Dan BarberDan 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?

Amuse Bouche - Fresh Tomato BerriesThat 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. Blue Hill at Stone Barns Carrots and RadishesYou 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.)

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What an utterly delicious episode! All the way around; visually, content, topic and Dan Barber's mission. Just Yum!

I’ve been told that I have the best tasting tomatoes others have ever had.
I was thinking people were being polite, yet every summer folks I hardly know and friends alike start asking about my tomatoes.
Maybe there is something more to this than imagined.

Where'd you get your seeds?

What a great feature. I think we've long overlooked the inherent wisdom in our own palates. I enjoyed Mr. Barber's use of the term "hedonism" but I see it more as trust that what's best for us also feels good, tastes good, sounds good, and works out well for all. Maybe this flies in the face of American puritanism and the ascetic path to spiritual enlightenment. In the U.S. we have such an ambivalent relationship with pleasure. But if we really do have faith in God, shouldn't we eventually consider that God inculcated us with the drive for pleasure and maybe that wasn't a mistake? I also think that more enjoyment of food, including food preparation, would help us abandon our tendency towards obesity.

I am a seasonal farmer, I raise a heitage breed of sheep, clun forest, pasture raised broilers, free range eggs except when it's -10 below out. turkeys and a garden. I have for the past ten years sold on the basis of flavor only, knowing that with natural flavor the consumer will buy. Why because their bodies are telling them they fell better. I found your show inspirering and even in a blizzard a fullfilling endeavor to continue,although I am small it's still worth raising and know that the 500 people I serve are always happy with the flavor they recieve..

I enjoyed everything about this episode except for the part about certain foods fighting cancer. As a breast cancer survivor, I wish this were true, but the research doesn't bear this out. In fact, it seems that pesticides and other chemicals in our food may cause cancer. When I hear people talking about foods fighting cancer, I get nervous that people will abandon the treatments that have been proven to work for those that seem more "natural" but don't actually work.

great article. we sure do live in enlightened times from a flavor perspective (but will the tastebuds of the future look at this time as a period where we still had a long way to go?) hmmm