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.


Sushi, Eggs and Oatmeal: Critical Thinking, Common Sense, and Nutrition

I’ve been around the block a few times, nutritionally speaking. I’ve been diagnosed with celiac disease (wrong) and Crohn’s disease (right, we think), I’ve spent countless hours at the allergist’s office, I’ve been told to follow diet after diet. Yet through all of that, none of my HMOs have ever allowed me to visit a nutritionist*– until now. My HMO is offering six free visits as a promotion, so I made an appointment.

I selected a nutritionist who works from the same office as my (totally fabulous and lifesaving!) gastroenterologist. I was so excited– finally, answers! Marion Nestle’s advice on what to eat is great, but with a Crohn’s diagnosis, I really felt like I needed more targeted advice. Not only that, but I’ve had some issues lately with my eating patterns. I’ll starve all day and then stuff myself at night, or eat a healthy lunch only to binge on junk food in the evening. I’ll cast around for something healthy to eat that won’t worsen a flare-up, only to come up empty-handed and drink an Ensure instead. I gain weight when I think I should be losing, and lose when I think I should be gaining.

In other words, I’ve got a weird, complex and emotionally fraught relationship with food, just like a whole lot of other people in this sexist, diet-obsessed society, and I thought maybe seeing a nutritionist would help.

The verdict? Helpful, but not in the ways I expected. Read the rest of this entry »

New Foods to Contain Appetite Suppressants. Really.

Via Coldmud, a disturbing new product announcement in the British newspaper Telegraph:

Fat-fighting ready-meals and snacks containing appetite suppressants could appear in supermarkets within two years.

Scientists are developing a new approach that will incorporate hunger-curbing plant chemicals called lipids into a wide range of convenience foods such as cakes and biscuits.

Lipids exist in cereals including oats, which explains why a bowl of porridge keeps you feeling fuller for longer.

Dr Peter Wilde, of the Institute of Food Research in Norwich, is developing a way of isolating those lipids that are easily digested by the body and concentrating them into a product that can be inserted into food.

“We are looking at how to change the satiety properties,” said Dr Wilde.

“We are trying to reduce appetite by using the body’s own natural response rather than using an appetite suppressant drug.”

Because our brains evolved thousands of years ago, when fat was scarce, we have a big appetite for this high-calorie food. So the scientists are trying to find a way to fool our brains into thinking we have consumed enough fat.

Let’s follow this logic for a minute, shall we? Read the rest of this entry »

Playing It COOL: Country of Origin Labeling and Food Safety

(Graphic from Wal-Mart Watch)

You might be used to seeing ‘Made in China’ (or Mexico, or Bangladesh, or the USA) labels in your clothing, on toys and electronics. But you haven’t seen them on your food– and you won’t, if manufacturers’ groups like the Grocery Manufacturers of America (GMA) have their way.

Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) was introduced as part of the 2002 farm bill. But thanks to pressure from industry, the bill was passed without the COOL provision, which has been delayed several times since. The only food currently required to reveal its country of origin is fish sold in supermarkets; however, when ace nutritionist Marion Nestle investigated supermarket fish departments while writing her book What to Eat, she found that the law was little observed and very rarely enforced. Still, it’s better than nothing, which is the amount food producers and sellers are currently required to tell you. They are, of course, allowed to label products with their country of origin on a voluntary basis, but none do unless the origin is itself a selling point (as with French cheeses or Italian olive oil, for example). And our food’s increasing distance from its origins means that sometimes even tying down the country of origin is nearly impossible: a fast-food hamburger may have a bun made with wheat from the US and Argentina, high-fructose corn syrup from the US, meat from hundreds of cattle in three countries all mixed together in a batch, lettuce from Chile, tomatoes from Mexico, and artificial smoke flavoring from a laboratory in New Jersey. Read the rest of this entry »

Harmful If Swallowed: Why You Should Fear Fake Food

From today’s New York Times (emphasis mine):

Doctor Links a Man’s Illness to a Microwave Popcorn Habit


Published: September 5, 2007

A fondness for microwave buttered popcorn may have led a 53-year-old Colorado man to develop a serious lung condition that until now has been found only in people working in popcorn plants.

Lung specialists and even a top industry official say the case, the first of its kind, raises serious concerns about the safety of microwave butter-flavored popcorn.

“We’ve all been working on the workplace safety side of this, but the potential for consumer exposure is very concerning,” said John B. Hallagan, general counsel for the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association of the United States, a trade association of companies that make butter flavorings for popcorn producers. “Are there other cases out there? There could be.”

A spokeswoman for the Food and Drug Administration said that the agency was considering the case as part of a review of the safety of diacetyl, which adds the buttery taste to many microwave popcorns, including Orville Redenbacher and Act II.

Producers of microwave popcorn said their products were safe.

“We’re incredibly interested in learning more about this case. However, we are confident that our product is safe for consumers’ normal everyday use in the home,” said Stephanie Childs, a spokeswoman for ConAgra Foods, the nation’s largest maker of microwave popcorn.

Ms. Childs said ConAgra planned to remove diacetyl from its microwave popcorn products “in the near future.”

Pop Weaver, another large microwave popcorn producer, has already taken diacetyl out of its popcorn bags “because of consumer concerns” but not because the company believes the chemical is unsafe for consumers, said Cathy Yingling, a company spokeswoman.

The case will most likely accelerate calls on Capitol Hill for the Bush administration to crack down on the use of diacetyl. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has been criticized as doing little to protect workers in popcorn plants despite years of studying the issue.

“The government is not doing anything,” said Representative Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat who leads a subcommittee with jurisdiction over the food and drug agency’s budget.

Exposure to synthetic butter in food production and flavoring plants has been linked to hundreds of cases of workers whose lungs have been damaged or destroyed. Diacetyl is found naturally in milk, cheese, butter and other products.

Heated diacetyl becomes a vapor and, when inhaled over a long period of time, seems to lead the small airways in the lungs to become swollen and scarred. Sufferers can breathe in deeply, but they have difficulty exhaling. The severe form of the disease is called bronchiolitis obliterans or “popcorn workers’ lung,” which can be fatal.

Dr. Cecile Rose, director of the occupational disease clinical programs at National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver, said that she first saw the Colorado man in February after another doctor could not figure out what was causing his distress. Dr. Rose described the case in a recent letter to government agencies.

A furniture salesman, the man was becoming increasingly short of breath. He had never smoked and was overweight. His illness had been diagnosed as hypersensitivity pneumonitis, an inflammation of the lungs usually caused by chronic exposure to bacteria, mold or dust. Farmers and bird enthusiasts are frequent sufferers.

But nothing in the Colorado man’s history suggested that he was breathing in excessive amounts of mold or bird droppings, Dr. Rose said. She has consulted to flavorings manufacturers for years about “popcorn workers’ lung,” and said that something about the man’s tests appeared similar to those of the workers.

“I said to him, ‘This is a very weird question, but bear with me. But are you around a lot of popcorn?’ ” Dr. Rose asked. “His jaw dropped and he said, ‘How could you possibly know that about me? I am Mr. Popcorn. I love popcorn.’ ”

The man told Dr. Rose that he had eaten microwave popcorn at least twice a day for more than 10 years.

“When he broke open the bags, after the steam came out, he would often inhale the fragrance because he liked it so much,” Dr. Rose said. “That’s heated diacetyl, which we know from the workers’ studies is the highest risk.”

Dr. Rose measured levels of diacetyl in the man’s home after he made popcorn and found levels of the chemical were similar to those in microwave popcorn plants. She asked the man to stop eating microwave popcorn.

“He was really upset that he couldn’t have it anymore,” Dr. Rose said. “But he complied.”

Six months later, the man has lost 50 pounds and his lung function has not only stopped deteriorating but has actually improved slightly, Dr. Rose said.

“This is not a definitive causal link, but it raises a lot of questions and supports the recommendation that more work needs to be done,” Dr. Rose said.

Check out the MSDS safety fact sheet for this chemical:  Harmful if swallowed!

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Special PMS Treat edition: Chocolate-covered pretzels, Steak with Red-Wine Chocolate Sauce, and a Brownie Sundae– ALL Gluten-Free.

PMS makes me glad to be a foodie.  Yes, it brings me headaches, cramps, a variety of aches and pains, mood swings and cravings.  But it also has its consolation prize: a heightened sense of taste and smell.  My palate is at its best when I’m premenstrual.  The taste of chocolate during one particular week of the month is, for me, far more intense, complex and satisfying than at any other time.   It’s a sharpening of the senses that, I suspect, eludes those who don’t get a big burst of progesterone once a month.  And it’s pretty damn cool.  I mean, “superpower” is a strong word, but…

This is also common in pregnant women.  It’s a sweet little evolutionary adaptation.  When our bodies are working hardest and either feeding the next generation or at their most fertile, we need protection from spoiled food and poisons.  It was an adaptation that helped to ensure survival in an environment that didn’t include refrigerators.  So now we hormone-enhanced women have a culinary advantage.  (And yes, I can tell when the bread’s going moldy at least a day before my husband can.)

Different women, of course, have different reactions to their menstrual cycles; most of us eventually have cravings of some sort, but one that’s craved particularly often is chocolate.  It’s a common sexist stereotype: the angry, hormone-crazed premenstrual woman slavering over a bowl of chocolate ice cream.  In American society, at least, we’re told that we’re useless at this time of the month: we’re irrational, flighty, irritable and utterly unfit for human contact.  We’re told to hide our symptoms and stoically endure pain that would send most men home early from work, and if in masking our intense cramps we snap and yell at a catcaller on the street, we’re ‘crazy bitches’ who are untameable, except perhaps with chocolate, or maybe expensive prescription drugs.

I think we’re going about this all wrong.  Instead of pathologizing what is a perfectly normal human event, let’s look at the facts.  It’s not so much that we’re moody and irrational; it’s that our emotions and our senses are both heightened already, and then made even sharper by the presence of physical pain.  We feel things more intensely, positive or negative. We laugh harder, we are more deeply moved by, say, the series finale of Six Feet Under (I’m still crying inside!), we feel rage more keenly.  We are more perceptive (another evolutionary advantage handed down to those who are more physically vulnerable).  And things taste better.  Especially chocolate.  You are now in a position to enjoy chocolate in a state the world’s top male chefs only wish they could achieve.

I say we celebrate our strength, our competence, and our ass-kickin’ taste buds at this time every month.  Here’s my prescription for getting through the day before your period; I recommend combining this outrageous, bad-for-you, utterly over-the-top meal with your painkillers of choice, a comfy pair of sweatpants and some Margaret Cho DVDs.  Also, a warm cat purring on top of your stomach is a nice touch.


The Appetizer:

Gluten-Free Chocolate-Covered Peanut Butter Pretzels

If you think it’s overkill to start this meal with a sweet, salty chocolate snack, you’re obviously not a premenstrual woman.  I’ve always been a fan of chocolate-covered pretzels; I started making my own when I realized that was the only way I was going to get them gluten-free was to do it myself.  It’s quite simple:

1 cup chopped chocolate

½ cup creamy peanut butter

1 bag gluten-free pretzels (Ener-G is the best kind)

Fleur de sel

Melt the chocolate in a pan until liquid.  Dip the pretzels in it (it’s easier if you hold them with tongs or chopsticks) and lie flat on a sheet of waxed paper.  Now melt the peanut butter and drizzle as much as you like over the pretzels.  Sprinkle with fleur de sel.  Allow to cool (you can put them on a cookie sheet in the freezer for a little while).  Dig in.


The Meal:

Steak with Dark Red-Wine Chocolate Sauce (courtesy of Joe)

2 steaks (I like porterhouse, but the cut’s up to you.)

1 shallot, finely chopped

2 tbsp butter

2 cups red wine (Remember, don’t cook with a wine you wouldn’t serve.)

2 tbsp unsweetened (baker’s) chocolate

¼ cup heavy cream

Sliced shiitake mushrooms (optional)

Salt and pepper

Saute a shallot in 1 tbsp butter. When soft, add the mushrooms and sauté for about a minute.  Add two cups of red wine. Reduce to about a cup. Add two tablespoons of unsweetened chocolate, the heavy cream and a tablespoon of butter. Bring to a boil, remove and add salt and pepper to taste.  Drizzle over steak and serve with potatoes.

I recommend pairing this with a nitro can of Young’s Double Chocolate Stout.


The Dessert: 

Brownie Sundae

Now, I’m not a big fan of baking mixes or pre-prepared food generally– if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that when I cook, I do it from scratch even if it doesn’t make much sense to do so.  But I’ve found a brownie mix, an amazing, rich, moist brownie mix that can be customized any way you like, and I just don’t want to make brownies any other way any more.

Oh, and the mix is gluten-free.  It’s the Gluten-Free Pantry’s Chocolate Truffle Brownie mix.  They carry it at most Whole Foods stores, and you can order it at their website.  Buy it and follow the simple instructions (add water and eggs, stir) to make brownies.   Only, when you do it, add about a tablespoon of good-quality ground cinnamon and a pinch of cayenne pepper.  Trust me on this.

Bake your brownies and let them cool (but not completely).  Then add a scoop of premium chocolate ice cream (I like Godiva), some chopped super-dark Belgian chocolate (available in blocks at Whole Foods), some toasted almonds, and Joe’s chocolate sauce.

Tweak as desired.  Go crazy.  Treat yourself well, and give yourself a break today.  

Note to men:  Congratulations on making it all the way to the end of the post!  If you’re jealous of our turbo-charged superpalates, just try to console yourself with the fact that you still make more money than we do, you can probably walk down the street without getting threatened or harassed every day, your weight probably isn’t a topic of public scrutiny, and you don’t have to wear pantyhose unless you want to.  If you’d like to do a good deed and remind a woman in your life that you’ve got her back, try surprising her with one or more of the above dishes.

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Five-Spice Grilled Swordfish Steaks with Cherry Tomatoes; Palestinian Olive Oil

It’s been hot in Philly this week, so we decided to go for a light, easy and healthy meal.  This one’s really very simple.

We got swordfish steaks from Trader Joe’s.  I rubbed them with Chinese five-spice powder.  (Those are cinnamon, cloves, anise, nutmeg and mace– all ‘warm’ spices.)   Then we grilled them over hardwood charcoal for four minutes on each side.  We also had some nice ripe local cherry tomatoes, so Joe skewered those and added them to the grill.  As a side dish, we also made our two leftover aloo ki-tikiya (potato patties) in the cast iron pan.

I was very happy with this dish– swordfish is a robust fish that can take some spices without getting overwhelmed, and the warm spices were especially delicious on the charred grill-mark bits.  The spiced skin was also crispy and delicious.  And the tomatoes were really ripe and juicy.  Good, simple summer food.

Also, I just got a tip from a friend about something that combines good food with a good cause– Playgrounds for Palestine, a charity group that sells Palestinian olive oil.  As their site puts it,

The majority of Palestinian farmers use traditional methods in caring for the olive tree. Palestinian olive oil is mostly organic, naturally extra virgin, not processed. The Palestine Fair Trade program supports and encourages the traditional caring methods which produce the highest quality oil and best flavor. The program does not accept oil other than from the indigenous tree under natural care.

Olive oil connoisseurs around the world favor Palestinian olive oil. It offers full flavor texture that is very tasty. While Italy is one of the highest producers of olive oil, Italian olive oil connoisseurs are among the highest European importers of Palestinian olive oil.

And the money goes to build playgrounds for children in the Occupied Territories.  The olive oil is currently only available in the Philadelphia area, but they plan to offer nationwide shipping next month.

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