Technology has been adding new links to the food chain for a century, but thanks to books like Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma , our disconnect with what we eat is common cocktail chatter. In a world where the lords of agriculture are scientists in white lab coats instead of farmers, eaters have started clamoring for ways to reconnect with the food knowledge we once possessed but lost when food production became industrialized.
Oregonian Ann Vileisis is one of the eaters aiming to improve our food literacy, namely, explaining how what we eat affects us, and the rest of the world. Her new book, Kitchen Literacy , isn’t another rant on the industrialization of food as much as a chronicle of what we used to know about selecting and preparing food, and how we became ignorant of its sources. Eat Me caught up with Vileisis via telephone before a reading and slide show food talk in Portland this week.
WW : What led you to focus on food literacy?
Ann Vileisis: My background is in environmental history, and I became very interested in how that relates to the food system. With mad-cow disease and other issues, the public has become aware that agriculture is at the heart of many environmental problems. This book is less about technology and more about how food knowledge used to be part of our daily lives and how today it’s not. I wanted to show what people knew about food during pre-industrial America.
What’d they know?
People once knew specifics and the stories of food, particularly with meat. Early cookbooks recommended that people knew the age, sex and background of an animal. If you had an old goose, you’d need to stew it. On a special occasion, you’d use a female goose because it generally had a higher fat content. As food systems became industrialized, this knowledge became obsolete. Cooking back then required a tremendous amount of work... it was an all-encompassing aspect of everyone’s life.
So, when did we abandon our kitchen smarts?
The big change occurred between 1880 and 1920 and continued to change in the 20th century, coinciding with the rise of advertising, which set new criteria by which we evaluate our food. The earliest ads focused on where food came from and how it was made, but later, as advertising became more sophisticated, traditional food production was made to look less appealing.
Which foods got a raw deal?
In the beginning of the 20th century, you started to see ads with words like “sterilized” or “germ-free.” The goal was to make factory food appear clean and therefore better than homemade. I show one ad in my slide show for baked beans made by scientists in lab coats. The message was that scientists have developed a recipe spending four years and $100,000...much better than what could be done at home.
What’s[/b]Literacy [b]’s take-away message ?
People talk about the demise of the family farm; I’m interested in how it related to the decline of the family kitchen.
READ: Ann Vileisis appears at Looking Glass Books, 7983 SE 13th Ave, 227-4760. 7 pm Thursday, Nov. 8. Free.