the section on Land, Dan visits a "natural" foi gras farmer in Spain, who fattens geese on acorns and lupins in the fields.  Foi gras is the fatty liver of a goose or duck, apparently it is a delicacy, but it usually involves cruelly force-feeding grain to the bird.  The irony is that we recently butchered some fat old hens.  When I gutted them I discarded their swollen fatty livers, not wanting to eat them, but this would have been similar to foi gras!  Yuck!  Anyway, the point of this section is that Dehesa region of Spain is a complex farm ecosystem of managed oak trees, pigs, sheep and geese, and part of the reason that it survives is that there is a cuisine associated with the area which supports all of these elements.  It did make me wonder whether even if we find a humane way to raise birds with inflammation of the liver, if we really SHOULD eat those livers, no matter how amazing they taste.  Mas Masumoto and his peaches also feature in this section (I heard about him already on this radio show).

The section on Sea involved a visit to a natural fish farm.  I had heard about this already through Dan's TedX talk and it really does sound like a great system.  The farmers there are producing fish what I think all farmers should be producing anything - working with natural systems to produce healthy animals with no chemicals and very little supplement feeding.  The comparison to a chef who was utilising unpopular "by-catch" fish was thought-provoking.  Which system is more sustainable?  I think the chef risks creating a market and demand for more wild fish, which cannot be sustained.  This is a problem with making use of a "waste" from a dirty industry, at first you think you're making the industry better by using the waste, but really you're just becoming more dependent on it (for example using fly ash from coal power stations as a cheap filler in cement).

eight acres: review of Dan Barber's book The Third Plate
My third plate

Finally Dan visits seed breeders.  One breeder is only using heritage seeds and "landrace" to breed new varieties of grains.  He just keeps looking for unusual plants (taller or more seeds) and breeding from them to improve the crop for his climate and conditions.  This is much like how I breed seeds, except I breed for hardiness by just letting them self-seed....  The other breeder uses modern techniques to create hybrids, not genetic engineering, but just more selective and deliberate crosses than the landrace method.  More like choosing which rooster to keep with your hens so you get the cross you want.  Dan wonders whether die-hard support of heritage breed leaves us missing out on newly developed crosses, however he also observes that most new seed is created for attributes other than flavour.  I think this is why most people would prefer to save heritage breeds.  This section also describes the development of the modern wheat plant, and the green revolution.  It also touches on the importance of the farming community, that one farmer can't do it all, and farmers in a region need to work together to produce a sustainable system between them.

eight acres: review of Dan Barber's book The Third Plate
mmmm my forth plate....

Dan says that "for most of human history meals came from foraged in-season food".  He suggests that a sustainable plate, must be part of a sustainable food culture or cuisine that values local, seasonal food.  Including "by-catch" (companion crops as well as fish) and foraged wild food.  I'm not convinced that we actually need chefs and cuisine to help create this third plate.  I challenged Pete to help me make a meal completely grown on our eight acre property.  We had roast rooster, with asian greens, peas, celery, broccoli and leaks cooked in chicken fat, sweet potato, dried herbs from the garden and gravy made from the dripping.  Followed with custard made from our cream and milk, eggs and honey.  The only external ingredients were a spoonful of cornflour for the gravy, homemade vanilla extract for the custard, strawberries from a road-side stall (I am going to work on growing these, mine are tiny!) and the honey was from the local market (we will have honey one day soon!).  (However the chickens and cows were fed grain purchased from a neighbour, this is a work in progress).

We have got to the stage were the vast majority of what we eat is either produced on our property or from a local farmer, its pretty close to foraged in-season food!  I want everyone to know that its possible to eat like this and I don't need a chef to show me how to do it (although the book was very interesting and at 486 pages covered a wide range of topics relating to food and farming).  I encourage you to start a garden, get some chickens and think about what would be on your sustainable plate.  Even if its only a small proportion of your food, its still contributes by reducing waste, and empowering you to grow what you eat.

eight acres: review of Dan Barber's book The Third Plate

What's on your third plate?  Have you read it?  Are you interested?  See my Amazon link below (I get small percentage of any sales from that link, with no extra cost to you).



  1. Such an inspiring meal Liz. Imagine how happy we'd all be if we were all so connected with our food.

  2. It seems everything in my veggie garden is producing right now, and I was only thinking yesterday, how very little in the way of vegetables I've had to buy from the supermarket recently, and it feels GOOD! I've about used it all up, so there will be a lull again before the next crops mature, but it feels awesome to plate a meal from your own garden.

    I don't think the reality cooking shows producers would like you one bit, how ever would they get to insert the mandatory trip to their sponsors supermarkets with people like you LOL!

  3. Interesting book. My husband is a chef, and most of his cooking experience came from restaurants, that did everything the pre-packaged way. They even have a big showcase in Brisbane every year, for chefs. They give them a pass and get to walk around all the stalls of food manufacturers, trying to sell there fake food, sold as real food. I went with him once, and the vendors fall over themselves with satisfying the chefs - giving them plenty of free samples and the like.

    This is food manufacturing, not real food. David now prefers a home cooked meal, to what is often served in restaurants. To be fair, its a tough industry though (always has been) and businesses have to provide food to people, at a price they can afford - at the same time, prices to conduct business periodically goes up for them. There is a lot of truth for what the book identifies as the issues, but in all honesty, its really only the metropolitan hubs which have the disposable income to pay a qualified chef who knows how to cook real food, and source it at a competitive price, and take home a profit.

    Which is why you will only see "Real Food" restaurants, either owned by a chef who will undercut their own wages to make their business profitable, or the restaurants themselves, are positioned in tourist destinations for wealthy holiday folk, or slap-bang in the middle of a city of professional workers. This isn't to discredit the book, I think the author covers some really good topics, food consumers should be made more aware of. But being married to a chef, I recognise how businesses cannot afford to pay one, what it would cost to lavish quality food, prepared fresh, at a price the average person can afford.

    In relation to real food from my garden though, I recently discovered how delicious Daikon Radish is in stir fries. I thought the flavour might be overpowering, but Daikon acts more like a parsnip than a radish, when fried. I only discovered this because our crisper was bare and I had to scavenge something from the garden. I have a very sparse vegetable garden. Because it was fresh, it made what other limp vegetables from the bottom of the crisper, I could find, taste first class. I used up my supply of Daikon radishes, in three meals. Thankfully they're going to seed now and I'll be able to plant more.

    I also used some less than fantastic sweet potatoes, the bush rats left me in the garden in the stir fry. I truly felt like I was making a peasant meal, because I was scraping the bottom of the barrel. But there is one incredible bonus to food from your garden, even with a bit of pest damage, and that's how superior in taste it is, to what you can purchase through a chain store.

    I should also mention, I used some of the kale from the seeds you sent me, in a stir fry too! That's a bit of real food community food networking, happening, right there. ;)


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