Kitchen Literacy
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Kitchen Literacy

3.56 of 5 stars 3.56  ·  rating details  ·  210 ratings  ·  51 reviews
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 fo...more
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Published October 2007 by Shearwater
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I HIGHLY recommend this book to anyone interested in food safety, economics, politics, or history--or just in a better understanding of what they eat and why. It's a very insightful history of the trends of food production and consumption, showing the evolution from local to global modes of distribution, from rural to urban culture, and from intimate consumer knowledge to a culture surrounding food consumption that promotes consumer ignorance. One of the main strengths of this book is that Vilei...more
Anna George
I consider myself a pretty savvy person when it comes to the problems with our modern food systems. I serve on the board of our nonprofit urban farm, for heaven's sake; I have to be able to explain why you should join a CSA, shop at your local farmers market, or eat seasonally. What I haven't done before, however, is consider all the societal forces that led to the corporate food system that currently reigns over America. If you're interested in the long historical/cultural/economic view, then K...more
This short history of the American kitchen and the changing ways we--the cooks--know our foodstuffs takes us from the late 1700s when a cook knew where her food came from to the present when what is promoted as food is . . . factory-made. Vileisis has done meticulous research, with nearly a hundred pages of footnotes to support her analysis of the changes in our understanding of what we mean by "food" and where it comes from. She writes: "As the distance between farms and kitchens had grown, and...more
Susan J
"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." American philosopher George Santayana's quote would be a perfect epigraph for Ann Vileisis' careful and fascinating look at the history of food and eating in America. (The quote is part of Santayana's theory about how knowledge is acquired, making it especially relevant to Vileisis' examination of how we've lost the stories we once knew of our food.)

Here's how Vileisis opens the first chapter of Kitchen Literacy: "In the center of...more
I learned some fascinating history about our relationship to food in the nineteenth century and early twentieth centuries, as well as the relationship of advertising to food, and the processing that has developed over the decades. While I enjoyed the book and its plethora of factoids and examples, I wouldn't necessarily give it high ranking for prose.

We have a complex history with the business of food and grocery, and Vileisis taps into a lot the minutiae of some of America's favorite brands. S...more
Not sure where I found out about this book, but the title & subtitle was intriguing enough to make it worth checking out from the library.

Vilesis takes her readers back to the late 1700's to show how we as individuals have moved from being intimately familiar with the food we eat - growing, harvesting, tending and slaughtering nearly every foodstuff, to the modern, processed, advertising-driven industry.

Along the way we read excerpts from an 18th century farmwife, discuss how sugar became...more
Synthesis of detailed personal records was the most interesting part of this book. We followed a midwife in the 1700s and a butcher in the 1800s, so I'm not sure why this strategy was not maintained throughout the book. Contemporary kitchen literacy could certainly be tracked through blogs, and would make a much more interesting final chapter than the rehash of Pollan/Kingsolver/Waters statistics and government actions.

The theories and issues common in current conversations about foo...more
Sandy D.
Since I've read "Omnivore's Dilemma", "Perfection Salad", "An Edible History of Humanity" and many other books on agriculture and food in history, I thought this book would just recap stuff I already knew. To some extent, it did, but it presented it in a new and interesting way, looking at what Americans knew about their food and where it came from in the years 1790-2005. I was thrilled to see my old friend Martha Ballard in the first chapter (whom I blogged about here), and especially enjoyed t...more
Kitchen literacy takes the read on a quick tour through over 200 years of American's relation to their food. Starting in Colonial times, Ann Vileisis describes how women were accustom to growing and knowing their food sources, a comfort that was hard to break up to the first World War. From the Industrial Revolution up to today the book looks at how manufacturing and advertising were able to convince the country that canned and packaged food was a safer (and cheaper) alternative to the farmers m...more
Apr 09, 2009 Jennifer rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition Recommends it for: Anyone...especially food lovers like me
It's interesting to think of your personal "food shed"...kind of like a watershed and all its tributaries, but instead focusing on the winding channels that bring the food stuff of today to our tables. And a great retrospective...our food shed has grown progressively larger over the centuries, while our understanding of the food itself has become less. I loved the imagery that a woman a century ago had to plan a year in advance for a simple meal...she had to plant her veggies, breed her livestoc...more
I have read a lot of things about the history of food production and agricultural issues, so many things in this book were already familiar to me. What I thought Vileisis did well was to bring it all together in a coherent and readable way. Things that surprised me: how very early our current ideas about food were fixed: 1907 is when consumers started accepting packaged foods and precut meat. It was interesting to learn about the early problems with food safety and the dodgy use of the term "nat...more
Jun 19, 2008 Kristina rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition Recommends it for: Foodies, advertisers, greenies
A bulk of this book is about how marketing (which differs from the original definition of going to the market to shop) has transformed long held beliefs on food production from close-to-home, in-house to "sanitary is better" factory foods and back again. The section on house Chicago beef producers convinced shoppers that the meat shipped from afar was not "dead beef", but a cheap, quality, and easy thing to buy. I also enjoyed reading how DDT became so prevalent as an insecticide. The book has m...more
Ellen Bell
This book is an interesting historical account of Americans' social attitudes toward food throughout the history of the United States. Beginning in the late 1700's and running through present time, Kitchen Literacy addresses what we eat and why, as well as Americans' attitudes toward changing food production methods and agricultural techniques. These are topics of great interest to me, so I enjoyed reading Kitchen Literacy. I'm only giving it 3 starts because, at times, I found the book to be a...more
Joy Weese Moll
A history of food in America from the midwife in the 1700s who knew the best place in her garden for planting cabbages and the personality of the chicken that provided meat for the stew pot, through the necessary disconnection with the source of food brought on by urbanization, through the industrialization of food and the gradual awareness of the problems caused by that. The recommendations at the end are similar to what you would get from Michael Pollan’s books or Mark Bittman’s Food Matters,...more
Apr 05, 2008 Marcia rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition Recommends it for: anyone interested in this topic
I read this book very slowly and didn't quite finish because I had to turn it into the library already. I did like it, though I like a quicker read usually. What I really loved about this book is that the author researched and references throughout the book many different types of sources of the eras she is writing about. She cites cookbooks, magazines, memoirs, advertisements, etc. The author did her homework, and throughout the book you get a good sense of the historical events and societal ch...more
A really interesting and worthwhile read. Vileisis looks at changes in what Americans know about their food and how they know it (basically a shift from first-hand experience to relying on food scientists and food advertisements), especially in relation to social and economic trends (urbanization, industrialization, the growth of the advertising industry, women's changing roles in the home and in society at large). She has an agenda, as the final chapter makes very clear, but she uses documentat...more
I really wanted to like this book. But it fell flat. The writing style was just very dry and boring, even though I am quite interested in the subject matter. I don't feel that the "Why We Need to Get It Back" part was covered nearly enough.

The only bit I found really interesting in this book was the part about the founder of Home Ec, and how she was the first female chemistry major at MIT.

And the only thing I came away from the book wondering was, what was the recipe for the pasta dish the auth...more
It took me several months to get through this book. It was very interesting to read the history of our food sources and how that has changed, but this book was not like reading an intriguing mystery that I couldn't wait to find out who the murderer was. Although, where our foods are raised and what happens to them between the farm and the supermarket has become a mystery. Ann Vileisis goes into the details of how this has occurred, from the 18th century to present times and how important it is t...more
Most comprehensive look at American food that I've read so far. Absolutely fantastic! Thoroughly researched, wonderfully written and engaging to history-buffs, foodies and book-worms alike. Very useful to read such a book when grappling with/thinking of/making judgments about American food today. I'm starting to think that knowing how we got here is perhaps even more important than knowing the "in's and out's" of the current ag industry-related dilemmas. I cannot recommend this book enough!
This book surprised me. I expected a book about food and food history, not necessarily our relationship to food and how it ties into women's history and big business and how rapidly our diets have changed due to who controls it. A riveting read that is leading my listening of In Defense of Food. A must read.

Unfortunately, I would not recommend the audio. I could hear her swallowing and breathing and at times, it just sounded off. The tone was educational, but enough to keep me interested.
Michael Pollan ask questions about our current relationship to food. Ann Vileisis explains how we got to where we are. Don't read one without the other!

This book synthesized a lot of environmental history in a very reader friendly way. The book begins with "A Meal By Martha." Remember Ulrich's A Midwife's Tale? Same Martha! It continues through the present day. You'll learn about the history of cookbooks in the U.S. and the history of the grocery store.
Claire Nyce
Started off really slow and I wasn't convinced I could finish this book, but in bits and pieces, I worked my way through it. The second half was a lot more interesting as the author moved into the 20th century and I was able to start getting a glimpse of how we came to think about food and came to accept the food-like products that now dominate the grocery stores. The book was not what I expected based on the description and I'm unlikely to ever pick it up again.
A little wordy but quite a lot to think about. I know I will be thinking more about where my food is grown or raised and where and how I shop. It was interesting to see how much advertising has manipulated & driven the food industry since practically the end of the 1800's. While I don't think it's possible for everyone to have a garden -- it is possible to buy from farmers' markets or from markets who make a point of selling local produce.
After reading Vandana Shiva's "Stolen Harvest", I was left wondering how our food system had gotten to such a state. "Kitchen Literacy" answered that question in a very thorough and engaging way. I recommend reading this book in conjunction with "Stolen Harvest" and Barbara Kingsolver's "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" to learn about the current state of our food systems, how we got here, and what we can do to reclaim it.
I am fairly sure that I gave this book two stars only because it wasn't what I expected rather because of the quality of the book. But I really was interested more in where foods came from than the history of how we obtain our foods. The overall impression, when I could forget my preconceived notions of what this book should be, was that there were lots of generalizations but not much detail and actual facts or information.
I actually got to meet the author who is really nice and we chatted about environmental history (which is what this book is really) and how she became a freelance writer. Very interesting idea and very relevant as we begin to think about reducing our emissions and understanding how much energy goes into moving our food around the globe.
Oct 05, 2008 Kerrin added it  ·  review of another edition Recommends it for: people interested in food
Shelves: cooking
I unfortunately had to return this book to the library. Someone else had it on hold. I only read about the first 100 pages, but what I read, I liked. In some ways, a bit like Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food, but it starts from a different point. Hope to get back to it, so I'll keep it on my "currently-reading" shelf.
I highly recommend this history of the American table. The book doesn't just discuss all the marketing involved in convincing us what is good to eat, it documents exactly how and why we eat the way we do. Anyone who needs further convincing that eating local and growing your own food is the way to go, must read this book.
It's incredibly depressing to read about the agriculture activism of the 1970s, which sounds almost exactly like the current model, and realise that we have it all to do again and more. /o\ It would have four stars if it went further into the implications of fucked-up food policy, but I realise that wasn't her main aim.
Aug 24, 2008 Alyssa rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Alyssa by: Jennifer
I didn't actually finish this one. While the historical look at how our food evolved was interesting, after reading Pollan and Kingsolver, her narrative was a bit dry and difficult to keep up with. It was due at the library and I couldn't renew and it's not worth the effort to put myself on the reserve list again.
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