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Kitchen Literacy: How We Lost Knowledge of…

Kitchen Literacy: How We Lost Knowledge of Where Food Comes from and Why… (2008)

by Ann Vileisis

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Kitchen Literacy reads almost like a dissertation and has the copious endnotes to complete this presentation of research on the evolution of the American meal from colonial times to the present. Historian Ann Valeisis' goal, as noted in the subtitle, is to explain "how we lost knowledge of where food comes from and why we need to get it back."

Valeisis begins in colonial New England with Martha Ballard, a herbalist and midwife who kept a detailed diary of her daily life and work. Everything eaten by Martha's family was produced on their farm or a neighbor's. In the next few decades, industrialization -- particularly the advent of rail -- begins to distance Americans from the source of their food, and the process accelerates in the 20th century as more people move to cities and suburbs.

The author provides much detail, some of which can seem repetitive or distracting and warrants skimming. The last chapter -- the prescription for restoring kitchen literacy -- will not be a newsflash to anyone even marginally acquainted with the work of Alice Waters, Michael Pollan, the Organic Consumers Association, the Slow Food movement, etc.: buy organic, patronize farmer's markets, cook, plant a garden and avoid heavily processed foods.

If the reader needs additional incentive for doing those things, Valeisis provides it with a history of food regulation and consumer protection in the 20th century. Reading about the failures of regulatory apparatuses to protect consumers from harmful substances made me want to keep my foodshed as close to home as possible. ( )
  Sharon.Flesher | Jul 13, 2015 |
If you've ever wondered how a country once populated largely by self-sustaining agrarians transformed so rapidly into one where many people think potatoes and carrots grow on trees, Ann Vileisis spells it out here. If you haven't wondered about this even a little bit, you probably need to read KL more than most. Recommend. ( )
  dele2451 | Jun 22, 2013 |
A really interesting and worthwhile read. Vileisis looks at changes in what Americans know about their food and how they know it (basically a shift from first-hand experience to relying on food scientists and food advertisements), especially in relation to social and economic trends (urbanization, industrialization, the growth of the advertising industry, women's changing roles in the home and in society at large). She has an agenda, as the final chapter makes very clear, but she uses documentation rather than polemic to make her points and it's pretty powerful. ( )
  savoirfaire | Apr 6, 2013 |
A carefully researched and eminently readable book. Foodies, history buffs and Americans who want to better understand the social and cultural evolution of their relationship with food will enjoy this book. ( )
  dschnaidt | Aug 4, 2008 |
Vieisis gives a very complete and thorough look at how the middle class has eaten in American history. I emphasize that this is about middle class America. Little comment is made about the poor (with the exception of some talk about bread), and this is an entirely American history. It is also very much a women's history, women being the cooks, growers, preparers, and ones making food decisions for families. It is not a feminist history, though.

Overall, this book was intriguing. It explored how women have viewed food, cooking for their families, and have gotten advice on growing, purchasing and preparing. The author begins by examining a single meal made by a woman in colonial Massachusetts. From there, the paths through immigration, mass production, wars, Westward expansion, women in the workplace, and an emphasis on variety and healthfulness are examined. I did learn quite a bit from this book-information ranging from how margarine was made to the formation of the Home Economics movement to how cake mixes were sold to women. It's almost amazing how the steps to covering up the steps to food preparation were taken-hiding how meat is butchered, how vegetables are transported, etc.

There were also some serious shortcomings in this book. The two most serious are that the author does little to consider how this change in food has effected the poor (whether for good or ill) and the author does not (IMO) do what she sets out to do in the subtitle of her book: explain why we need to know everything about our foods. I couldn't tell if she was promoting better consumer advocacy and information or if she wanted a back-to-nature approach to food or just constant vigilance on the part of the consumer. Most of the arguments she made seemed to be answered by watching Food Network, looking at labels, and not buying Easy Mac. I felt she needed to spend more time on current food issues. The history was a fascinating road, but it seems like she ignored the destination. ( )
3 vote kaelirenee | Jan 4, 2008 |
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Know thyself.

You are what you eat.

Not to know at large of things remote
From use, obscure and subtle, but to know
That which before us lies in daily life,
Is the prime wisdom.

(Epigram in Mrs. Lincoln's Boston Cooking School Cookbook, 1902)
To my mother, Janet Taylor,
and my grandmothers, Phyllis Fleming and Vita Vileisis,
for teaching me about the ways of the kitchen
and for nourishing my curiosity and creativity always.
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Has it ever occurred to you just how odd it is that we know so little about what we eat? (Introduction)
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Ask children where food comes from, and they will probably answer: "the supermarket." Ask most adults, and their replies may not be much different. Where our foods are raised and what happens to them between farm and supermarket shelf have become mysteries. How did we become so disconnected from the sources of our breads, beef, cheeses, cereal, apples, and countless other foods that nourish us every day? The answer is a sensory-rich journey through the history of making dinner, as this book takes us from an eighteenth-century garden to today's sleek supermarket aisles, and eventually to farmer's markets that are now enjoying a resurgence. The author chronicles profound changes in how American cooks have considered their foods over two centuries and delivers a powerful statement: what we don't know could hurt us. As the distance between farm and table grew, we went from knowing particular places and specific stories behind our foods' origins to instead relying on advertisers' claims. The woman who raised, plucked, and cooked her own chicken knew its entire life history while today most of us have no idea whether hormones were fed to our poultry. Industrialized eating is undeniably convenient, but it has also created health and environmental problems, including food-borne pathogens, toxic pesticides, and pollution from factory farms. Though the hidden costs of modern meals can be high, it is shown that greater understanding can lead consumers to healthier and more sustainable choices. Revealing how knowledge of our food has been lost and how it might now be regained, this book will make us think differently about what we eat.… (more)

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