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On Legacy and Dan Barber's The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food

In May of 1962, President John F. Kennedy went to Congress with an immense request: allocate the funds for and approve the program to send a man to the moon and return him safely. This would be an astronomical undertaking, one that Kennedy acknowledged would be the most difficult and most expensive goal the country had ever worked toward, and the clock was ticking: Kennedy wanted the United States to get it done before the end of the decade.

I think about this all the time. Not because of the mystery of the moon or the conspiracy around the landing or even the complex global politics that led to Kennedy's decision; instead, I think about the kind of leadership on display when a President sets a goal that almost certainly would not be accomplished during his term. Even if he had not tragically been assassinated in 1963, and had been elected to a second term, Kennedy would not have been President in 1969, when Apollo 11 proved him right. He decided that our nation should commit to this effort, and he was willing to secure the money (in today's dollars around $200 billion) and human resources to make it happen, and when the big moment came, it would be during someone else's administration.

What was extraordinary then is unthinkable now as those in power often make decisions based only on the next election-cycle or fiscal year reporting, unable or unwilling to cast a larger vision. Thankfully, there are those still looking long, considering the possibilities ahead of us and how to achieve the best version of them. Dan Barber is one of those thinkers.

Toward the beginning of The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food, the Barber quotes near-legendary soil conservationist Wes Jackson, cofounder of The Land Institute (and longtime friend of Wendell Berry). Jackson had at the time been working on a perennial wheat, one that used to exist but had been agricultured out of existence, and when Barber pushes him on his timeline, Jackson responds:

If you're working on a problem you can solve in your lifetime, you're not thinking big enough.

That quote alone might be enough to convince you to pick up this remarkable book, one that ranges from the soil, to the land, the sea, and the seeds, all or which make up the past, present, and future of our food systems. As a chef, Barber is uniquely concerned with flavor, with the role restaurants can play - and should play - in redefining American cuisine. But whether your interest is in fine dining or home gardening and cooking, or perhaps even global hunger in an increasingly dry and hot world, this book is a must-read.

Barber undoubtedly knows a lot; however, he models for the reader an intense curiosity, one that is always open to learning more, to seeing how someone else would approach a problem, to engaging with multiple perspectives in a fair and nonjudgmental way. In this way, his book is markedly different from the more agenda-driven narratives that often populate this genre. He is learning, and he invites you to learn along with him.

That said, he is an extraordinary teacher, making complex subjects clear and building compelling arguments without ever feeling heavy-handed. When he describes the Spanish dehesa land that has been stewarded for centuries and still produces the world-renowned jamón, you feel like you are walking beside him and hearing Miguel explain:

It's very much a question of values, not just value. That's what explains how the traditional farmers and producers have behaved for generations, and why still today they put tradition, nature, or instinct before technology, choosing to produce better, not just more.

And then you, too, can envision what it would look like if American growers could adopt those values, could see, as the farmers in Spain do, that planting new oaks to replenish natural loss is just what you do, not "for personal gain -- in their own lifetimes those trees will never produce an acorn." They plant because generations before them planted, and generations to come will need those trees to continue the work they've been doing for centuries.

In this way, the space race is not a good analogy. It was, at the time, something utterly new, a bold reckoning with a possible future; but in other ways, the idea works: to accomplish something remarkable, we have to think about legacy. We must consider what we can do now that will make things possible in the future, even if, perhaps especially if, we won't be around to see the outcomes or to receive any credit.

That's just one of many thought-provoking ideas that this book has on offer. If you have any interest in food, cooking, eating, growing things, the environment, agriculture, climate change, or the ocean, you should probably read this book. It is arrestingly well-written, thoughtful without being dense, and an excellent reminder that we have so much work to do.


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