Harvard SEAS lecture 11/7/11, Dan Barber

Subject – Reclaiming Flavor.

Much to my surprise, Harold McGee was around to introduce Dan Barber to the audience.

  • Flavor molecules are actually a defense mechanism. Believe it or not, the flavor molecules are toxic to small insects and mold. It doesn’t seem toxic to humans, because we essentially dilute herbs by cooking. Physical/environmental stress to plants will cause the plants to boost flavor and antioxidants as a coping mechanism.
  • You can take advantage of this.  For example, a component of mold cell walls is chitin.  Chitin also exists in the exoskeletons of insects and crustaceans.  You can pulverize lobster shells and introduce it to plants, purposely tricking them into stress mode and make the plants increase flavor and antioxidants.

That pretty much ended Harold’s bit, and Dan’s presentation started.

Dan’s lecture was similar to his lecture last year, but he spent most of his time talking about bad farming, good farming, proper crop rotations, the natural system of organisms in the soil, and just the concept that food will taste good if it is raised well.

  • The only “recipe” that was discussed was whole wheat brioche with ham.  However, Dan was really speaking to how to grow a better tasting wheat plant and a how to raise better tasting pigs for ham.
  • The old-school way to fertilize soil is either 1) using manure or 2) crop rotations.
  • In the 1840s, Justus von Liebig introduced the idea that all you needed to make a plant grow is potassium, nitrogen, and phosphorus.  Then in 1910, synthetic nitrogen was invented.  By the end of World War II, chemical fertilizers were being used in farming, bypassing the natural soil process.
  • Dan would submit to you that modern farming is bad farming, and has given us bad tasting foods.  (I was pretty happy to hear that Dan Barber thinks that whole wheat flour tastes bad.  I do too.  I refuse to use it or stock it for my home baking.)
  • He also believes that the starvation of soil organisms has killed flavor in our plants.  A healthy soil culture will feed a plant better than chemical fertilizers, and happy plants will make for better tasting plants.  It might even make for more nutritious plants.
  • A smart crop rotation example is:  wheat -> clover (best for fixing nitrogen in the soil) -> corn (great user of nitrogen, and then stalks can be plowed back into the ground) -> mustard (provides sulfur when plowed back in) -> soy beans -> oats -> wheat.
  • Emmer wheat, an heirloom variety, is better tasting than semi-dwarf wheat (the hybrid that is mostly grown today since it works in the nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium system and survives hard rain better).  Emmer wheat also has a root system that is three to five times larger than other wheat.  This large root system helps to aerate the soil, and encourages a healthy soil culture.
  • Emmer wheat is ground daily at Blue Hill for their whole wheat brioche.  Wheat ground at the restaurant also helps insure that it is more nutritious.  White flour is just the endosperm of a wheat grain.  Whole wheat flour is the endosperm and the bran.  The germ, however, is where the best flavor and nutrients are located.  Often the germ is removed from commercial products because it is not shelf stable.
  • Starting in the 1950s, pigs are introduced to a corn diet/cheap feed diet instead of diverse diet that is the result of forest foraging.  In the 1970s, we start to see pigs raised in tight quarters (hog CAFOs).  In the 1980s, the meat industry starts to pick leaner variety of pigs to be used as food instead of some of the older breeds of pigs.
  • Following the same general principle with plants, a happy pig will make for a tastier pig.  Pigs at Stone Barns are Berkshire pigs, an older breed, that are allowed to roam and forage in the forest.
  • Most of the audience was lucky enough to try a thin slice of Blue Hill ham.  Unfortunately, my sister was too slow and missed out on all the ham by the time she got to the front of the lines.  I got a taste though.
  • Dan admits that the food at Blue Hill/Stone Barns may seem elitist to today’s society.  However, he believes that in the near future there will be no such thing has cheap food.  Less stable weather patterns and increased fuel prices will make the cost of food more expensive.  It may get to a point where Blue Hill/Stone Barns is not any more expensive than other food costs.  As such, he believes that smart and responsible farming is all the more important.

Dan mentioned several times that he’s working on a book.  I hope it gets published!  It’s a lot of information to take in, but I find his lectures to be very inspiring.  The whole way home, all I could think about was gardening.  I would love to see this idea of smart farming put forth on a small scale for the home garden.

I had encouraged my sister to join me for Dan’s lecture.  I was a little worried.  “Would this be too nerdy for her?”  It turned out that I had nothing to worry about.  My sister really enjoyed the lecture as well.  So, if you ever get the opportunity to hear Dan Barber speak, I highly suggest taking it.  ^_^

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