Happily, his lessons are filled with well-cogitated thought, possibilities, solutions, humor, and beautiful images. I’d heard Corby Kummer interview the New York restaurateur on the New York Times book podcast back in the spring of ‘14, and thought it sounded like something I’d like to look at. I felt no urgency. Only when I obtained a copy for someone else and began to browse through it did I discover the can’t-put-it-down page-turning clarity, and the irresistible humor in Barber’s writing. I am trying now to figure out how many copies of the book I can give away for Christmas without repeating myself.
This book is divided into four sections, called Soil, Land, Sea, and Seeds. You won’t have heard these stories in quite this way before, and if they seem familiar, you will find it enlightening to see what Barber has chosen to highlight. Barber moves gradually through his dawning realization that the way we have been eating, in restaurants and at home, is not actually going to be able to sustain the land, the ocean, nor the planet, no matter that we gradually move from pesticide-grown vegetables to organics. There has to be a greater understanding of the web of interconnections between the soil and our eating habits. We have to be willing to increase the diversity of our diet and think about eating foods that replenish the balance in the soil along with ones we use more commonly.
It may be obvious to those who have paid attention to the concept of sustainability that we haven’t yet come around to actually managing the task ahead of us. Barber suggests it is more than simply changing our diets from meat-centric to vegetable-centric. He concludes that we “cherry-pick” our vegetables and therefore limit the amount a farm can sustainably produce for a given community. A farm has to grow cover crops on at least some of the land, and that is part of the cost of crops we actually eat. He urges us to think about how this works in fact, and what this reality means for pricing, output, and consumption.
But I may be making it sound boring. In Barber’s hands, it is anything but that. His work is filled with enlightening vignettes about the places, the people, the restaurants that led him to learn so much about sustainability and its opportunities. Barber awakened me to certain understandings about plant pairings that I’d sort of heard about, but never really believed possible: like having four different crops growing in the same space at the same time to preserve and replenish soil vitality. Especially, or perhaps only, in small scale operations where crops are harvested by hand might this be possible…but it is possible, in fact desirable!
Vignettes about the fish farmers and restaurants featuring fish were particularly interesting. I hadn’t followed the latest developments in that field and am astonished, pleased, and heartened to know that there are some doing things which enhance wildlife rather than diminish it. He tells of a fish farm in Spain which hosts vastly increased numbers of migrating birds as well as produces exceptional-tasting fish for market. It gives me hope that the work on the west coast of the USA to preserve and restore the tidal salt marshes near San Francisco might be successful for life of all kinds, including our own.
Barber outlines his own learning curve, his oversights and humiliations, and he is very funny in places, showing the reactions of people with different world views meeting (at Barber’s behest) face to face and trying to be civil, or in speaking of finely tuned chefs at their most passionate or most perplexed:
’Dan,’ [Ángel] said, turning to me, ‘have you ever cooked naked in your kitchen?’Ángel features in another very funny bit:
”[Santiago] goes to different ponds in Veta la Palma [Spain] at different times of the year. Always at the full moon,” Ángel said.
Thinking of Steiner and his lunar planting schedule, I guessed, “Because the fish have better flavor when the moon is full.”
“No,” [Ángel] said, looking puzzled. “So he can see what he’s catching.”
The section on wheat farming was completely new and fascinating to me. In the very beginning of the book Barber reproduces a photograph of the perennial Midwest native prairie wheat (with root system) alongside higher-yielding grain varieties planted to replace it. I was truly shocked by the difference in the profiles of the two plants, and thought it indicative of what modern agriculture has done, in every aspect of our food profile, to the concept of sustainability. The good news is that there are folks around the country thinking about our food future. Barber managed to create an international community of thoughtful practitioners striving to figure out how we can best produce what we will need to live on earth.
This completely fascinating book happens to be very easy to read. Someone in your family, not just the foodies, will love reading of Barber’s researches and spending time with this thoroughly decent guy who is willing to share his successes and failures in the field.
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