[Market-farming] Food without Fear

Allan Balliett igg at igg.com
Wed Nov 24 14:31:32 EST 2004

November 23, 2004


Food Without Fear


  ocantico Hills, N.Y.

Now that the bloom is finally off the Atkins diet 
rose, now that the instinct to, say, make a purÈe 
of potatoes feels slightly less suicidal, let us 
take a moment to realize that, when it comes to 
food, Americans have the tendency to lose all 
reason. With the same collective head-scratching 
that goes on when we look back at the big hair 
and shoulder pads of the 80's, we would do well 
to ask: What were we thinking?

This question, of course, applies not just to the 
Atkins diet but to pretty much every diet fad 
Americans have followed over the last 30 years. 
In addition to catchy names, these diets tend to 
have one thing in common: they focus on what we 
eat - not on where what we eat comes from or how 
it was grown. Good nutrition has been 
conveniently, and profitably, reduced to an 
ingredient list. (Remember the grapefruit diet?)

That's a shame - and there's no better time to 
explore the ways in which we've been led astray 
than during Thanksgiving week, a time when 
Americans are particularly focused on food. (And, 
coincidentally, a time when we are blessedly 
between diet fads.) With a little scrutiny, we 
can see that our reductionist diet logic 
dissolves like a lump of sugar. Just consider the 
traditional Thanksgiving spread: it may appear to 
represent the American pastoral, but looks can be 

Start with the turkey. If your image of a 
turkey's life is one of green grass and rolling 
hills, look more closely. Nearly 300 million 
turkeys are raised today on factory farms where 
they live in windowless buildings illuminated by 
bright lights 24 hours a day. (This keeps the 
turkeys awake and eating.) The birds stand wing 
to wing on wood shavings and eat an overly 
fortified diet that enables them to reach an 
ideal dressed weight of 15 pounds in 12 to 14 
weeks. The most popular breed is the Broad 
Breasted White, aptly named because these turkeys 
develop disproportionately large breasts, which 
makes it difficult for the birds to walk (if they 
had room to do so) and procreate (assuming they'd 
want to) without artificial insemination.

So what kind of bird would fit more accurately 
with our agrarian fantasies? Well, how about one 
that spends most of its life outdoors? Such birds 
- called pastured birds - are able to move around 
freely. Instead of having to be injected with 
antibiotics to stay healthy, they doctor 
themselves, seeking out certain plants at certain 
times of the year for pharmacological reasons. 
Because they expend so much energy moving around, 
they also grow more slowly: it takes them a month 
longer to reach slaughter weight than factory 
birds, which is one of the reasons pasturing is 
less attractive to industrial farmers. Scientific 
research comparing the health benefits of 
conventionally raised turkey to pastured turkey 
is scarce, but some work has been done on 
chickens. A study sponsored by the Department of 
Agriculture in 1999, for example, found that 
pastured chickens have 21 percent less fat, 30 
percent less saturated fat, 50 percent more 
vitamin A and 400 percent more omega-3 fatty 
acids than factory-raised birds. They also have 
34 percent less cholesterol.

The pasture principle isn't limited to fowl. 
Compared to most American beef, which is raised 
on a grain-intensive diet, pasture-fed beef 
offers 400 percent more vitamin A and E. It is 
also much richer in beta-carotene and conjugated 
linoleic acids, all of which inhibit cancer. It's 
also higher in omega-3 fatty acids, which are a 
major inhibitor of heart disease. These benefits 
don't exist at these levels in animal that are 
fed an unvaried and unnatural diet.

The pasture principle can be applied to 
vegetables as well. We don't live off the food we 
eat - we live off the energy in the food we eat. 
So while Mom asked us, "Did you eat your fruits 
and vegetables?" today we might well ask: "What 
are our vegetables eating?"

It seems axiomatic but it's worth remembering 
that in order to experience the health benefits 
of the roasted broccoli at the Thanksgiving 
table, that broccoli needs to have been healthy 
too. We can be forgiven for ignoring the obvious 
because most every diet I've seen treats a head 
of broccoli the way Gertrude Stein talked about a 
rose - but a broccoli is not a broccoli is not a 
broccoli, especially if you consider how and from 
where its grown.

Sadly, the broccoli and the other brassicas on 
your holiday table (brussels sprouts, cabbage, 
turnips, kale, mustard greens) were most likely 
grown in a monoculture - a place where, with the 
help of large amounts of chemical fertilizers and 
pesticides, nothing but the crop is allowed to 
grow. Fertilizers are as pervasive in these large 
farms as tractors, especially synthetic nitrogen. 
And you can understand why: the chemicals bulk up 
vegetables beautifully and quickly, enabling them 
to withstand the rigors of long-distance travel 
so that they can arrive at your supermarket 
unbruised and brightly colored. But it's a little 
like dating someone on steroids: the look and 
feel may be an initially appealing, but in the 
end it's all kind of disconcerting.

And think what gets lost. A serving of broccoli 
is naturally rich in vitamins A and B, and has 
more vitamin C than citrus fruit. But raised in 
an industrial farm monoculture, shipped over a 
long distance and stored before and after being 
delivered to your supermarket, it loses up to 80 
percent of its vitamin C and 95 percent of its 
calcium, iron and potassium. Fruits and 
vegetables grown organically, however, have 
higher levels of antioxidants. That's largely 
because a plant's natural defense system produces 
phenolic compounds, chemicals that act as a 
plant's defense against pests and bugs. These 
compounds are beneficial to our health, too. When 
plants are grown with herbicides and pesticides, 
they slow down their production of these 
compounds. (Even more important, from a cook's 
point of view, organically grown fruits and 
vegetables taste better - their flavors 
practically burst from the ground and demand to 
be expressed, and we chefs merely comply.)

The same rules apply to the root vegetables, 
whether potatoes, sunchokes, beets, parsnips or 
carrots. Seek out ones grown in nutrient-rich 
soil for the greatest flavor and benefit. You 
can't buy good quality soil in a bag any more 
than you can buy good nutrition in a pill. Most 
organic farmers encourage complex relationships 
between crop roots, soil microbes and minerals - 
relationships that become wholly disrupted by 
chemical additives.

What about the milk and eggs that go into 
Thanksgiving pies and tarts? The 
industrialization of our food supply did not 
spare the dairy industry. Not surprisingly, 
pastured dairy cattle and laying hens produce 
more nutritious milk and cheese - pastured eggs 
in particular, with their glowing yellow yolks, 
have up to three times the amount of 
cancer-fighting omega-3's of eggs that come from 
factory hens.

As a chef, I am often mystified as I hear diners, 
rooting around for a nutrition and dietary cure, 
ask for this steamed and that on the side, and in 
the process deny themselves pleasure. Choosing 
what dietary advice of the moment to follow by 
putting a wet finger up to the wind, our patrons 
decide, or succumb, en masse, to a pummeling of 
such wearisome regularity that it begins to 
resemble the "rosebud'' of "Citizen Kane": the 
clue that solves everything but means nothing.

There is an ecology of eating. Like any good 
ecosystem, our diet should be diverse, dynamic 
and interrelated. In 1984 Americans were spending 
roughly 8 percent of their disposable income on 
health care and about 15 percent on food. Today, 
those numbers are essentially reversed. An 
ever-more reductionist diet - protein this year, 
carbohydrates next year - ignores plant and 
animal systems loaded with genetic complexity, 
and the benefits that complexity passes down to 

So as you're getting ready for Thanksgiving, 
think of yourself less as a consumer of the 
harvest bounty and more, in the words of Carlo 
Petrini of the Slow Foods movement, as a 
co-producer. Try to remember what you know 
intuitively: that we can't be healthy unless our 
farms our healthy; that the end of the food chain 
is connected to the beginning of the food chain; 
that we can't lose touch with the culture in 
agriculture (it dates back to before Dr. Atkins). 
To the extent possible, shop at farmers markets 
for your Thanksgiving foods. Try to choose 
diversity over the abundance that the big food 
chains offer. Your food will be tastier, fresher 
and more nutritious. You'll be able to have your 
cake (and your bacon and your bread and your 
potatoes) and eat it too.

Dan Barber is the chef of Blue Hill at Stone 
Barns and creative director of the Stone Barns 
Center for Food and Agriculture.

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