Monday, May 26, 2014

Kitchen Literacy

Kitchen Literacy reads almost like a dissertation and has the copious endnotes to complete this presentation of research on the evolution of the American meal from colonial times to the present. Historian Ann Valeisis' goal, as noted in the subtitle, is to explain "how we lost knowledge of where food comes from and why we need to get it back."

Valeisis begins in colonial New England with Martha Ballard, a herbalist and midwife who kept a detailed diary of her daily life and work. Everything eaten by Martha's family was produced on their farm or a neighbor's. In the next few decades, industrialization -- particularly the advent of rail -- begins to distance Americans from the source of their food, and the process accelerates in the 20th century as more people move to cities and suburbs.

The author provides much detail, some of which can seem repetitive or distracting and warrants skimming. The last chapter -- the prescription for restoring kitchen literacy -- will not be a newsflash to anyone even marginally acquainted with the work of Alice Waters, Michael Pollan, the Organic Consumers Association, the Slow Food movement, etc.: buy organic, patronize farmer's markets, cook, plant a garden and avoid heavily processed foods.

If the reader needs additional incentive for doing those things, Valeisis provides it with a history of food regulation and consumer protection in the 20th century. Reading about the failures of regulatory apparatuses to protect consumers from harmful substances made me want to keep my foodshed as close to home as possible.

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