Weekend Review: Kitchen Literacy by Ann Vileisis

Kitchen Literacy: How We Lost Knowledge of Where Food Comes from and Why We Need to Get It Back
 As I type this, my husband is in the other room watching Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution. I haven't seen much of the show, but I did see the scene in the first season in which Jamie goes to the kindergarten classroom and as he holds up a variety of produce, the wee ones are hard pressed to name them. They don't know a potato from a tomato. Obvioulsy, this is incredibly alarming and a bit depressing, but what's even more so is that it's nothing new. In Kitchen Literacy: How we lost knowledge of where food comes from and why we need to get it back (2008), Ann Vileisis reveals that things, at least in this regard, are pretty similar to 1880. In that year, G. Stanley Hall interviewed 200 Boston first-graders. He found that "90%..had no understanding of a wheat field; 75% had no concept of seasons; and more than 60% had no concept of a beehive, a crow, a robin, or a bluebird, or of planting seeds" (104). That the average American has been so far removed and as a result very ignorant of where his/her food comes from for over 130 years was surprising to me, as so much that I've read about our food system has focused on the last 50 years. Vileisis does the work of filling in the historical pieces to explain how we got from gathering our dinner ingredients from our backyard, to opening a box or picking up the phone to order take-out.

In an easy to read and conversational tone, Vileisis examines a variety of social elements that coalesce in our present moment. The first key shift was the relocation of our population from rural to urban. With the consumers suddenly so far from the producers it only took one generation for rural wisdom about how to select and prepare food to be lost. Advertisers, home economists, women's column writers, expanding corporate food producers, and the government all scrambled to fill those gaps in ways that were most beneficial to themselves. The subtleties in this chain of events was fascinating and with 20/20 hindsight it is at times frustrating to think about how breaking one small link would have landed us in, perhaps, a completely different place.

Vileisis ends with hope. She introduces the organic movement, CSAs, and the like and briefly touches on some of the possible motivations and outcomes of these new/old systems. Ultimately, she sees her story as a full circle with a coming home, of sorts, with food knowledge coming first hand instead of prepackaged.


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  1. I am so glad to read your review of this book. When I saw you were reading it, I bookmarked it on Amazon and now I can move it to my cart. This book sounds like my kind of reading material. Thanks and have a great weekend.

  2. Thanks for the review. This looks like it may be a great read for my class next fall.

  3. Sounds like such a good book. I haven't seen food revolution either, but now I'm intrigued...