Kitchen Literacy:
How We Lost Knowledge of Where Food Comes From
and Why We Need to Get it Back

by Ann Vileisis

Island Press, 2010. ISBN 978-1-597-26717-5.
Reviewed by Susan J. Tweit
Posted on 07/25/2010

Nonfiction: History; Nonfiction: Nature/Place/Environment; Nonfiction: Food/Cooking/Kitchen;

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." American philosopher George Santayana's quote would be a perfect epigraph for Ann Vileisis' careful and fascinating look at the history of food and eating in America. (The quote is part of Santayana's theory about how knowledge is acquired, making it especially relevant to Vileisis' examination of how we've lost the stories we once knew of our food.)

Here's how Vileisis opens the first chapter of Kitchen Literacy: "In the center of a wooden table on a pewter platter sat a baked leg of lamb. One earthenware bowl held a heap of steaming, fresh green peas, while another contained sliced cucumbers, likely drizzled with vinegar. The table was plain, but the savory smell of the roast meat made mouths water..." That sensory evocation of a meal prepared by Maine midwife Martha Ballard on August 15, 1790, hooked me right off.

Vileisis draws on Ballard's diaries to show her intimate knowledge of her food, a relationship was once common in America. From that meal, Vileisis takes readers on the journey America's food has taken as the country's population shifted from farms to cities (and grew, and grew, and grew), as transportation allowed food to be shipped ever-longer distances, and as technology changed farming and food processing. Along the way, American's relationship with our food grew distant as well.

Vileisis' background as a historian and her passion for food, cooking and the environment inform this intensely researched and readable story. I found sobering and surprising facts to chew on (sorry!) along the way, including how common wild foods were on tables from the ordinary to the rich in the 1800s, to the astonishingly early advent of the first canned foods ("initially developed as a way to feed Napoleon's soldiers on their interminable Russian campaigns, canning had come to the United States by the 1820s"), the history of synthetic food additives and the FDA—I had never imagined, for instance, that formaldehyde was once used as a commercial food preservative!

Kitchen Literacy shows over and over how losing contact with the stories of our food—what it is, where it comes from, who grew it and how it was grown—is a tragedy not just for each of us personally, but for the planet we share. As Vileisis says in closing, "Today... we have the chance to rediscover some of that knowledge and awareness, and with it, we might just find a better way to live on Earth and, finally, to eat well."

Hear, hear!

[Recommended for general readers interested in a detailed study of the path from the garden to industrialized food, and highly recommended for libraries with an interest in food history.]

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.

Check out our interview with the author of Kitchen Literacy.

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