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

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

by Ann Vileisis

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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,


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.

Editorial Reviews

Juliet Eilperin
Kitchen Literacy chronicles how the growth of the increasingly complex food distribution system—railroads transporting animals and factories producing canned goods—eventually led consumers into a "covenant of ignorance" with supermarket chains, food manufacturers and advertising firms…Vileisis's tone can be preachy at times…Yet her book performs a valuable service in reminding readers that we were not always so clueless when it came to making food choices.
—The Washington Post
Library Journal

Vileisis, author of the award-winning Discovering the Unknown Landscape: A History of America's Wetlands, lights her own torch in the flames of Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemmaand directs her attention to the forces that shaped the way Americans act today. Scarcely 200 years ago, a cook had intimate knowledge of every ingredient in his or her kitchen. In the intervening decades, seemingly independent parties-the government, the farm industry, major university health departments, advertisers, and manufacturers-worked to create a consumer who would be brand loyal, and familiar logos replaced generations of knowledge about food, agriculture, and farming. It is not that we have never read this before, but Vileisis gathers it all in one place, weaving a clear, easy-to-read tapestry whose meaning is plain by the end of the book: you are what you eat, so think about what you've been eating. Her extensive notes bring together decades of evidence regarding the unhealthy merger of something we need-food-with something we're told to want-products. This important and eye-opening book uncovers the machinery behind the modern food industry and is an essential purchase for most academic and public libraries.
—Rosemarie Lewis

American Scientist

"Kitchen Literacy brings home just how essential it is for eaters to cultivate knowledge of their food."

"Kitchen Literacy provides a cautionary tale of how we got so far off the eaten path in the first place."
American Scientist - Anna Lena Phillips
"Kitchen Literacy brings home just how essential it is for eaters to cultivate knowledge of their food."
Real Simple - Deborah Madison

"This book...gave me encouragement to keep on doing what I can to make our food world a happier, wiser, more truly sustainable one."
Publishers Weekly

"Vileisis’s well-researched treatise will give those interested in local and organic foods, food processing and American culinary culture plenty to chew on."

The Washington Post

"[Kitchen Literacy by Ann Vileisis] performs a valuable service in reminding readers that we were not always so clueless when it came to making food choices."
Midwest Book Review

"A 'must-read' for modern-day consumers in the post-family farm era."
farmer and author of Fields of Plenty - Michael Ableman

"Kitchen Literacy goes to the heart of our disconnection from one of the most vital and intimate aspects of our lives—how we feed ourselves and our families. Accessible, entertaining, and enlightening, Ann Vileisis's new book has given us the historical context to understand what we have lost and how to bring food back to where it belongs—at the center of our families and communities."
author of Changes in the Land and Nature's Metropolis - William Cronon

"It is no exaggeration to say that the single most vital connection any of us has to the natural world is the food we eat. And yet the paradox of modern life is that over the past century, most of us have become profoundly ignorant about where our food comes from and the myriad ways it affects us. In her wonderful new book Kitchen Literacy, Ann Vileisis explains how we came to forget so much about the food we eat...and how much we gain by remembering the journeys it makes to reach our tables."

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Kitchen Literacy

How We Lost Knowledge of Where Food Comes From and Why We Need to Get It Back

By Ann Vileisis


Copyright © 2008 Ann Vileisis
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-59726-717-5


A Meal by Martha

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 string beans, while another contained sliced cucumbers, likely drizzled with vinegar. The table was plain, but the savory smell of the roast meat made mouths water and elevated this meal, like many simple meals, to a humbly exceptional status.

At the time, it was ordinary, but in retrospect, it seems utterly distinctive: everyone sitting at the table knew exactly where the foods came from. The lamb came from a nearby farm, while the string beans and cucumbers came from a garden just down a path out the kitchen door.

This particular meal was prepared and served on August 15, 1790, by Martha Ballard, who recorded it in her diary with an understated satisfaction: "had bakt lamb with string beens and cucumbers."

Martha Ballard is one of few eighteenth-century American women who left a diary. Over the course of twenty-seven years, she made notes about her daily life in a series of small hand-sewn booklets. Best known for her work as a midwife (her career is brilliantly chronicled in Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's book A Midwife's Tale), she delivered over eight hundred babies, hastening at all hours—under the serene dome of starry nights or through blinding snowstorms—to aid laboring women in the area now known as Augusta, Maine.

During that same period, Martha also conceived of and prepared thousands of meals for herself and her family. Her diary is filled with details of weeding and cooking, seeds and eggs, turkeys and cows, and through its pages we can begin to grasp what a woman two hundred years ago knew about the foods she cooked.

Martha's baked lamb dinner is a good place to begin. In the intimate circle of a meal, our attentions are directed to the physical and the sensuous, to aromas and flavors, to smaller scales and specific places. Through the details of dinner, we can begin to unearth a consciousness about cookery very different from our own.

In 1790, the year this lamb was served, Martha was fifty-five years old and living in a home beside the mill that her husband, Ephraim, leased. The couple had made their lives there along Bowman's Brook for five years. At this place, her oldest daughters had grown through adolescence, while her youngest son had just reached his tenth birthday. The Ballards' waterwheel powered not only a gristmill but a sawmill, one of several that formed a backbone to the budding industrial economy of the Kennebec River valley, based on felling and milling trees from northern forests and then shipping timber south to the growing city of Boston. While Ephraim's mill was integral to the greater regional economy, Martha's garden was central to the family's household economy.

At the time, it was customary for women to have purview over the garden. In her diary, Martha most often referred to it as "my garden," claiming authority for what happened on the small patches of land she presided over. In 1790, Martha spent parts of sixty-one days working in her garden. I imagine her moving amid rows of plants in her long, home-woven flax skirt, the billows of indigo-dyed fabric catching on cabbage leaves and her hem unavoidably sullied by garden dirt. She starts by picking bugs in her "east garden," which was nestled up against the house and situated to catch morning sunlight. Then she walks around to inspect peas tendrilling in another plot, located by the door to take advantage of an already-fenced-in space used for storing firewood in winter and thereby well mulched with "chips." After a shift of kitchen work, she might head down to pull weeds in another garden sited alongside the barn. Finally, in the late afternoon, she might find time to do some hoeing in a plot set by the brook, convenient if summer proved droughty and wilting plants required extra watering by pail. It was in this plot that Martha had planted, tended, and picked the string beans and cucumbers she served to her family on August 15.

In the case of the "bakt lamb" dinner, as with most meals, the distance that most ingredients traveled from field and barn to table was within a walk of the housewife. Because 95 percent of colonial women lived outside towns, this farm-to-table distance was typical. During the summer, a housewife could walk twenty steps into her yard to gather eggs or herbs. Vegetable gardens stretched farther from the kitchen door—often covering one or two acres with squash, cabbage, turnips, peas, and potatoes. In the early spring before the garden came ready, she might venture somewhat farther to gather wild greens for "sallets."

In the course of their work, housewives like Martha walked these short distances back and forth countless times. These walks wore a woman's body, but they also drew her attention to the land and animals she tended. She knew exactly where to look for eggs laid by a furtive red hen, where wild grapevines hung from oaks, and where the muskmelons sweetened best in a warm spot against the barn. The details of the place were part of her everyday life, her work, and the meals she prepared.

The lamb served for dinner in August 1790 came not from the Ballards' pastures, but from the farm of a Mr. Porter, who lived ten miles to the west. The lamb came as payment for the work of Martha's eldest son. Such barter tied families together in a close web of relationships; neighbors traded help and food all the time. The web of exchange served as a safety net. If hard times hit one neighbor, others had the wherewithal to help. While most families had the capability of raising nearly all of their own foods, they usually chose to grow some and to buy and trade for the rest. For example, meat other than lamb could have come just as readily from the Ballards' own pens and pastures—from animals cared for by Martha, her husband, and their children. They had a milk cow, pigs, and chickens but had not yet started a flock of sheep, probably for want of space at the mill site.

When Martha noted the baked lamb dinner in her diary, she did not specify bread, but a coarse and crusty loaf likely rounded out the meal. Most often, Martha made her bread from rye and wheat—she called it "brown and flower bread"—and sometimes from corn as well. Martha baked with flour milled from grain that came from fields cultivated by her husband and sons but also with wheat, corn, and rye that came from other farms as payment for milling or midwifery. In her diary, she noted with particular satisfaction baking bread from wheat grown by her husband: "I have Sifted our flower & Bakt, it makes a fine bread indead." As her hands plunged into the sticky sponge of dough, as she kneaded in the wooden trough hewn by her son, as she formed loaves and set them to rise, and as she pulled the hot fragrant bread from her oven, Martha knew exactly where her flour came from. The flour was not an anonymous powder. She knew the curve of the fields where the wheat grew, the hardened muscles of her husband's arms that cut it, and the coursing waters of Bowman's Brook that ground it between millstones. Her mind, hands, and palate could discern how bread made from grain grown by Mr. Ballard differed from grain grown on a farm up the Kennebec at Sevenmile Brook. Whether you or I could taste a difference between these crusty loaves she baked, we can never know, but for Martha, a deep sense of place was a fundamental part of cooking and eating.

Envisioning a Foodshed

Starting with the lamb, string beans, and bread, and imagining some of the places that Martha depended on to bring this meal to her table, we become aware of a foodshed. This modern-day term refers to the area of land from which food is drawn. I like to envision foodsheds from a maplike aerial perspective: the kitchen sits at the center and shaded lobes reach out across hills and swales of the landscape to encompass the areas that supply a meal's ingredients. In the case of this meal, a long lobe would reach to Mr. Porter's farm ten miles to the west; a small lobe would reach two hundred feet south to the garden patch by the brook; and a lobe for bread would reach to the northwest where the Ballards' corn and wheat fields yielded their grains. From the perspective of a seventeenth-or eighteenth-century New England cook, the notion of a meal's food-shed would have been more grounded: most ingredients were drawn from an area of less than fifty acres, much of it in view from the kitchen door.

In the relatively small and familiar space of such a foodshed, the interdependence of field and kitchen was abundantly clear. A farmer had to mesh his knowledge of the place with the demands of the table. For example, to bake a typical 1,300 pounds of "rye and injun" bread each year, a housewife needed twenty-eight bushels of grain—half rye, half corn. That meant a New England farmer would have to sow two to three acres each year to provide for the family's bread and also to feed livestock through winter. The very way a farm looked was shaped to a large degree by a family's appetite.

Washington Irving evocatively captured the close relationship between appetite and land in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, published not long after Martha baked her lamb. When a hungry Ichabod Crane arrived on horseback at the Hudson Valley farm of his beloved Katrina's father, he saw before him a banquet. "In his devouring mind's eye he pictured to himself every roasting-pig running about with a pudding in his belly, and an apple in his mouth; the pigeons were snugly put to bed in a comfortable pie, and tucked in with a coverlet of crust; the geese were swimming in their own gravy; and the ducks pairing cosily in dishes, like snug married couples, with a decent competency of onion sauce." To Crane, the landscape appeared not as the gardens, orchards, farm fields, and pastures but as a vast table set with mounds of mashed potatoes, pens of pork chops, and paddocks of pies. In his hungry imagination, the bountiful land morphed into a feast.

The scene reminds me of cartoons I watched as a child—ones in which fleeing chickens and pigs turned into giant drumsticks and pork chops in the mind's eye of a comic predator. However, Irving's metamorphosis of landscape into opulent feast was not just fantasy; in a fundamental way, it reflected preindustrial Americans' sensibility about land. Well-tended and improved land could yield a cornucopian spread and was regarded as a source of food and a sign of wealth, not just as backdrop or scenery. Envisioning and knowing a landscape as one's fount of food is far different from what most of us know and experience when driving through the countryside today.

Martha's baked lamb dinner is a single meal, but it could stand for many others mentioned in her diary and for thousands of others cooked by women in preindustrial America. Of the more than seventy different foods mentioned in Martha's diary, most came from local sources in a small, known foodshed; they were eaten in season, when available, or in preserved (dried, brined, or sugared) forms. The few items that came from afar tended to be those used only in small amounts, such as cinnamon and nutmeg, or the special, once-a-year Christmas-day orange. Though corn bread and salt pork might substitute for dark bread and lamb, depending on regional differences in ecology, culture, and season, growing food, cooking food, and eating food connected most people in preindustrial America to familiar patches of land.

Nature in Martha's Garden

As the work of procuring and cooking food tied people to the land, it linked them closely to the workings of the natural world. But could their gardens and fields be considered "natural"?

Some modern thinkers have contended that agriculture is decidedly not natural—that the innovation of agriculture ten thousand years ago began a wholesale destruction of nature. Indeed, landscapes transformed by farms no longer provide as much wild habitat and sustenance for native plants and animals. Farming disrupts communities of soil organisms, including fungi, microbes, and bacteria, and draws fertility away from the land. Farms displace forests and wetlands, usurp water from rivers, and can set loose soils that cloud streams with silt.

Yet at the same time that farming changes and disrupts nature, it relies and rests upon nature's rhythms. It was this aspect of farming that was most tangible to preindustrial Americans whose lives were tied so closely to the cycles of seasons and the whims of weather. The idea that farms and gardens could be anything other than part of the natural realm was to them unthinkable. By looking at the details of Martha's days, we can begin to appreciate just how much she (and other women of the time) had to set her own life within the overarching patterns of the natural world in order to produce food for her family. Consider, for example, the sheer variety and number of vegetables she grew: cabbage, beets, carrots, parsnips, French turnips, peas, cucumbers, pink radishes, greens, muskmelons, watermelons, string beans, eight varieties of shelling beans, potatoes (including a blue variety one year), scallions, onions, pumpkins, and squash. Some of these were regular members of the garden cast grown each year, whereas others were varieties Martha added or experimented with as she expanded her garden and had the chance to obtain new types of seeds. One year she noted setting four hundred plants in her garden. Many years she noted planting between fifty and eighty cabbages—more esteemed in the 1790s than they are today—and then storing a similar number in her root cellar in the fall.

Martha also grew a variety of herbs for kitchen use. She regularly pinched off sprigs of parsley, sage, and other herbs to freshen up meats and probably beans. Consider the meal she noted preparing on one rainy Sunday in May: "we Dind on a fine Legg of Cornd Pork stufft with green herbs from our Gardin." For a surprising December roast of veal loin, she wrote, "I gathered parsly, fresh and green, from my Gardin for to put in my gravy."

In addition, Martha grew quince, plums, apples, currants, berries, cherries, and rhubarb— fruits that invariably showed up in the pies and tarts she baked to sweeten winter days. And she grew many medicinal herbs for use in her midwifery work.

More remarkable than the variety and number of plants is how Martha managed to tuck them all into both the niches of her garden's terrain and the hours and contours of her days. Raising the important biennial beets, cabbages, carrots, and parsnips demanded vigilant attention over a two-year period. Cabbages had to be harvested each fall, stored carefully in straw or in sand in the cellar (heads were judiciously used through winter), and then the "stumps" had to be replanted every spring. Nursing plants through this cycle provided a welcome flush of early greens and, later in summer, seeds for the next generation. Each spring, Martha planted both cabbage stumps in their second year and new seeds to start the cycle again.

Other vegetables she cultivated had different strategies for reproduction. Potatoes had to be stored safe from freezing and rot through winter and then, in spring, cut into chunks with active "eyes" for replanting. Peas and beans had to be planted by seed every year and did best set near fences they could climb. For all the seeded plants, Martha had to let at least one grow out, and then gather seeds, dry them, and store them safely through the winter in little cloth bags sewn for that purpose. "I have been makeing bags and fixing my Gardin Seeds," she wrote one evening. In those improbable packets of new life—some sharp and faceted, some smooth and mottled, some tiny, some coin-sized—she encountered the miraculous mundane.

When it came to planting, the most crucial cue was the last day of frost. Only after the ground thawed and the soil warmed could seeds begin to grow. Yet as soon as the ground was ready, a countdown to fall's earliest freeze began. Because timing was so critical, many farmers and gardeners looked to signals in the natural world or to particular phases of the moon to help them determine when to plant. Martha was likely aware of a body of planting folklore, passed from neighbor to neighbor and spelled out in the pages of almanacs: Frost is out of the ground when you hear the first frogs. Plant barley when elm leaves reach the size of a mouse's ear. Plant corn when oak leaves grow to the size of a squirrel's ear. In one place, the best sowing time corresponded to the return of robins; in another, to the arrival of bobolinks. Such place-specific cues were based on closely evolved relationships in the natural world that coincided with and usually indicated the end of frosts.


Excerpted from Kitchen Literacy by Ann Vileisis. Copyright © 2008 Ann Vileisis. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

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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