Book Review: Kitchen Literacy

We buy everything, and have no idea by which the articles are produced, and have no means of knowing before hand what the quality may be… Relatively we are in a state of barbarous innocence, as compared with our grandmothers, about the common articles of daily use.

-Ellen Richards, home economist, 1885

I picked up Ann Vileisis‘s Kitchen Literacy: How we lost knowledge of where food comes from, and why we need to get it back at the suggestion of a reader, and I’m glad I did.  It’s a fast, fun overview of an important topic.

Vileisis takes the reader from the kitchens of the late 18th-century New England to those of the present day, tracing the history of the American food system from its pastoral beginnings through its process of industrialization.  She shows how each successive generation has been a step or two further removed from knowledge of where food comes from, and explores the social changes and food scandals that shaped the balance between what people want to eat and what the food industry offers them.  She wraps up by arguing that if we’re going to have a sustainable system that doesn’t poison us on a regular basis, we’re going to need to regain an understanding of seasons, local specializations, and where our food comes from.

It’s a simple enough thesis, and Vileisis doesn’t overcomplicate things– her explorations of the changing roles of women, the nature of work and living patterns, and the politics of federal agencies are mostly cursory.  I didn’t learn much that I hadn’t already read, but I’m pretty well read on this subject.  If you haven’t already exhausted the works of Marion Nestle, Michael Pollan, Friedrich Engels and Upton Sinclair, you’ll find much to enlighten you– and even if you have, it’s an enjoyable and accessible synthesis of what can be a complicated literature.

The joy of this book is in the details Vileisis digs up in her extensive research.  She uses antique cans, product labels and advertisements to trace the way food manufacturers have adapted their pitch to appeal to the needs of each new generation of consumers.  The book is packed with little gems, like a 1928 Piggly Wiggly ad that appeals to the liberated woman (complete with chic hat) by telling her how the new self-service supermarket gives her self-sufficiency:

The woman of today!  So self-reliant now in all her shopping– so sure of her new skill!  Only yesterday her mother depended almost wholly on the advice of salesmen when she bought food-stuffs…  The woman of today with her new, wide knowledge of real values has blazed a trail of her own.  The she may be entirely free to choose for herself, she has made this plan of household buying a nation-wide vogue.

These details really bring the book to life.  (Especially for cultural studies types like me, who loooove to deconstruct advertising.)

Vileisis begins in colonial Maine, where she draws on the wonderful diary of midwife and farm matriarch Martha Ballard (worth a read in itself) to illustrate how very close Americans once were to the sources of our food.  Back then, you knew your milk was fresh because you milked the cow yourself.  Food came directly from sweat and hard work– you grew it yourself, or you traded what you grew for what your neighbors were growing.

As the nineteenth century began, the country began to urbanize rapidly, and the countryside began producing for the city.  A city’s foodshed consisted mostly of the farms in the surrounding countryside, plus a few exotic items like sugar and tropical fruits that were shipped in.  Food was mostly sold fresh in open-air markets.  But as cities industrialized and transportation improved, food was being brought in from more and more far-flung locations.  Fresh food often didn’t survive the trip too well– fruits and vegetables were beginning to rot, and cattle were bruised and emaciated from long and brutal train trips.  This was when the food system began an industrialization of its own, with the introduction of canned produce and “Chicago-dressed” meats (killed and dressed before being shipped).  Vileisis does a great job of illustrating the initial suspicious reactions of people used to fresh foods– it was, after all, a hard sell to convince people to buy food they couldn’t see until they’d paid for it.  Early canning methods were worthy of their skepticism– it took a while for canners to realize that if cans weren’t heated to a specific temperature, botulism could grow and thrive. Food poisoning was quite common in those days, and even well into the twentieth century: Armour’s canned meats notoriously killed nearly as many World War I soldiers as the enemy did.

But social changes prevailed over skepticism: agricultural jobs gave way to factory work, and city children grew up never seeing live plants and animals.  More and more women entered the workplace, not only out of a desire for freedom from traditional roles, but also just to earn enough to keep families afloat.  They had less time to spend shopping and cooking, and convenience foods began to sell widely.  As new generations were raised on canned and prepackaged foods, they became the familiar, comforting norm– and advertisements became less about connecting products to “nature” and more about creating an imaginary world of bountiful farms and idyllic countryside that would appeal to the eyes of consumers.  (Vileisis’s description of the term “natural” and its evolving meaning to generations of consumers is a highlight of the book.)

While each generation had different emotional and cultural needs to which food producers responded, consumers also had fears that shaped both federal regulation and product marketing.  The food system has never been free of problems– from the horrific slaughterhouse conditions Upton Sinclair portrayed in nauseating detail in The Jungle (1906) to, um, the horrific slaughterhouse conditions Eric Schlosser portrayed in nauseating detail in Fast Food Nation (2001).  Contemporary readers are also consumers, and today’s worries about tomatoes, spinach, e. coli and pet food from China will seem familiar in Vileisis’s descriptions of scandals over adulterated jam, pesticide residues in canned vegetables and sodium benzoate (a poisonous and once-controversial preservative still widely used in manufactured foods):

Even as serious concerns were raised and not addressed, most consumers had little choice but to continue their grocery shopping as usual.  What could an individual shopper do about the fact that pesticides killed fish, that chickens were jammed into cages, or that agriculture used too much oil?  Through the 1950s most American shoppers’ lack of awareness about their foods may have been characterized by a naive “I don’t know,” but by the mid-1970s, with more prevalent news of toxic pesticide residues and repugnant animal factories, it had become an anxious and resigned “I don’t want to know.”

Sound familiar?  She follows this with a quick overview of the rise of the organic food movement and a call for consumers to become more involved with their food choices.  It’s surprisingly short, though in fairness, how to do so can be (and is) enough for an entire book in itself.

Kitchen Literacy is a fascinating book.  It’s not a food-politics education in itself, but it’s a great jumping-off point for those new to food politics, and might inspire even the skeptical to read further, and better yet, to ask some pointed questions about what’s in the food they eat.

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