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

Kip reviews Kitchen Literacy: How We Lost Knowledge of Where Food Comes from and Why We Need to Get It Back, by Ann Vileisis

This past August I reviewed Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, which is primarily a tale of three meals, where the author examines how far removed we are from the origins of the food we eat and attempts to reconnect with the root sources of what we blithely ingest. Kitchen Literacy, by Ann Vileisis, which could be considered a companion volume to Pollan's book, examines our connections to food from a historical perspective, giving us a clear picture of what it was like when providing meals for oneself and one's family involved intimate connections to the natural and pastoral realms within walking distance of home.

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. [...] 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."

The meal referred to here was prepared near the end of the 18th century. In the following century, with a steadily increasing trend toward urbanization and a rapidly decreasing supply of local, wild-harvested game and seafood, the connection, or rather the knowledge thereof, between the living earth and the domestic kitchen began to unravel. It would be difficult for me to summarize the sociological and technological factors that abetted this unfortunate alienation, because the story unfolds through a raft of exhaustively researched historical details—details Vileisis presents in a compelling, straight-ahead manner.

Near the beginning of the 20th century, people were starting to wake up to the predicament into which they had unknowingly drifted, and loud complaints arose from many quarters. Enter the admen, and through them the hoodwinking of generations of modern Americans.

Indeed, through food, we are irrevocably attached to the natural environment. The odd thing is that, by habit, we rarely realize this, and collectively, our lack of awareness has given us a distorted view of our place as humans within the larger world. With the supermarket nearby, we live with a detached assurance that our stomachs will always be full, even as industrial farms severely degrade soils, consume enormous amounts of fossil fuels, pollute waters with excess nitrogen and toxins, and inadvertently spur pests and microbes to new alarming potencies.

The whole story has not been told yet, but recent trends in American consumers' food preferences—organic, natural, local—have begun to point in directions leading back to sensible, sustainable modes of co-existence with the bedrock our feet are planted on. Unless you are out to sea in a kayak hunting whales, or unless you are harvesting songbirds while aloft under a handglider, you will want to read this book.

Kip Anderson has been the Victory Garden's head gardener for over 20 years.

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Published November 29, 2007