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

by Ann Vileisis
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)

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Book Description

October 24, 2007 1597261440 978-1597261449 1

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

From Publishers Weekly

The rise of commercial farming and processed foods has given shoppers a tremendous variety to choose from, but this convenience has also fostered a "covenant of ignorance" among consumers and manufacturers, historian Vileisis (Discovering the Unknown Landscape: A History of America's Wetlands) posits in this meticulous chronicle of the culinary disconnect. Persuasively arguing that manufacturers have prevented shoppers from knowing "unsavory details" about their foods and shielded producers from inquiry and public scrutiny, Vileisis highlights key events in this evolution. The booming populations of major cities, a reliance on servants or others to prepare meals and the ease and speed of rail transport were early contributors, she asserts, with the Industrial Revolution and two World Wars forever changing the way Americans bought and consumed food. Though the chapters covering developments since the 1970s feel rushed, Vileisis's well-researched treatise will give those interested in local and organic foods, food processing and American culinary culture plenty to chew on.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


“This book...gave me encouragement to keep on doing what I can to make our food world a happier, wiser, more truly sustainable one.”
(Deborah Madison Real Simple)

"Kitchen Literacy provides a cautionary tale of how we got so far off the eaten path in the first place."

"Kitchen Literacy brings home just how essential it is for eaters to cultivate knowledge of their food."
(Anna Lena Phillips American Scientist)

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

(Publishers Weekly)

“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… This important and eye-opening book uncovers the machinery behind the modern food industry…”  

(Library Journal)

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

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 332 pages
  • Publisher: Island Press; 1 edition (October 24, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1597261440
  • ISBN-13: 978-1597261449
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 6.4 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #820,834 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
18 of 18 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good history, weak finish March 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.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
Award-winning historian Ann Vileisis presents Kitchen Literacy: How We Lost Knowledge of Where Food Comes from and Why We Need to Get It Back lives up to its title as a journey through the history of the simple act of making dinner. From eighteenth-century gardens and historic cookbooks to the rise of calculated advertising campaigns and the modern supermarket. As the distance between the creation of food and the table at which it was eaten grew, modern preparers gradually lost their understanding food's origins in exchange for believing advertiser's claims and government assurances. Today, most foods travel fifteen hundred miles before they are eaten. In this modern era of pesticide-drenched fruits, and meat from feedlots of fifty thousand animals, foodborne pathogens and water pollution loom as threats. A movement toward locally grown or raised food and organic fare offers a counterbalance, but now more than ever we need to know the basics about where food comes from in order to ensure optimal health for ourselves and our environment. A "must-read" for modern-day consumers in the post-family farm era.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars 4/5 of the book is excellent November 23, 2008
Vieisis gives a very complete and thorough look at how the middle class has eaten in American history. I emphasize that this is about middle class America. Little comment is made about the poor (with the exception of some talk about bread), and this is an entirely American history. It is also very much a women's history, women being the cooks, growers, preparers, and ones making food decisions for families. It is not a feminist history, though.

Overall, this book was intriguing. It explored how women have viewed food, cooking for their families, and have gotten advice on growing, purchasing and preparing. The author begins by examining a single meal made by a woman in colonial Massachusetts. From there, the paths through immigration, mass production, wars, Westward expansion, women in the workplace, and an emphasis on variety and healthfulness are examined. I did learn quite a bit from this book-information ranging from how margarine was made to the formation of the Home Economics movement to how cake mixes were sold to women. It's almost amazing how the steps to covering up the steps to food preparation were taken-hiding how meat is butchered, how vegetables are transported, etc.

There were also some serious shortcomings in this book. The two most serious are that the author does little to consider how this change in food has effected the poor (whether for good or ill) and the author does not (IMO) do what she sets out to do in the subtitle of her book: explain why we need to know everything about our foods. I couldn't tell if she was promoting better consumer advocacy and information or if she wanted a back-to-nature approach to food or just constant vigilance on the part of the consumer. Most of the arguments she made seemed to be answered by watching Food Network, looking at labels, and not buying Easy Mac. I felt she needed to spend more time on current food issues. The history was a fascinating road, but it seems like she ignored the destination.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Connecting the dots thru time January 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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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Kitchen Literacy or Kitchen History?
This book provides an interesting and unbiased descriptive history of the co-dependence of modern consumerism, decline of food knowledge, and rise of the Industrial Agricultural... Read more
Published 23 days ago by Stephen K. Boss
4.0 out of 5 stars Great history of (white, middle class) food in the United States
Kitchen Literacy is a very interesting history of food in the United States. It does a great job of connecting agriculture and food to the major historical moments, government... Read more
Published 24 days ago by Bel
1.0 out of 5 stars Boring
I couldn't finish this book, very slow and boring read. I didn't get any useful information at all, don't waste your time.
Published 8 months ago by Lucinda Simpson
4.0 out of 5 stars Great Read
I bought this book on my Kindle fire. It has some great insights to things that we do not think about today at all. Read more
Published 9 months ago by frosty
5.0 out of 5 stars I'll never eat margarine again
What's behind the label? You're about to find out, and you may not like the answer. Kitchen Literacy is an adept analysis of the transition in how and what people eat that covers... Read more
Published 10 months ago by Katy
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating history
The history included in this book is fascinating. However, the book didn't really go into much detail on the "Why we need to get it back" portion of the title. Read more
Published 12 months ago by E. Shaver
5.0 out of 5 stars A fantastic book
This was a fantastic book. As an academic specialising in agribusiness, this book gave me a great history of today's agribusiness system. Read more
Published 13 months ago by Sandra Martin
3.0 out of 5 stars The "We" in the title is very misleading
I enjoyed this book and do think it provides a good history of how many white families in the U.S. got from Point A to Point B. Read more
Published 14 months ago by Jay
5.0 out of 5 stars Unique Perspective & Fresh Ideas
There is no aspect of our lives with which food does not intersect, and it rare to find a work that can weave those many divergent threads into a single cohesive and articulate... Read more
Published on December 21, 2010 by Burgundy Damsel
4.0 out of 5 stars An entertaining and in-depth history of food during the last 200 years
An excellent overview of the history of what Americans have eaten over the past two centuries. From a farm wife's table to the supermarkets of today, Vilesis outlines the... Read more
Published on August 2, 2010 by KristinADavis
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