Book Review: Kitchen Literacy by Ann Vileisis
Book: Kitchen Literacy: How We Lost Knowledge of Where Food Comes from and Why We Need to Get It Back by Ann Vileisis
Genre: history, food
Publisher: Shearwater Books
Publication date: 2010
Summary: In the form of a NovaMind map (click to see it larger):
Thoughts: I read Kitchen Literacy before I started this blog, but I looked through it again recently and thought the Weekend Cooking crowd would enjoy knowing about it. The book starts with questions: how and why did we lose the stories behind our food and when did it become normal to know so little about what we eat?
Our lack of knowledge about our food wouldn’t seem normal to Martha Ballard whose 18th century diary noted what part of the farm was devoted to the cabbage patch and why that spot was chosen and how and when the cabbage was stored and eaten. I’m having cabbage salad for lunch today and, since I bought it at the supermarket, I’m not even sure what country it’s from.
From Martha Ballard, we move to greater urbanization with all the difficulties of feeding densely populated areas with food coming from increasingly distant areas. Changing lifestyles (like the rise and fall of the household servant), changing ethos (like the ever-mutable associations to the concept of natural), and changing industry practices all made contributions to severing the connection between what we eat and the stories of the people and places that brought us our food.
From an almost complete ignorance about food in the 1950s brought on by a desire for hygiene and the homogoneity that accompanies it, 21st century Americans are gradually finding ways back to where the stories can reach us. I may not know where this week’s cabbage came from, but last week I bought one from a store specializing in local foods so I know the name of the farm where that one was grown. Next week, I may buy a cabbage at a winter farmers’ market where I can talk to the grower and ask him or her why cabbages are available in our area in the winter — the magic of hoop houses or the preserving power of root cellars is my guess. A few years ago, I wouldn’t have had a guess. Worse than that, I wouldn’t have known to ask the question!
Appeal: This is an excellent work of American history that will appeal to anyone with interests in food, obviously, but it’s also largely a history of women and their changing roles in American society.
Weekend Cooking is hosted at the Beth Fish Reads blog each Saturday. Check out her blog for links to a smorgasboard of cooking and eating posts.
First of all, I love your NovaMind outline/review of this book. Second, I think this should be taught in schools! Seriously.. so many kids have NO Idea where the food they eat comes from or even what the ingredients ARE in their original, natural forms or what has to be done to them to turn them into the foods they eat. This kind of knowledge is a basic requirement, in my opinion.
I admit that I didn’t put much thought to these things while I was younger, although maybe I knew more than my average peers because my mother and grandparents had gardens and made a lot of things from scratch. Still, it wasn’t until I was pregnant with my 1st child 18 years ago that I really started to think about what I was ingesting and where it came from, how carefully it was prepared, etc. I’ve learned so much over the years and am still learning all the time.
I’m looking for this book on my next library visit. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.
Kitchen Literacy is going on my reading list. I agree with you that we often don’t know where our produce is coming from. I’ve been trying to think about that more as I feed my family by going to farmer’s markets and participating in CSA. Great post.
Oh, I think we have lost many, many of our stories….
Good post, Joy. I wish I had grown up knowing how to garden. It would be good to grow my own veges. I have managed some tomatoes once and have a lemon tree – pretty pathetic effort really. Have a good week.
This is a terrific post and has really got me thinking. I so enjoy shopping at the Green Market in Union Square, and wish that I did it more often. Buying food directly from the grower is such satisfying experience.
Wow. I love chart. What a great way to distill the information. I haven’t heard of this book but it sounds like something I would love. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve almost always lived in an area with local food producers.
Going on my “to read” list. The chart is scary when read…seeing what has happened to our food supply. The chart is a great idea for remembering what is in a book.
Interesting book. Way too many people don’t care at all about where there food comes from or even what is in it.
I enjoy books that combine food and history – I think part of it is just knowing how much you don’t know (and how much our predecessors DID know), and why that is important. Thanks for sharing!
You know I love this stuff!! Spread the word 😉
Second try… I love this stuff. I try to eat to live so nutrition is very important.
I might have to get a copy of this one.
Sounds interesting. I love social history like this. And love the mindmap too, I think they’re so useful for so many things!
Thanks for the heads up on a book about food history that had escaped my notice. Looks interesting.