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Kitchen Literacy: How We Lost Knowledge of Where Food Comes from and Why We Need to Get It Backby Ann Vileisis
Synopses & Reviews
Ask children where food comes from, and they’ll 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?
Ann Vileisis's answer is a sensory-rich journey through the history of making dinner. Kitchen Literacy 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. Vileisis 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, Vileisis shows 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, Kitchen Literacy promises to make us think differently about what we eat.
"The rise of commercial farming and processed foods has given shoppers a tremendous variety to choose from, but this convenience has also fostered a 'covenant of ignorance' among consumers and manufacturers, historian Vileisis (Discovering the Unknown Landscape: A History of America's Wetlands) posits in this meticulous chronicle of the culinary disconnect. Persuasively arguing that manufacturers have prevented shoppers from knowing 'unsavory details' about their foods and shielded producers from inquiry and public scrutiny, Vileisis highlights key events in this evolution. The booming populations of major cities, a reliance on servants or others to prepare meals and the ease and speed of rail transport were early contributors, she asserts, with the Industrial Revolution and two World Wars forever changing the way Americans bought and consumed food. Though the chapters covering developments since the 1970s feel rushed, Vileisis's well-researched treatise will give those interested in local and organic foods, food processing and American culinary culture plenty to chew on." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"After decades of blissful ignorance, Americans have begun pondering how the food we consume each day arrives on our plates. Michael Pollan's 'The Omnivore's Dilemma' (2006) forced readers to face the fact that our demand for a range of reasonably priced meats and produce comes with serious environmental consequences. Now two new books, Ann Vileisis' 'Kitchen Literacy' and Sarah Murray's 'Moveable... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) Feasts,' give us even more reason to re-evaluate the meals we take for granted. But they come to very different conclusions about whether to embrace or decry our increasingly complicated food web. 'Kitchen Literacy' chronicles how the growth of the increasingly complex food distribution system — railroads transporting animals and factories producing canned goods — eventually led consumers into a 'covenant of ignorance' with supermarket chains, food manufacturers and advertising firms. All of them insisted that sleek packaging and catchy slogans mattered more than the traditional, hard-earned expertise homemakers had relied on for years. Vileisis' tone can be preachy at times: 'We as consumers,' she tells readers, 'will need to recognize how our everyday choices affect the larger environment and, then, to forge a new and influential role for ourselves.' She approvingly offers up as a counterexample to present-day practices the story of a colonial midwife who knows the names of the cows her family eats, as well as every patch of ground on which her husband has cultivated grain for their daily bread. Yet her book performs a valuable service in reminding readers that we were not always so clueless when it came to making food choices. Murray, by contrast, has more reverence for the technological marvels that transport comestibles across vast distances. She pays homage to the Emma Maersk, the world's biggest ship, which is capable of transporting 500 million bananas 'in a single voyage,' as well as to the cargo planes that bring corn and sorghum food aid to Africa. While 'Moveable Feasts' explores some of the downsides of these lengthy journeys — the greenhouse gas emissions that inevitably accompany plane trips, for instance — Murray tends to dismiss most environmental concerns. Buying food from impoverished foreign nations produces jobs as well as carbon emissions, she maintains, and 'development experts argue that poverty is also environmentally damaging.' She even questions whether buying local produce and meats is a laudable goal, claiming that the car trip to a distant farmer's market is often more environmentally harmful per unit of produce than buying food shipped long distances in an efficient vessel like the Emma Maersk. 'Moveable Feasts' is packed with fascinating information, including how nearly 5,000 deliverymen operating in the massive Indian city of Mumbai manage to deliver lunches from the tens of thousands of wives who've just cooked them to their husbands who have already been at the office for several hours, with an accuracy rate of '99.999999 percent.' But it would have been a better book if Murray had provided her readers with a more critical assessment of some of the voyages she chronicles, such as the one taken by farmed salmon from Norway to China just so Chinese workers can pick out fish bones at 1/25th the wages of their Scandinavian counterparts. Instead, she's enamored with the sleek efficiency of the shipping container that serves as 'globalization's porter,' keeping the salmon at minus 9.4 degrees Fahrenheit the entire way. In the end, Murray's objective is not to focus on the mixed blessings of global trade but to tout the intricate mechanisms that sustain it. 'The advance of civilization,' she writes, 'has depended on being able to convey food from where it is grown or produced to shops, kitchens, and dining rooms.' Juliet Eilperin is the national environmental reporter for The Washington Post." Reviewed by Juliet Eilperin, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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About the Author
Ann Vileisis is a writer and historian. She is the author of Discovering the Unknown Landscape: A History of Americas Wetlands (Island Press, 1997), which won prestigious awards from the American Historical Association and the American Society for Environmental History. An avid gardener and cook, she lives on the Oregon coast.
Table of Contents
Introduction: Missing Stories
Chapter 1. A Meal by Martha
Chapter 2. To Market, To Market
Chapter 3. Mystifying the Mundane
Chapter 4. Denaturing the Senses
Chapter 5. A New Longing for Nature
Chapter 6. Rise of the Modern Food Sensibility
Chapter 7. The Covenant of Ignorance
Chapter 8. Kitchen Countertrends
Epilogue: Returning Stories to the Modern Kitchen
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