dan-barber-third-plate

book review: the third plate by dan barber

I first encountered Dan Barber when I watched the TED Talks Chew on This collection through Netflix. He’s the co-owner and executive chef of Blue Hill restaurant and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York, but his talk was something of a precursor to this book.

Now, I’ve read a lot of food books. A ton of books on food systems highlighting the problems with our current one and people’s visions for the future. So while I expected the book to be well written, since Dan Barber’s TED Talk was, I didn’t expect it to really say anything new.

Well, I was wrong.

I knew after reading the intro that this book was going to be different, and I was not disappointed. The Third Plate has the audacity to challenge the farm-to-table movement – one I personally hold dear – and question what it means to support farms and sustainable agriculture. By “third plate,” Dan Barber is alluding to his vision of where cuisine is going for the future. (He came up with the idea as a response to a reporter who asked him where the future of cuisine was going.) The first plate is a traditional American meal of a large, corn-fed steak and baby carrots. The second plate is a farm-to-table plate of a grass-fed steak with heirloom, organic carrots. But the third plate is a carrot steak, with a side of beef seconds (the more obscure cuts).

What in the world is he talking about?

He realized that as a chef cooking in the farm-to-table philosophy of cuisine, he was still cherry picking what he wanted for ingredients – ones that were often expensive to produce and not the best for soil management and long-term sustainability. Our food culture dictates that farmers grow what will sell – not what is better for the land. And it extends to livestock – we throw away many usable and edible parts of animals that we raise for food, all in a quest for more boneless, skinless chicken breasts and beef tenderloins. 

Through four sections organized around soil, land, sea and seed, Barber profiles various farmers, fishermen, bakers, seed managers and more in an attempt to explain what is missing from our current food culture and how we can get on a path toward a more sustainable future.

Barber argues that what we need is a food system organized around the whole system of agriculture – and most perhaps most difficult for us to wrap our heads around – is that we can’t always get what we want. He calls on chefs to start cooking with other types of foods that are the most important for soil management – certain grains and vegetables that return nutrients to the soil. In essence, chefs need to create the market demand for the items that the farmers need to maintain their land to sustain its health. The idea is that once the chefs start a trend, it can morph into our home kitchens. Which, if you think about it, makes sense – think about what chefs have done for pork belly and brussels sprouts.

This book has fascinating new ideas and a comfortable writing style – definitely for the person who feels like they’ve already heard it all when it comes to food systems and sustainability. You’ll also get a healthy dose of information about international cuisines and agriculture (including the story of some of the world’s only foie gras that is not from force-fed animals). It’s optimistic, but logical and realistic, which was a tone I really found refreshing. Gives me hope that there are visionaries who are really getting to the heart of what needs to happen to ensure sustainable agriculture. 

And it really makes me want to try a carrot steak… 

starting seeds: moving outdoors!

It’s been awhile since I talked about the progress of the seedlings. That’s mostly because they’ve just been spending time growing in our makeshift seedling grow room (spare bedroom) for the last few weeks/months. 

Technically we should be past the danger of frost at this point in May, but our weather has been touch and go with some frost warnings. Between our really busy spring schedule and the rainy weather we’ve had, there hasn’t been much of an opportunity for us to work outside, so we only got the seedlings fertilized and moved into larger containers to be hardened outside this weekend.

Mark took some of the organic seed starting mix that we used and combined it with top soil and some organic fertilizer.

We used a bucket to bring a bit of the mix in at a time, since we decided to do this at the kitchen island. (Kind of a mistake. The floor was a disaster when we were done. Live and learn.)

We filled a Jiffy pot with the new mix and I delicately extracted the seedlings from the original tray with a plastic spoon. Our seedlings aren’t as robust as the ones you can buy at Lowes or Home Depot, but those plants are farther along in their development, plus they are traditionally fertilized. Miracle-Grow plants will grow faster, yes, but I can’t bring myself to purchase it, let alone use it.


We had more than we can likely use in our beds, so we’re giving some seedlings away. And we ran out of Jiffy pots, so our patio table is a mish mash of seedlings right now. We’ll be keeping them outside and bringing them in when the weather warrants to harden them and get them ready to be in the beds soon.

Now to just get the beds ready! I’ve got good hopes for these, since they are much better looking than last year’s seedlings, and those actually did quite well, even if they took longer to grow and develop than others. Nature has a way of taking care of things.

How are your seedlings and gardens coming along?

Jarosinski Farm Project needs our help, Pittsburgh!

Early this year, Pittsburgh came together in an awesome way to support a Kickstarter project for Superior Motors, a restaurant/culinary school/urban garden in Braddock. It was not only fully funded, but became the largest funded restaurant project on Kickstarter. And only a few days before the deadline, it looked like it wasn’t going to make it.

And now we have another local Kickstarter that needs your help. This one is only for $5,000, but it’s five grand that will go a long way to help a local, first-generation farmer.

Kevin Jarosinski is a farmer in the Butler area, north of Pittsburgh. He is dedicated to sustainability and to humane animal husbandry, and produces pastured poultry, pork and grass-fed beef. We already have suppliers of meat that we use regularly, as well as the three ladies producing eggs in our backyard. But I’ve heard great things about Jarosinski Farms and what he’s trying to do, from the ground up.

The Kickstarter project is to build a springhouse that will allow him to utilize the fresh water spring on his property and be in compliance with all regulations concerning that water usage. The extra money from the project would go toward building more mobile chicken pens, to help him rotate the flock.

I think it’s important for communities to support their farmers in ways beyond just buying their products. Farming can be resource and infrastructure intense – having the proper equipment and set-up is expensive, and farms are always susceptible to elements outside their control, like weather, pests or disease. So when I can, I try to do things like supporting their projects or writing my legislators in support of legislation that protects and supports them.

It also bugs me that so many subsidies and tax breaks are available for large agribusiness, when the same benefits aren’t necessarily available to small farmers and local producers. And it can often be difficult to get traditional funding. So when they need community-sourced funds, the community that benefits from their environmental stewardship and quality products should step up.

So, Pittsburgh. Work your magic. Support Kevin Jarosinski’s Farm Project with me. 6 more days and he’s only just over halfway there. We can push that number up!

bottomfeeder-eat-ethically

book review: bottomfeeder by Taras Grescoe

After reading Four Fish and seeing The End of the Line, I’ve thought a lot about sustainability and seafood. While I enjoyed that book and the documentary, neither one of them comes close to the quality and persuasiveness of Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood.

Bottomfeeder was one of the most engaging non-fiction books I’ve read, with artful language and ingenious organization. Each chapter takes you somewhere in the world to illustrate how a problem in one area of the world is contributing to the larger problem of our seafood and ocean life literally vanishing. If you’re at all interested in sustainable seafood, this is the book to pick up. (I even found myself smirk laughing a few times, which to be honest, surprised me in a book about seafood.)

It is pretty much universally accepted by scientists that humans are driving seafood populations to extinction. Most predict that if current fishing practices continue, we will see the collapse of all of our edible sealife populations by 2050. Grescoe challenges the idea that has governed the use of the oceans for centuries – that ocean life is a bottomless resource and that humans are entitled to anything and everything they want from within its waters. This mentality is what’s driving us toward future generations not knowing that many species of seafood even existed. The oceans are commons, and too much freedom is an issue, as Grescoe quotes ecologist Garrett Hardin:

“Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit–in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.” (p.10)

The book is divided by regions and their seafood of choice – from monkfish on the plates of elite high-end restaurants in New York City to shrimp in India, bluefin tuna in Japan and the cod of England’s fish and chip shops and more. Throughout the book, Grescoe illuminates the issues that threaten that seafood population, but not in a heavy-handed way that makes sweeping judgements. His research is meticulous, and he makes clear that often it’s not one single event or practice that contributes to a population’s decline or collapse, but a convergence of different things.

The book also covers the damage that overfishing has done on different levels. It’s not just the environment that is affected, but public health, the economy of traditional fishing communities and the ecosystem as a whole. Never before has eating lower on the food chain made more sense to me. And like encountering information about factory farming for the first time can make chicken nuggets hard to swallow, I’ll never look at imported shrimp or a piece of deep fried cod the same way again. There are just no compelling reasons besides convenience and cost to eat seafood that is taken from overfished, endangered populations. If we want future generations to enjoy eating from the sea, the time to start practicing restraint is now.

I often have complaints about books like this telling you a lot about the problem, but not offering practical solutions. Many times you’re convinced that you should care, but you aren’t given ways to do anything about it. This book is clearly the opposite. I finally feel equipped with enough tools to really implement better choices in my own consumption of seafood. An extensive appendix gives resources like websites for the most up to date information (this book is now 6 years old), general principles to follow when buying seafood, questions to ask your fishmonger or restaurant staff, descriptions of the best and worst fishing methods, and lists of seafood in three categories for eating (No, never. Depends, sometimes. Yes, always.). I want to buy a copy of this book just for the appendix alone. (I’m reluctant to have to return it to the library!)

Armed with this book as a resource and Seafood Watch from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, I feel confident about being able to make better seafood choices. We even stood in front of the seafood section at Costco this weekend, checking to see if any of the fresh offerings were ones we could buy without a guilty conscience. I want my choices to be healthy and sustainable – for both the ocean and human communities that fishing supports. 


movie review: the end of the line

This week, Marty’s Market hosted a screening of the documentary, The End of the Line. Marty’s has recently partnered with the Monterey Bay Aquarium to sell seafood that is approved by Monterey Bay’s Seafood Watch program, so this was a fitting educational program for them to host. They also are partners with the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium – the first store in the area to do so.

(As a side note – great place to watch a documentary. Comfortable tables, delicious coffee and nice people. Also a great place for brunch – I’m just sayin.)

I’ve known for awhile about the problem of declining seafood populations, having read Four Fish by Paul Greenberg.The End of the Line is based on a book of the same name by Charles Clover, and challenges the idea that we have operated under for centuries – that the sea is inexhaustible in its resources. (Come to think of it, we’ve pretty much thought that about land and underground resources as well.)

The film highlights the myriad of issues that overfishing creates – from environmental issues like drastically changed ecosystems. When a  species higher on the food chain collapses, there is a proliferation of the lower species. When those are overfished, there’s no way for the system to rebound. Bi-catch is also a big problem – the other sea life that is caught in trawlers and nets in addition to the intended population – making up 1/10 of what is caught. Bi-catch goes back over the side of the boat, dead. Bottom trawlers drag the ocean floor and destroy the life on the sea bed. None of it is so simple as putting a lure on a line on a fishing pole, which is the idea we have about fishing from the recreational fishing that people do as a hobby.

1.2 billion people depend on seafood as a key part of their diet, and many hundred thousands of jobs are dependent on it as well – everything from indigenous fishermen to international corporations. Overfishing might sustain jobs now, but as the populations of the fished species dwindle, those jobs will disappear anyway, since there will be no more fish left to catch. This is where the logic behind quotas and protected areas comes into play – but these are often completely disregarded. Indigenous fishermen in developing nations are also threatened by their own countries selling the rights to off-shore fishing to developed nations. The coastal areas where theses people have fished for centuries are now depleted, making it harder and harder for them to make a living in their own home areas.

The film also touches on farmed fish – often thought of as the solution to dwindling wild populations. But the problem is that farmed fish EAT wild fish. So using aquaculture for a species that eats fish isn’t actually sustainable in any way, since it takes many pounds of fish like anchovies, herring and mackerel to feed the farmed fish that seem to be such a great idea. There are also problems with these fish farms polluting and/or contaminating the wider ocean.

One of the ideas this film presents that I hadn’t really considered before was how we look at seafood as a different type of life than other animals, like dogs, cats, zoo animals, or even livestock. If restaurants served panda on their menus, the public would be outraged. Endangered species! How can we eat them? But yet restaurants across the country highlight bluefin tuna, which is highly endangered. As a society, we classify the life of animals according to our own use. We wouldn’t treat our dogs the way we treat cows and pigs. And we definitely wouldn’t treat a panda or cheetah the way we do bluefin tuna. 

So what do you do? The film suggested asking your legislators to “respect the science” – which I think is a great way of phrasing that governments can’t let private interests try to refute established scientific evidence. Both the film and Monterey Bay also suggest asking businesses and restaurants – is your seafood sustainable? If they answer that they don’t know or say that it isn’t, ask them to look into the issue and leave them with a Seafood Watch card. 

Also, if you’re going to purchase seafood on your own, choose from the Best Choices list, and from the Good Alternatives list, if the Best Choices aren’t available. Look for restaurants and businesses that prioritize sustainability and support those organizations. Download the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch app and check it out the next time you’re in the market for seafood.  

reading this week

Some exciting local stuff this week, as well as national news. There’s never a shortage of headlines in the movement for sustainable, just food. 

What’s New in 2014? Sustainable Seafood (Marty’s Market blog)
Marty’s Market, a local store in Pittsburgh’s Strip District, has made a pledge to only sell seafood approved by Monterrey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch in an effort to focus on sustainable seafood. This is awesome for a lot of reasons. In addition to the post linked above, check out their post on the importance of sustainable seafood here. I’m going to Marty’s on Feb. 26 to view a screening of The End of the Line, a documentary about the problem of over-fishing.

A Valuable Reputation (New Yorker)
A story about a scientist who studied the effects of atrazine for Syngenta, one of the largest agribusinesses in the world. You can guess how this turned out.    

For lower-income students, snow days can be hungry days (NPR)
Way too many children in this country depend on being at school to eat breakfast and lunch – meals they wouldn’t otherwise get at home. 

Kroger accused of being not-so-honest in ‘Simple Truth’ chicken labels (Reuters)
Grocery giant Kroger is under fire (and being sued) for labels that claim their chicken is humanely raised, when the birds are actually raised in standard confinement agriculture operations. Truth in labeling continues to be a big problem in this country.

Also, save the date for the 8th Annual Farm to Table Conference in Pittsburgh – March 21 and 22 at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, downtown. This year’s theme is “Food Sources.” We attended this last year and met a lot of great local vendors and farmers, as well as some great speakers.

Don’t forget – I’m raising money for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank by running the Pittsburgh half marathon on May 4. Read more about it here and support ending hunger in our community.