Taste This: Lessons From Stone Barns
The lesson of the day was to pay attention, to listen with all our senses.
To show up for the food we were eating, to honor it, enjoy it.
To use my tongue and nose to find nourishment. To digest it, in every sense of the word. The world changes when we show up and pay careful attention to what we are eating and to how it was grown.
My teachers were the chefs of Blue Hill at Stone Barns Center For Agriculture and Education in Tarrytown, New York. Dan Barber was teaching at one of 5 learning centers set up to share a deeper understanding for the 120 plus team members at Stone Barns. I was paired with guest chef Shola Olunloyo. There were farmers there too. Jack Algiere, Eliot Coleman, Barbara Damrosch, and Linley Dixon. Plus many whose names I do not know.
I had been invited to speak that afternoon about the Real Organic Project. Eliot and I spoke to the assemblage, responding to questions from Agricultural Director Jack Algiere and then from the large crowd in the dining area. It was a rich conversation about the challenges and promises of the real organic movement.
“We are working to build a culture that gets excited about the kinds of diverse crops that organic farmers need to grow to make their ecosystems function at the highest level. And how can we, “we” being people who are wearing this [chef’s] coat, create a desire and a price that is fair for those products?
The way this started for me wasn’t at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. In my personal education, it was so late in it. There was a moment where a light bulb went off. So I wanted to start this session by sharing the light bulb moment.
The light bulb moment was wanting to write a book about what we call Farm To Table, supporting local and, in most cases for us, organic farmers. Back 20 years ago this was something that was emerging as a very exciting theme, especially among chefs. We started with grains, and especially with a grain farmer in upper state New York named Klaas Martens.
Klaas was growing amazing wheat for our 100% whole wheat bread that we were baking pretty soon after we opened. And I wanted to write a book. The beginning of the book was going to be about, “What is the recipe for creating this wheat that we make our bread from that everybody is talking about?
Because we knew that the wheat that Farmer Klaus was growing for us was exceptional. We knew that because when we tried to use other varieties of whole wheat, the recipe didn’t work near as well. I thought there’s a recipe here that’s important to understand and I’m going to write about it.
So I went to visit Klaus, and in the first hour that I was on the farm my life as a cook changed.
Because I was standing on a hilltop, overlooking a lot of Klaas’ farm, which totals about 2500 acres. And I came to this farm to learn about, and write, the recipe for wheat. But I didn’t see much wheat at all. What I saw were a lot of other crops, buckwheats and barleys and oats. I saw tons of cover crops, clovers, vetch, and the rest. I saw nitrogen-fixing crops like peanuts.
I saw very little wheat!
What I learned in that next hour was that all of these crops are planted in a rotation following wheat or preceding wheat. That rotation is locking the kind of fertility in the soil that is necessary for Klaas to grow the wheat that Blue Hill is being celebrated for. Without those crops preceding the wheat crop, the soil didn’t have the kind of fertility needed to produce the kind of wheat that this bread had become quite well known for.
So what I realized was that the recipe for great wheat turned out to be a whole diversity of crops.
Now I’m saying that with embarrassment because this was 2005, only 16 years ago. I grew up on a farm, and I was surrounded by farms, not just in Blue Hill New York where we were working with a ton of local farms, but here at Stone Barns. We weren’t just Farm to Table. We had a table in the middle of a farm!
And I actually didn’t quite understand this. And the takeaway for me was that I was doing it all wrong.
I was supporting just the wheat, and if you look at it you’ll see that wheat is just a piece of the pie. All these other crops had very specific functions, especially after a high-value crop like wheat, which is a high fertility crop, similar to corn or rice. Then you need to restore nutrients.
And on 2500 acres you’re not doing that with compost. You’re doing it with rotation grains. They are supplying the juice, the energy, in the soil for big crops like wheat. But what I was doing was just buying the wheat and becoming very well known for being an advocate for local farmers by just one tiny slice of the pie. And I was very embarrassed.
What was happening with everything else on Klass’ farm? Back then almost all of it was going into bagged feed for animals, or he would plow it right into the ground because it didn’t make sense to harvest it. There was no market. No one was buying local barley. No one was buying local buckwheat. Absolutely no one buying oats locally.
So those crops had very little value. They went into bagged feed. Klaas made pennies on the dollar versus selling it to a chef like me or home cooks. But he charged a LOT of money for the wheat. And he charged a LOT of money for the corn. But everything else he was losing money, essentially.
Why did he grow things he was losing money for? Because he’s an organic farmer, and organic farmers need diversity, and Klaas in particular was fixated on soil health. Because he believed for a lot of reasons that it produced not just an ecologically healthy system but, most importantly for us, the best flavor.
I realized at that moment that what I needed to do as a chef was to support everything else and get it out of bagged feed for animals and get it into us. Because what you’re looking at, of course, is the most nutritious and delicious grains. It’s not my discovery. This is 10,000 years of different cultures and cuisines discovering that.
For example, in Japan why do you have soba noodles? Japan is white rice, but what is the rotation crop into rice for Japan? Well, it’s buckwheat. So the culture created soba noodles so while you are eating your soba noodles you are supporting a rice culture. You can eat rice twice a day 7 days a week, but you also have to eat soba noodles to support it.
In the global south, you eat corn but you also eat a lot of beans because you need the nitrogen to fix in the soil to create the fertility that gives you the corn.
For western civilization, for my European ancestors, you didn’t just grow wheat. You grew barley. Barley and wheat is a very famous European rotation, among other places. That’s where beer and bread worked so well together.
So it’s not like anything was new here. It’s just that I was understanding it in a different way. And I was understanding that in America, anyway, especially in my cooking and in Blue Hill’s cooking, we weren’t responding to the whole pie. We were responding to one piece.
That night I drove into Blue Hill New York. In the car I remember going through a recipe for what we called risotto, a “rotation risotto” having nothing to do with wheat and not with rice, because I wasn’t around rice, but we did a risotto with buckwheat and barley. And what you are tasting today is essentially 10 or 12 years of iteration on that idea.
Can we create an iconic dish of risotto without rice and without wheat, but make that risotto into a soil supporting dish that creates an economy for the farmer and that gets people to see the need to support their bread. We used to serve the risotto right before the bread course. And we were essentially saying if you want to eat the bread you have to eat the risotto. If you want to eat the white rice, you have to eat the risotto, so same idea.
I know the genesis of this class is the genesis of what changed really dramatically for us at Blue Hill. It is to start to create a culture where we covet these grains like every culture has figured out for 10,000 years. And stop trying to celebrate me as a Farm To Table chef if I’m not supporting the whole system. That was the beginning.”
– Dan Barber speaking at Stone Barns
Stone Barns has been setting up an ambitious educational forum to help take all of the members of its community to a biological literacy about food and farming.
To accomplish this they are giving people from every part of their food and farming system a voice to share what they are working on. In two hours I moved from learning pod to learning pod, hearing about growing grain, milling flour, baking bread, high-level crop rotation, cows and pasture, and 4 season vegetable production.
And we tasted! Beans from Africa, pizza baked in an outdoor wood oven. Bread after amazing bread. “This one is spelt. This one is rye. Which one do you like better?”
There is a koan about food. “Does it matter as long as we get ‘enough’?”
Dr. Frederick Stare, the founder of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health, taught that a calorie is a calorie. A carrot is a carrot. A Twinky is as good as a meal made of fresh vegetables grown in rich soil, as long as the Twinky is properly “fortified” with the proper elements and vitamins. He advised that Coca-Cola was “a healthy between-meals snack.”
We have learned some things about nutrition since Professor Stare’s time. As it turns out, the hippies were right. Whole foods provide whole nutrition. A carrot is not a carrot. How food is grown matters. Some carrots grown in healthy organic soil provide an abundance of important metabolites that an industrial carrot is entirely missing. Soil is critically important. Seed is important too. A variety bred for an industrial system almost inevitably sacrifices nutritional complexity in exchange for high production. High production of what?
Seven percent of all American adults believe that chocolate milk comes from brown cows, according to a national survey commissioned by the Innovation Center of U.S. Dairy. That is over 16 million people!
At Stone Barns, Linley and I recorded conversations with Eliot Coleman and Dan Barber, Joan Gussow, and Jack Algiere. These teachers help us learn agricultural literacy. Parts of these conversations will be included in our upcoming January symposium. All of them will be available in our podcasts next year.
On the final evening, we had an amazing dinner served in the kitchen of Blue Hill at Stone Barns.
And with every course, the invitation: Pay attention. Taste this!
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