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Kitchen Literacy: How We Lost Knowledge of Where Food Comes from and Why We Need to Get It Back [Hardcover]

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Item Specifications...

Pages   332
Est. Packaging Dimensions:   Length: 0.75" Width: 6.25" Height: 9"
Weight:   1.36 lbs.
Binding  Hardcover
Release Date   Oct 24, 2007
Publisher   Island Press
ISBN  1597261440  
EAN  9781597261449  

Availability  0 units.

Item Description...

Ask children where food comes from, and they'll probably answer: “the supermarket.” Ask most adults, and their replies may not be much different. Where our foods are raised and what happens to them between farm and supermarket shelf have become mysteries. How did we become so disconnected from the sources of our breads, beef, cheeses, cereal, apples, and countless other foods that nourish us every day?


Ann Vileisis's answer is a sensory-rich journey through the history of making dinner. Kitchen Literacy takes us from an eighteenth-century garden to today's sleek supermarket aisles, and eventually to farmer's markets that are now enjoying a resurgence. Vileisis chronicles profound changes in how American cooks have considered their foods over two centuries and delivers a powerful statement: what we don't know could hurt us.


As the distance between farm and table grew, we went from knowing particular places and specific stories behind our foods' origins to instead relying on advertisers' claims. The woman who raised, plucked, and cooked her own chicken knew its entire life history while today most of us have no idea whether hormones were fed to our poultry. Industrialized eating is undeniably convenient, but it has also created health and environmental problems, including food-borne pathogens, toxic pesticides, and pollution from factory farms.


Though the hidden costs of modern meals can be high, Vileisis shows that greater understanding can lead consumers to healthier and more sustainable choices. Revealing how knowledge of our food has been lost and how it might now be regained, Kitchen Literacy promises to make us think differently about what we eat.

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More About Ann Vileisis

Register your artisan biography and upload your photo! Ann Vileisis is a writer and historian. She is the author of "Discovering the Unknown Landscape: A History of America's Wetlands" (Island Press, 1997), which won prestigious awards from the American Historical Association and the American Society for Environmental History. An avid gardener and cook, she lives on the Oregon coast.

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Reviews - What do our customers think?
History for Everyone Who Eats  Apr 30, 2008
Ann Vileisis has compiled a thorough history of Eating in America. Her documentation is invaluable. She reviews the historical facts and summarizes them so that they make sense. How did we get from knowing so much about every item we put in our mouths to knowing -- and wishing to know -- almost nothing? She has assembled sources and resources that are not easliy available elsewhere. I thank this book for directing me to Martha Ballard's diary, of an 18th century midwife, now posted online at [...], and in book form A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 These days, I purchase only those books that I will refer to frequently. I shall use this book constantly in the research I am doing for "How to Raise Poultry," which follows How To Raise Chickens: Everything You Need To Know (How to Raise...).
Misses the mark in the end.  Apr 18, 2008
This was a wonderful book on the history of markets and how we went from growing to buying our food. However, the author stops short of giving real answers to how we get back to our roots or why exactly we need to get back the knowledge. There should be about three more chapters, but the history was great.
Good history, weak finish  Mar 20, 2008
Whether you lived in a small town or rural area in the 17th, 18th, and even 19th centuries here in the US, it was likely that you would have been involved in some way with producing food for your family. People had their own gardens and many people, even in towns and cities, kept a few chickens or other poultry and perhaps even their own cows--remember Mrs. O'Leary in Chicago? When you sat down to eat, you knew exactly where almost every part of the meal had come from.

By the 20th century, however, all that had changed, as more and more food came from cans or boxes, and even fresh produce was shipped from far off states and even countries. People were removed farther and farther from their food, and their food was processed almost beyond being clearly identifiable (just what food group would you put Jello in? Diet soda?).

In Kitchen Literacy, Ann Vileisis has traced the changes that led to our having become a nation of *consumers* rather than *producers*, and her narrative is well-researched and entertaining. The gradual introduction of more and more processing to food is described, along with the generally valid reasons for these changes. Being able to buy a can of corn processed immediately after picking in the Midwest certainly was better than having to choose from three or four-day old tired ears of corn brought from southern New Jersey to midtown Manhattan.

Vileisis also provides a lot of hitherto uncovered explanations for why convenience foods first took off in the middle of the 20th century. Rationing of basic staples during World War II that could be circumvented by buying prepared substitutions, more women remaining in the workforce after the war, and the growing influence of food producers in advertising and home economics classes, all provided an impetus for changing eating habits across the country.

Unfortunately, she does not continue on to discuss the factors that are keeping "factory foods" and fast food restaurants so much a part of most people's diets at the beginning of the 21st century. Vileisis does not address the growing problem of obesity at all, and her penultimate chapter, Kitchen Countertrends, has suggestions likely to be acted on by only a tiny minority of the population. CSAs, organic foods, and farmers markets have all been around for years, but their impact remains small; though she says it is a "small but respectable" number, Vileisis herself notes that only 2.5% of all food sales in the US are organic.

So it is that the book misses the mark in the end. I heartily concur with all the "Countertrends" she mentions and have been gardening, going to farmers markets, and eating many organic foods for years. However, the "covenant of ignorance" that Vileisis deplores will not be overcome by a few more "true believers" consuming less and producing more. Given the kind of research and depth she brought to the early chapters, Vileisis failure to cover the current obesity epidemic and suggest solutions that even people with moderate incomes and limited incomes can realistically adopt is a significant gap for an otherwise fine book.
Fun as well as informative  Mar 8, 2008
This is not one of those depressing, pedantic rants that assume all progress is bad that are too typical of literature on the topic of food distribution. Instead, this book is actually a fun read. Facts are presented in an even, civilized tone with perspectives understanding of the losses and gains that are inherent in all change in human endeavor. Further, the language is sensual, even succulent, with a dry twist of irony and humor on every page. While some who have read extensively on this topic might wish for more depth and breadth, that is not the stated purpose of this book. The footnotes, which are extensive and fascinating, provide plenty for those who seek detail and direction to further investigation. As an enjoyable, thoughtful, and polite summary or introduction to the topic of food production and distribution, this work could well prove more influential in educating (or even "converting") the general public about a serious topic than the sour and dour stuff we have come to be wary of.
Connecting the dots thru time  Jan 1, 2008
In Kitchen Literacy, Ann Vileisis brings a deft touch to defining and connecting the forces that have removed food literacy from the consumer over the past 200 years. She addresses a wide set of influences, including urbanization, industrialization, war, the rise of supermarkets and mega-marts, the mutation of marketing, and the gradual replacement of personal knowledge of food with institutional knowledge from scientist, the govt., or other experts to name just a few. The books message is grounded with a large set of references and provides a clear picture of the rise of what she calls the "covenant of ignorance" that we have entered into.
This is a wonderful read if you, like me, want to understand the path that got us to the food systems we have today.

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