I can read you like a cook: A review of “Kitchen Literacy”

As the local-food movement broadens and more people find pleasure in shopping at the local farmers markets and/or in growing their own produce, we find more folks ‘fessing up to their lack of expertise. How do you know when a fruit or vegetable is ripe? What’s the difference between various cuts of meat? What’s in season when, and how best to cook or preserve it?

Once upon a time, that knowledge lay more neatly within reach. When families grew their own food, raised their own livestock, or bought from a farmer down the road, they had a better sense of what influenced the taste of their food and what was needed to prepare food for the day’s dinner or for those long winter months. Before the industrialization and urbanization of America, more people had a close relationship with the land and with their food supply, and culinary knowledge passed from generation to generation and between neighbors as a necessary part of social relations.

Somewhere along the line, though, that common knowledge base dwindled as more home cooks turned to processed and even pre-prepared food. What influenced this loss of basic understanding? How did we become so estranged from the natural environment and the food web that supports us? Ann Vileisis spent a great deal of time researching those questions, and in “Kitchen Literacy: How We Lost Knowledge of Where Food Comes From and Why We Need to Get It Back” she offers a complicated weave of historical events that persuaded us to adopt “an unspoken covenant between shoppers and an increasingly powerful food industry.”

A flash in the can?

The first (and, arguably, the most important) step that led to our diminished understanding of the food supply came from the population shift from country to city. By the latter part of the 19th century, increased industrialization and its promise of employment had drawn more and more Americans to urban areas. Though the first generation of new city-dwellers might still raise gardens, and long for farm-fresh milk and eggs, their children and grandchildren had fewer deep connections to, or memories of, agricultural life. And with more people concentrated in areas without farms, more food had to be shipped into the cities to feed the teeming populace — food that often lacked freshness by the time it arrived in city markets.

Cooks and eaters who remembered farm life knew that good food retained the earthiness of soil or the bloodiness of life, and they resisted the introduction of factory-processed food: canned vegetables or pre-butchered meat that prevented them from using traditional knowledge or their senses to determine the food’s quality. When faced, however, with the choice between wilted week-old vegetables at the market or canned vegetables that could last much longer on the shelf, or between rancid butter shipped from far away or the standardized alternative of oleomargarine, cooks gradually accepted the option that — after initial problems with packaging and adulterants — offered the more consistently safe and practical solution.

Not only were processed foods more reliably consistent in appearance and taste, they also had the advantage of hygiene. Vegetables sealed in cans presumably passed through fewer hands and were exposed to fewer germs, and in an era when medical science had just begun to understand the influence of bacteria on health and food safety, this increasingly became a selling point for the food industry. Though early processed foods presented serious problems — the lead used to solder some cans closed could make dinner a deadly experience — the food industry quickly recognized the need to solve such public health problems in order to show that their products had the advantage over fresh produce by using packaging that acted as “protective jackets that heroically shielded foods on their foul trip from factory to kitchen,” writes Vileisis.

The government managed to persuade many consumers of the safety of processed food with the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. Large food manufacturers threw their weight behind the bill, seeing an advantage in having one set of national regulations that would allow them to take their business nationwide, and the general public had the government’s — and the manufacturers’ — assurance that the packaged food they bought at the store would be free of the “most harmful adulterants and additives” known at the time.

What consumers didn’t bargain for, of course, was the ongoing scientific progress that would provide manufacturers with more possibilities to “enhance” foods, and the open-ended nature of the law that would allow corporate negotiation of what was truly considered “natural.”

Box to basics

Having gained that initial acceptance from consumers, food manufacturers turned to advertising to increase public reliance on their products. Though many women clung to the emotional satisfaction of feeding their families “from scratch” well past World War II, the food industry eventually changed the mainstream image of a good housewife and cook to one who could efficiently whip up delicious meals by plugging boxes, cans, and frozen foods into a variety of holes on the dinner plate.

They did this through well-conceived advertising campaigns aimed at the new, postwar modern woman. As shoppers came to expect standardized results in brand-name canned goods or box mixes, they learned to “use brand names as a shorthand way to identify a quality product” and thus to stick with certain companies. Home economists, a new class of experts trained to educate homemakers in modern scientific methods, encouraged this reliance on “the uniformity, sterility, and efficiency of factory-made foods” in menu planning. Food manufacturers, they said, had put a great deal of research into developing nutritious products that offered consistent results, so there was no need for the average homemaker to worry about the details of how the food was produced.

And why should they? With so many products available to save time in the kitchen, a homemaker need only stock her pantry with processed foods in order to whip up well-balanced meals in just a fraction of the time it took to cook from fresh ingredients (let alone to visit the market and select them). By the 1950s, enough homemakers and magazines aimed at them had bought into this logic, turning the newfangled cuisine into a “game built around assembling parts from boxes, jars, and cans.” Even today, magazines oriented toward women feature multi-page advertising sections with recipes that use processed foods, hailed as quick fixes for busy families.

Such advertising, Vileisis observes, also relied on the imitation of

…one of nature’s very own strategies. In nature, a ripe red berry attracts an eater, who, by consuming the sweet crimson flesh, will serve to disperse seeds. In advertising, a boldly promoted, colorfully packaged product similarly attracts the attention of an eater, who by purchasing it, will contribute to the profits of the manufacturer. In both cases, the eater’s hunger is satisfied, but the intent of the attractor may remain hidden.

While manufacturers’ intent might have been unspoken, most shoppers agreed anyway to participate in what she calls “a covenant of ignorance”: “Food manufacturers did not want to be pestered by careful scrutiny of their ever-changing production methods… And housewives did not want to be bothered with knowing details.”

The more you “no!”

In the 1960s, however, as pollution fueled a growing environmental movement, many shoppers did start wanting to know details. Were the pesticides used on crops still present on the foods bought at the market? Were the additives increasingly found in processed food harmful? The spokesmen for the food industry responded with soothing reassurances that these chemicals were present in such small amounts as to be virtually harmless, but some consumers remained wary.

As shoppers searched for more commonsense choices, the food industry picked up on their concern and started using the word “natural” in labeling products. With no regulatory definition behind the term, it quickly became practically useless, though it persuaded many shoppers to buy the processed foods bearing the label. As the clamor rose for “organic” foods in the 1990s, the same process seemed set to recur, even with government standards in place, as food manufacturers pressed for loosened guidelines for using the term.

Vileisis points out that though labels like “organic” have often confused shoppers and hidden certain loopholes, they have also led to a more educated consumer public. More shoppers now ask tough questions about their food — “Is my food safe and healthful? Where does my food come from? What are the consequences of my food choices?” — that the food industry often has to scramble to answer.

These questions, Vileisis concludes, are the ones that bring us full circle, back to a better understanding of how our food is produced and how we can nourish our bodies with the best possible ingredients. After relying on advertising and our own superficial knowledge base for so many years, we can deepen our awareness by learning how to understand food labels on a more practical level, by recognizing the links between “real people and real places” and our dinner plate, and by developing “a broader understanding of how our culture and our politics affect the people and land that supply our food.” It’s not too late, she encourages the reader, to develop a new kitchen literacy through growing our own food, cooking meals from scratch, and reconnecting to the world around us:

As the stories of our foods ceased to be told, we lost track of where and how they were produced; and as we lost knowledge about our foods, we lost awareness of how eating fits our human selves into the broader natural world. But today, with new interest, new understanding, and new stories, we have the chance to rediscover some of that knowledge and awareness, and with it, we just might find a way to live better on Earth and, finally, to eat well.

Though I normally plow through books very quickly, “Kitchen Literacy” proved to be so full of interesting material that I savored it thoroughly, appreciating how Vileisis’s development of the historical context made so many facets of today’s food industry (things we take for granted) make more sense. It’s a worthy read, and though it won’t answer those practical know-how questions that so many of us have in the kitchen, no matter our level of experience, it will certainly make you feel more willing to ask the questions that will deepen your own kitchen literacy.

2 Responsesto “I can read you like a cook: A review of “Kitchen Literacy””

  1. Rebecca says:

    Couldn’t agree with you more, Jennifer. I’ve read the book and talked with Ann and she is able to pull so much (almost) lost information about our food and where it came from together in such a rich way. So glad you brought her book to light here. 

  2. valereee says:

    Thanks for the review!  I’ll have to check the library for this one!