Emerging from the “Dark Ages” of American Food Life
by Krista Tippett, host
Dan Barber is one of those voices who stays with you and changes the way you move through ordinary time — the vast ordinary time, that is, that we all spend thinking about what we will eat, buying food, storing it, preparing it.
His knowledge is as infectious as his passion. He wants us to enjoy our food. And if we become “greedy” for flavor, he says, we will also reform our agricultural ecologies and economies.
This is an irresistible proposition, of course. And what is strange, he helps us realize, is how far-fetched it sounds.
As I told him when we began to speak, I grew up in the 1960’s and 1970’s, an era Dan Barber calls “the Dark Ages” of American food life. My grandparents grew their own vegetables, and we found that quaint but a bit puzzling. Buying supermarket food that emerged from boxes and cans was progress.
And yet, the transcendent food memory of my childhood remains the enormous, red, delicious tomatoes that were available at a ramshackle store on Main Street for a couple of months each summer. It needed nothing added to be the most gorgeous meal in itself. When I mentioned those tomatoes, an audible sigh went up in the audience. We all remember those tomatoes. Dan Barber — and others like Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver — would have us ask this: Why did we abandon that pleasure, and how can we reclaim it as part of our ordinary food lives?
That question becomes more urgent, relevant far beyond the matter of pleasure, as we learn what Dan Barber knows about the nutrition that comes with flavor, the potential that maximally flavorful, nutritious food is now being shown to have even in the fight against cancer. The processes and distribution systems that have leached the flavor out of seeds and produce — processes that also mean I can’t grow those transcendent tomatoes in my home garden even if I try — have made them inexpensive and available in all seasons. But in this generation or the next, the ecological costs of this will become unsupportable.
Amuse Bouche — Fresh Tomato Berries at Stone Barns. (photo: ulterior epicure/Flickr, cc by-nc-nd 2.0)
This is a good news story, though, for a change. Because this crisis, if Dan Barber is to be believed, will bring us home.
The “great social movement” of which he is part is forcing us to re-learn where our food comes from. It is helping us internalize the natural connection between what is ethically grown and healthful and what is delicious. It is helping us discover the particular flavors and bounty of where we come from. You will learn more about root vegetables — especially carrots — in this conversation than you ever realized could be fascinating. Who knew, for example, that sweetness that forms in root vegetables in the hard freezes of northern climates is the vegetable telling you, as Dan Barber tells us, that it does not want to die.
Dan Barber’s cooking is about storytelling too, and it is fascinating to take in his approach to cooking that points “the vectors” at the brilliance and art of farming rather than the flourishes of his cooking. Though the gestalt of his two restaurants is by all accounts extraordinary. Food & Wine has called Blue Hill at Stone Barns one of the world’s “top 10 life-changing restaurants.”
If there is a challenge to the rest of us in Dan Barber’s delightful mission to put pleasure back at the center of our food lives, it is that we will all have to take up our boning knives and cast iron skillets again and begin again to cook.
Some will be uncomfortable with his provocative and impassioned explanation of why he is not vegetarian. He is also not a purist in the local food movement. He confesses to loving citrus on his menus all through the year, and insists that we must make the same distribution systems that have alienated us from flavor begin to work for the regional agricultural economies we must create.
I have cooked more, and with more pleasure, since this conversation. I have had conversations with my children that Dan Barber gave me ideas and words to have. I continue to savor and tease out the unexpected link he offers between what is pleasurable, what is ethical, and what is life-giving, and it is a great gift that I am delighted to pass on to you.
A Visual Feast at Dan Barber’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
After hearing chef Dan Barber describe his dishes as “unconstructed,” we wanted to experience the beauty that he and so many other people describe. Unfortunately, we’re based in Minnesota and we’re a public radio gig, which means we don’t quite have the funds to fly to the Pocantico Hills for a gourmet meal. Fortunately, we found a set of wonderful photos documenting the ulterior epicure’s nine-course meal in the early autumn of 2007, along with his review. His set up and conclusion are reason enough for reading why Dan Barber matters in this food-to-table movement. Bon appetit!
Moments and reminders of how humans ought to live are, in our world, scarce. Having grown up on the prairie plains of the Midwest amidst fields of corn, wheat, and cattle, there wasn’t a day that I went to school without passing by my dinner.
I was quite shocked to discover that for many Americans, hundreds of miles, if not infinitely more, conceptually, separated the farm from their table. Some, sadly, lived just down the street from me. At the age of 6, I was confused and frightened by my friend Tommy’s unintelligible disconnect from the beef he ate and the cows that could be heard lowing in the distance from his swing-set out back.
Cows didn’t have bones, he insisted — there were none in his meatloaf, tacos, or burgers — and neither did chickens, which always came in the form of “tenders,” or, ironically, “fingers.”
As an avid fisher-child, I knew very will how to navigate the pin-boned-riddled bass my dad and I used to haul home on weekend trips. For Tommy, fish were amorphous, water-bound creatures that ended up on his plate as deep-fried “sticks.”
What does all this have to do with Blue Hill at Stone Barns?
Quite frankly, a lot.
While a farm-raised kid like me is tempted to roll my eyes at the trend-supported “slow foods” and “sustainable” mindset/lifestyle, I am reminded of Tommy, and those like him.
When chefs like Dan Barber, owner and executive chef of Blue Hill at Stone Barns, dawned on the American food scene like demi-gods from the corn fields, I couldn’t help but snicker with a dose of cynicism… I mean, this is basically how my parents and I grew up eating.
Regardless, I have come to immensely appreciate what Chef Barber, and chefs like him, are doing for our food culture: bringing us back to the land.
I won’t belabor this point anymore, or details about the restaurant, which can easily be skimmed from its website. The only thing I will say is that it’s tucked away just 40 minutes (on a good traffic day) outside of New York City on the old Rockefeller estate at Pocantico Hills, in a part of our world that I wished more of it could be like. A visit to the farm itself, if not for the food (which would be a pity to miss out on), is worth the trip.
We put ourselves in the capable hands of the kitchen and ordered the “Farmer’s Feast” — a multi-course progression of dishes assembled at the whim of the chef.
The food at Blue Hill at Stone Barns is special. It’s fresh, the compositions are well-balanced, the flavors are nuanced, and everything is cooked perfectly. Even more impressive — all of the produce, and most of the meats, including the chicken (Stone Barns “Barred Silver” chicken) and Berkshire pork served to us, were from the farm surrounding the restaurant.
Take, for instance, our flights-upon-flights of amuses bouche that march out in rapid-fire to welcome us to the table. The most interesting, perhaps, were miniature “tomato burgers” served on a bed of sesame seeds. What appeared to be a straightforward sandwich, however, turned out to be an exciting exercise in unexpected flavor combinations. The the “buns” were actually sweet buttery financiers. The filling was a tangy sweet mix of tomatoes and onions.
Having caught the tail end of an Indian summer, heirloom tomatoes, summer corn and green beans lingered around to delight us. As well, a peek into the coming autumn yielded an abundance of mushrooms — nearly a dozen, which our server proudly paraded out to use during the meal — and various beans.
These, and many farm-fresh (literally) items were spotlighted in various forms on our succession of plates, like a jewel-like salad of heirloom tomatoes. It featured a refreshing combination of tomatoes — raw, sun-dried, in foam and sorbet form — with grilled stone fruits, melons, and shaved fennel.
The most memorable dish of the evening, for me, was a salad showcasing those green beans. The composition included raisins, green and wax beans, and bits of pistachio. It was dressed with a pea-green vinegar-kissed “garden gazpacho” and topped with broad, tissue-thin shavings of matsutake mushrooms and a fresh farm egg crusted with hazelnuts. The oval orb, which at first glance appeared to be a Scotch egg, turned out to be simply a soft-boiled egg skinned in a thin cry shell of hazelnut dust and deep-fried. Piercing the egg yielded a delightfully runny yolk that blanketed the salad with a warm velvety coating. The flavor combination — creamy, tart, sweet, grassy, and nutty created — was truly extraordinary.
This course was followed by another successful dish which featured a coral-coloured fillet of local brook trout resting on a bed of summer corn and local chanterelles. The fish was barely cooked — in wonderful silky limbo between flaky and raw. The fillet glistened with a light but flavorful and naturally sweet tomato-based sauce flecked with smoky coriander seeds and briny capers (one of the only non-local ingredients I spotted). This was satisfyingly simple, yet extraordinarily sophisticated.
While nothing failed, not everything worked, either. The “Embryonic Pasta” was the low point for me for two reasons. This cleverly-named dish was composed of all-egg yolk pasta and a nice, slightly warmed and cooked medley of tomatoes and shiitake mushrooms in a light tomato cream broth.
The first disappointment was the pasta itself. Our server had told us that using all egg yolks gave the pasta an extremely peculiar texture. I had imagined it to be silky, creamy, and very velvety. Instead, it was rather firm and toothy — more like a grain-based pasta.
That being said, I loved the flavors of this dish. It was a strange mix of Italian and Asian flavors. I can’t recall whether it had any heat to it, but I do remember the composition to be slightly sweeter (as most dishes turned out) than I had expected. This sweetness wouldn’t have been bad, per se, if it were cut by a nice dry wine (like a Sauvignon Blanc, which I’ve enjoyed especially with shiitakes before). However, (the second disappointment of this course), the sommelier had paired a too-sweet Riesling Kabinett with this pasta course, a pairing which was slightly more successfully with the brook trout course. The wine was so unenjoyable that it ruined this pasta dish for me. Despite how good the flavor was, I didn’t finish it.
This brings me to the wine program. I’m sure Blue Hill at Stone Barn’s servers are very well-versed in wine. It is unfortunate that our server’s taste didn’t match mine. I had told the sommelier that I didn’t want to do a full pairing. I requested a glass of white and a glass of red, and perhaps a beer pairing, if he/the chef thought that there was a course with which beer would pair particularly well with.
Sadly, I didn’t enjoy the beer — a very “hoppy” Victory Prima Pils — that was paired with the our two salads, although I did feel that it went better with the green beans and egg than with the tomatoes and fruit. And, as stated, the Riesling was excruciatingly sweet for both the already sweet pasta and fish courses (the tomato sauces).
Our red wine, however, paired with chicken, and later pork belly, was excellent.
Desserts were accomplished, but rather unexciting. For some reason, I find myself liking pre-dessert courses more than the dessert course, proper. I haven’t quite thought through the reasoning, but I bet it goes something like this: pre-desserts tend to be more refreshing than satisfyingly (often cloyingly) sweet, they also tend to be smaller, and more often involve fruit and/or sorbet.
And, so it was with the desserts at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. We were reminded of summer once again in both of our sweet courses. Our pre-dessert featured a neon-red pool of watermelon soup and small dices of watermelon topped with a tiny quenelle of ricotta sorbet. The combination of these two elements far out-paced what was to follow: a rather ordinary lemon cheesecake with blueberries and creme fraiche ice cream.
A phalanx of petite fours, including a bowl of darling ruby-coloured fraises du bois, were sent after dessert was cleared. Coffee was served (another non-local product), and the bill was settled.
Blue Hill at Stone Barns is one of the most novel and special restaurants I have ever visited. And yet, what makes the restaurant special are practices and elements that seem highly intuitive and familiar to me, a product of the Midwest and an American consumer: eat what you grow.
That, sadly, is easier said than done these days.
The tenants of Blue Hill at Stone Barns (much like those of the mother ship, Chez Panisse, where I had a spectacular meal last year) require and restrict the restaurant to serving a certain subset of foods. Due to seasonal and regional limitations plus Chef Barber’s insistence that only the best of the garden is served, a number of the same items showed up repeatedly throughout our dinner. Tomatoes figured in somewhere on nearly all of our savory courses, as did mushrooms and beans to a lesser extent. Corn appeared on both our fish and pork dishes.
While this may seem monotonous or redundant, it really isn’t. It’s simply a matter of understanding, appreciating, and celebrating the abundance of what is before us.
Blue Hill at Stone Barns is very much a restaurant of the here and now — in terms of its situation vis-a-vis our nation’s restaurant trends, the current food culture in the world, and the food it serves every day. It captures the best of each day and serves it to its guests. In today’s world, this is tremendously exciting.
I hope to return to Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Maybe in the spring, or the dead of winter. I trust the kitchen and the staff will feed and take care of us with as much passion as on this visit.
This review of Blue Hill at Stone Barns was originally published on October 6, 2007 and reprinted, along with all photographs, with the permission of the ulterior epicure.