Books Magazine

Book Review: Kitchen Literacy by Ann Vileisis

By Joyweesemoll @joyweesemoll

Book: Kitchen Literacy: How We Lost Knowledge of Where Food Comes from and Why We Need to Get It Back by Ann Vileisis
Genre: history, food
Publisher: Shearwater Books
Publication date: 2010
Pages: 332

Source: Library

Summary: In the form of a NovaMind map (click to see it larger):

A mind map outlining Kitchen Literacy

Thoughts: I read Kitchen Literacy before I started this blog, but I looked through it again recently and thought the Weekend Cooking crowd would enjoy knowing about it. The book starts with questions: how and why did we lose the stories behind our food and when did it become normal to know so little about what we eat?

Our lack of knowledge about our food wouldn’t seem normal to Martha Ballard whose 18th century diary noted what part of the farm was devoted to the cabbage patch and why that spot was chosen and how and when the cabbage was stored and eaten. I’m having cabbage salad for lunch today and, since I bought it at the supermarket, I’m not even sure what country it’s from.

From Martha Ballard, we move to greater urbanization with all the difficulties of feeding  densely populated areas with food coming from increasingly distant areas. Changing lifestyles (like the rise and fall of the household servant), changing ethos (like the ever-mutable associations to the concept of natural), and changing industry practices all made contributions to severing the connection between what we eat and the stories of the people and places that brought us our food.

From an almost complete ignorance about food in the 1950s brought on by a desire for hygiene and the homogoneity that accompanies it, 21st century Americans are gradually finding ways back to where the stories can reach us. I may not know where this week’s cabbage came from, but last week I bought one from a store specializing in local foods so I know the name of the farm where that one was grown. Next week, I may buy a cabbage at a winter farmers’ market where I can talk to the grower and ask him or her why cabbages are available in our area in the winter — the magic of hoop houses or the preserving power of root cellars is my guess. A few years ago, I wouldn’t have had a guess. Worse than that, I wouldn’t have known to ask the question!

Appeal: This is an excellent work of American history that will appeal to anyone with interests in food, obviously, but it’s also largely a history of women and their changing roles in American society.

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Weekend Cooking is hosted at the Beth Fish Reads blog each Saturday. Check out her blog for links to a smorgasboard of cooking and eating posts.

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