Ann Vileisis became interested in history and environmental issues as an undergraduate at Yale University where she earned her B.A. She also has a masters degree in history from Utah State University. Her first book, Discovering the Unknown Landscape: A History of American Wetlands (Island Press, 1997), won the George Perkins Marsh Prize for the best environmental history book of 1977 and the Herbert Feis Award from the American Historical Association for the best book written by an independent or public historian. While researching Kitchen Literacy, Ann was a short-term fellow at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History, and she was a writer-in-residence at Mesa Refuge in Point Reyes, California. Ann is married to author and photographer Tim Palmer and lives on the Oregon coast. Visit her website and read an interview.
Read Susan J. Tweit's review of Kitchen Literacy for StoryCircleBookReviews.org.
Interviewed by Susan J. Tweit
Posted on 09/06/2010
In the introduction to Kitchen Literacy: How We Lost Knowledge of Where Food Comes From and Why We Need to Get it Back, you write that you begin to be aware of your food in new ways about ten years ago:
"When picking tomatoes, for example, I'd rather unconsciously considered their appearance, firmness, price, and gratifyingly low caloric content along with the culinary possibilities of salads or sauces. I'd never considered where the tomatoes had come from, how they were grown, and who did the work of raising them. Now I started to wonder: Why did I consider some things but not others? Why did I think the way I did about my food?"
What prompted that "aha!" moment. And when did you know you were thinking about a new book?
While I was writing my first book about the history of wetlands, a huge percentage of which were drained to become farmland, I discovered that many current environmental problems are deeply rooted in agriculture. That started me wondering more about the stories of my foods. I remember buying some apple juice and noticing it was from Chile. I strained to imagine how on earth the frozen juice in the little canister had made it all the way from a Chilean orchard to my supermarket shelf for about $2. That was just one farm-to-market journey; ALL the foods on supermarket shelves had stories, and I knew absolutely none of them.
At that point, I realized that the environmental problems I was concerned about—such as pesticides and water pollution—weren't just the result of our impersonal, industrialized, oil-based agriculture but also of cultural acceptance of ignorance about food as a norm. ALL of us shoppers and eaters were complicit in not paying attention to what was in foods and how they were produced. I started to read food history and was fascinated to find clues about how and when we stopped paying attention and realized it would be interesting to make that thread the center of a book. Along the way, I've found, too, that many of us have personal family food histories that fit into the larger story that I tell in Kitchen Literacy. Many readers have told me they grew up on farms, or that they hunted with a grandfather, had backyard chickens, or made jam with a grandmother. In the course of their lives, many of those traditions—and the food knowledge that was tied to them—were lost, and there's a sadness about that, even as people enjoy the convenience of modern foods. Some may deride the sadness as nostalgia, but I think it's important to recognize what's happened as a significant change in our cultural consciousness.
As a historian, it was natural for you to respond to your new awareness of what you didn't know about food by researching our history with food. Did you have a sense then you were on the cusp of a revolution in our thinking about/eating/growing our food? Or did that revolution become clear as you were doing your research?
The revolution seemed to happen around me as I was working, which was very exciting—to be writing history—right as it is shifting and changing. But as a result, I actually had to re-frame the whole book. I'd started out by researching the story of how Americans lost track of where their foods came from—and then, all of a sudden, it seemed everyone started to care about just that. My book was no longer a story of loss but one of tremendous hope. One of the things that history shows us is that how we know and think—something that seems so bedrock in our day-to-day lives—is actually very malleable. And the fact that culture can change is one of the things that gives me hope for the future.
I loved Chapter One, "A Meal By Martha," your evocation of dinner in the house of late-18th-century Maine midwife Martha Ballard. Showing readers exactly what she prepared and where it came from is a such a telling way to set up the journey our relationship with food has taken since then. Did you know of her journals before you began the book, or did you discover them in your research? And when you read Martha's words, did you know right then that she was your way "in" to the story, or did your understanding evolve as you researched and wrote?
I did know about Martha's journals before I started my book because years earlier I'd really enjoyed A Midwife's Tale (that's Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's Pulitzer Prize winning history of Martha's work as a midwife at the historic moment when midwifery was being usurped by male medical doctors). But I didn't think about the journals as a source for my own work until much later. I'd already written a substantial draft of that first chapter based on a wide variety of other sources (e.g. almanacs, articles), but I felt it was ungrounded. I traveled to Sturbridge Village in southern New England—a place where they reenact historic conditions of the early nineteenth century—to try to get a sense of what kitchens and gardens were like 200 years ago. While there, I talked with one of the re-enactors, and she alerted me that Martha's journals were actually filled with day-to-day details about food. When I started to read them for myself, I knew right away that Martha's writing was a way I could tap that personal sense of connection to place and through food. I loved reading about her enjoying the spring's first peas, noting the births of calves, and chasing after turkeys. I could see in the handwritten words of her journal that the stories of her foods were braided together with other stories in her life, and I found it to be incredibly moving and revealing.
How long did it take you to research Kitchen Literacy, and how did you know when you were ready to write?
It took me an embarrassingly long seven years to research and write Kitchen Literacy (I did a number of smaller editing and writing jobs along the way, too). When I started, I took a somewhat idealistic approach. I didn't really have a particular agenda or argument. I started with an honest question and believed that the more I learned, the clearer the answer to that question would become. It didn't exactly work that way: in fact, the more I learned, the more I realized I didn't know, and the more tantalizing tangents were arrayed in notes on my desk. At one key juncture I realized that I was actually writing five different books! Ultimately, though, all the learning and exploring I did early on helped to make Kitchen Literacy a richer and more original book. I suppose, for me, writing is an iterative and intuitive process. I do a lot of research, get the gist of what I want to explore, and then set out to create a draft. When I have drafted many parts, I begin work on a meta-level to create a meaningful and unified whole, which often demands a lot of new thinking and affords new insights. Then I shift back to crafting language at the smaller level. I move back and forth and back and forth until I get it right. The thinking and writing happen as a process.
What surprised you most in researching and writing the book?
The thing that surprised me most was to discover that people who lived through the urban transformation at the last turn of century were really skeptical about the big changes that were happening in the food system. They were used to evaluating and knowing foods in traditional ways—by prodding and smelling, by knowing where foods came from and how they were raised. Anonymous foods in boxes and cans and meat butchered 1,000 miles away were entirely alien. It's hard to imagine now, but in the 1880s, women's magazines were warning mothers to avoid pre-made (processed foods) at all costs because there were tremendous problems with quality and deception. Discovering that people who lived through the cusp of change didn't like it was a real eye-opener to me. It countered the dominant cultural story that we all grew up with—that women embraced labor saving processed foods with open arms. It was definitely more complicated than that! I was also surprised to find Progressive Era activists [in the early 1900s] creating school garden programs because they were deeply concerned that the generation then-coming-of-age would be the first to not know nature and where their foods came from. I think most people think of school gardens as a recent trend.
What's ripe in your garden right now and what has having a garden taught you about our food and where it comes from?
Strawberries, lettuce, peas, kale, chard, and potatoes are ripe in my garden right now near summer's end (we had a long wet spring this year and so a late start). Probably the most wonderful thing my garden has taught me is that growing food is not impossibly difficult. Sure there are challenges: I have to weed and water and deal with slugs, moles and deer now and then (yes one time a deer snuck in and ate nearly everything!). But once I get the seedlings going, that indomitable life force of plants growing takes over. It's just the coolest thing. Sometimes when I go out to pick a salad for dinner late in the day, I am just delighted by all those reaching, green leaves in their different colors and shapes.
At the same time, there are many things I can't grow in my backyard garden—grains, oils, and plants that love heat. (My garden is pretty cool year round because I live on the coast). I know that I'd have a hard time truly sustaining myself solely with what I grow, which makes me humbly appreciate the work and knowledge of farmers and fishers—and also the many benefits of the modern food system that—for all its problems—does keep us well-supplied. Having a hand in actually growing veggies and fruits affords a good reality check about our cultural expectations for perfect looking foods.