Chef Dan Barber on 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.
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.
(Photos of dishes from Blue Hill at Stone Barns by Ulterior Epicure/Flickr.)
Chef Dan Barber and Mindful Eating in the 21st Century (Live Video)
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
date: Friday, November 5th, 2010
time: 7:30 p.m. Eastern
duration: 90 minutes
From Atlanta we take you to Indianapolis to bring you a New York chef who is a game-changing voice of the farm-to-table movement. Tonight at 7:30 pm Eastern, we’ll be streaming live video of Krista’s interview with Dan Barber, of Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns fame, from the Spirit & Place Festival in Indianapolis.
Barber is a James Beard Award winner, who is using his New York restaurants to highlight the distinct quality of locally grown, seasonal, and sustainable agriculture. His approach to mindful eating and the values surrounding food in contemporary lives is something you don’t want to miss.
How this public event came about has been serendipitous. A number of years ago Krista interviewed Rabbi Sandy Sasso for a show on the spirituality of parenting. It so happens that she’s been deeply involved in an annual, 10-day festival called Spirit & Place, Indiana’s largest civic festival, which promotes “civic engagement, respect for diversity, thoughtful reflection, public imagination, and enduring change through creative collaborations between arts, faith-based, and civic institutions.” She invited us to come down and we accepted!
This venue is an ideal forum for our conversation, which will enlarge and deepen our understanding about sustainability issues through discussing core human values of beauty and living in relationship with one another. Dan Barber stresses that, for him, a core value of sustainability is expressed through an age-old tradition: “The sustainability stuff comes in through the stories. The thing that the industrial food chain will never have is the ability to tell stories.” I look forward to hearing him tell some of those stories and share his imagination about how those narratives enliven his experiences as a grower and chef and thinker.
While preparing for this public event, I can’t help but hear echoes of Krista’s conversation with Ellen Davis — specifically, about getting to know your farmer and understanding where your food comes from. He seems to be one of those bridge people whose appreciation for food and the land was cultivated by working Blue Hill Farm in the Berkshires as a teenager, where he spent most summers “bailing hay and moving cows, pasturing them from field to field.” His Know Thy Farmer effort reminds me of a fabulous film campaign out of Maine called Meet Your Farmer, which emphasizes the values in understanding the struggle of people producing food, the joy of working intimately with others, and celebrating a table of locally grown produce and meat and its flavors even more.
He’s also a businessman. Dan Barber builds on the idea of interdependency but applies it in a fresh way through his fine dining restaurants — that both businesses and livelihoods of the people who work there are mutually dependent. In effect, his farm depends on the viability of his restaurants and his restaurants rely on the quality of the food produced at his farm.
In ten short years, Barber has impacted public consciousness about our everyday food choices and perhaps even agricultural policy. In 2009 he was named to the annual Time 100 list. In 2010, the World Economic Forum invited him to Davos, Switzerland to participate in their annual meeting, and President Barack Obama appointed him to serve on the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, Sports and Nutrition. And his TED2010 talk has become a sensation that has been forwarded to more than one of our producers’ email in-boxes.
Please join us right here or on the Being LIVE page and watch the live stream of this public conversation. For those of you who can’t make it, not to worry. We’re recording it and video will be immediately available for playback after the event.