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Mindful Eating: Sustainable, spiritual pleasure in food with Chef Dan Barber

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Think back to the last meal you ate. What can you remember about the experience? Where did your meal come from, Lean Cuisine packaging or the farmers market? How did it look? Was the food carefully arranged or heaped on your plate? Did you load up on salt and condiments, or were the ingredients just perfect on their own? Were you alone, or drinking in the joy of loving company? How was your mood — content, happy even, or rushed to finish and sprint out the door to the next obligation?

According to chef Dan Barber, these conditions are all connected. The aesthetics, sensations and emotions play significantly into the experience of dining. On Friday night, audience members filled the pews of Beth-El Zedeck to hear the chef philosophize on the present state and future movement of consumption.

The public conversation, titled “Mindful Eating,” served as the signature opening event for this year’s Spirit & Place Festival. National Public Radio’s Krista Tippett, host of On Being, interviewed the recipient of two James Beard awards and frequent contributor to Gourmet and The New York Times. Beginning with the traditional Jewish family dinner table, discussion moved swiftly on to agricultural practice.

Eating locally has reached “green is the new black” levels of trendiness. Barber, co-owner and executive chef of New York’s upscale Blue Hill restaurant, maintained that its value extends beyond what’s in vogue.

Often overlooked in favor of concerns for time and money, a region’s ecology is at stake in harvesting and food production. Biodiversity in farming improves the landscape, where monocultures, in which industrial producers grow one crop over a wide area, typically diminish soil quality.

As global climate change continues to ravage the planet, regional farming will have to become the norm, Barber argued. Monocultures will be impossible to maintain with the shifting conditions. If this holds true, it’s in our best interest as a society to begin adapting on a large scale.

Clearly, the biggest hurdle in popularizing the “real food” movement is cost. When asked about high prices and the typical demographic able to pay them, Chef Barber was quick to acknowledge that yes, the elite are most commonly associated with the movement. He didn’t see that as a bad thing. He backed up this somewhat audacious sentiment with historical trends: Great social movements of the past, women’s suffrage for example, have overwhelmingly been put into action by the upper class.

I’m not sure this excuses ignoring the financial limitations of the average American. But it’s this time-consuming, notoriously expensive treatment that results in the finest ingredients, Barber explained.

Production practices affect food on a physiological level. An organic, locally harvested carrot will test off the charts in nutrition and natural sugar content. High-quality ingredients, like said carrot, are key to achieving the satisfaction that burns specific meals into our memories.

In a society driven by nostalgia, food continues to play a huge role in our emotional pasts. True, Mom’s meatloaf may not have actually been the most exemplary cuisine. But Barber claimed that even these less than stellar dishes allow us to appreciate better executed examples today as we reflect on the Sunday evenings that featured Mom’s handiwork. The love we felt then, Barber explained, is the spirituality of eating that makes it such a sanctifying ordeal.

The chef now tries to create new memorable dining experiences at his high-end restaurant. Rabbi Sandy Sasso, one of the Spirit & Place organizers, hinted at the unparalleled sensory experience of dining at Blue Hill while fulfilling her duties as MC.

I left the synagogue that evening tempted to try the chef’s pampered fare, but intimidated by the man himself. Barber’s mildly caustic demeanor came through even while he spoke of love and food on his grandfather’s idyllic farm. His defensive attitude during the Q&A gave the impression that he would likely scoff at your dining preferences, condescendingly rejecting your request for dressing on the side. One rarely wants an inferiority complex before the main course.

If his stated dedication to a truly pleasurable dining experience is sincere, however, Blue Hill patrons will leave the table basking in the kind of love and contentment we long for in recreating meals of our pasts.

The take-home message of the evening gradually became clear as Chef Barber came full circle: often, the right and ethical form of consumption is the most pleasurable and nutritious. Forgetting about cost, a herculean feat in this economy, it seems logical, then, that we should seek the kinder and tastier, albeit pricier, foods.

To learn more about Barber’s take on the “real food movement, or to make reservations should you find yourself in New York, head to www.bluehillfarm.com. For upcoming Spirit & Place events concerning community and food production, check out the festival’s web site: www.spiritandplace.org.

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