Thursday, September 01, 2016

Third Plate: Field Notes on the History of Food

Dan Barber has a fancy "farm to plate" restaurant in New York. In the third plate he discusses farm-centric food. Mass agriculture produces great quantities of standardized food at the expense of taste and variety. He goes to explore farmers that produce "foie gras" naturally by little ducks and geese fatten themselves. He also sees the production of Jamon Iberico, the delicious Spanish Ham that feasts naturally on acorns and grain. (And ironically is difficult to import in the US due to USDA regulations meant to curb factory farm abuses.) By going back to the "natural" way of doing things, we can have food that is more delicious and less harmful to the environment. However, scaling this production is a challenge. We can't have anything whenever we want.
He also ventures out to the "bread lab" in Washington State. There they are working with "heirloom" varieties of wheat that provide different tastes. Rather than have a standard commodity, they are encouraging variation. The variation can optimize yields locally with the minimum of external inputs. (In Washington, wheat was often grown as a cover crop.) This seams like a win win. We get taste and variety, and farmers get more production with less expensive fertilizer and other chemicals. Other vegetable farmers show similar experiences with health and variety. Healthy plants are better able to fend of pests on their own. Even "weeds" can have their place in the healthy garden.
A successful re-envisioning of the food production system will need to take into account the billions of mouths that need to be fed. Taste does not have to be sacrificed in the name of production. However, availability and "sameness" will. Are we willing to sacrifice some uniform cheapness in favor of taste and nutrition?

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