Kitchen Literacy by Ann Vileisis

Subtitled “How We Lost Knowledge of Where Food Comes From and Why We Need to Get It Back”, Vileisis’ book was assigned for a class on the economics of food I took last semester. I finished the first few chapters of the book but other classes and projects overwhelmed me and I set the book aside. It’s one of the few textbooks I have not finished by the deadline and, in this case, I missed the date by a long shot.

The book examines the gap in our knowledge about how the foods we eat reach us. Women in the eighteenth-century like Martha Ballard would have raised and grown all of their food but women (and men) today purchase food from around the world without another thought to how the food was produced or whether not the product is in season. As the book progresses, the reader is shown how methods of food production have “increasingly come to reflect the priorities and outlook of those producing, processing, and selling foods rather than those buying, cooking, and eating them”.

Our modern food system with large supermarkets and unlimited food choices did not appear overnight but Vileisis points out even issues of supply and demand I have not previously considered. She also shows how people did not immediately accept the changes to their food products.

The transcontinental railroad, which linked the coasts in 1869, was one of the first instances in which machines delivered food products from farther and farther away. This changed the supply of meat products, for example, as Chicago meatpacking plants were able to disseminate their products across the country. Even though the supply was changed and therefore the prices of meat was undercut, consumers did not readily adapt to this new product as knowing how animals were raised was considered essential knowledge until the 1880s. It was only when Chicago meatpacking plants began offering tidy cuts and wrappers that consumers made the switch; nobody wanted to go to the local butcher shop and see a bloody carcass.

“Within a relatively brief period, the average distance from farm to kitchen had grown from a short walk down the garden path to a convoluted, 1,500-mile energy-guzzling journey by rail and truck. As food production became more remote and complex, consumers’ fundamental literacy about foods shrunk and wizened even as a guise of new “knowledge” based on brand names and add-attached attributes was erected. The everyday task of feeding families had once depended on the substantial knowledge of homemakers and other household helpers, but more and more, this work depended on what might well be called an unspoken covenant of ignorance between shoppers and an increasingly powerful food industry.” (pg. 7)

The invention and dissemination of canned and frozen foods was also an interesting subject, especially since Vileisis explained how marketing was so important to this change. The evolution of women from homemaker to worker (and, more often, both) seems to go hand in hand with the evolution of our food system.

The title of this book isn’t actually indicative of what it’s about but it proved to be a fascinating read that I wish I had finished earlier. I loved how she blends economics, politics, and history to form a comprehensive tale of food production and consumption and our new culture of consumer ignorance.

Book Mentioned:

  • Vileisis, Ann. Kitchen Literacy: How We Lost Knowledge of Where Food Comes From and Why We Need to Get It Back. Washington D.C.: Island Press, 2008. eBook. 332 pgs. ISBN: 9781597261449. Source: Purchased.
Book Cover © Island Press. Retrieved: December 15, 2011.
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