Lighten Up: Kitchen Literacy interview

I was standing in Ploughboy, the local-food grocery store right in my neighborhood, this afternoon, talking with the owners, Kerry and Dave Nelson, about why they went into the local-food business. “We want to teach people to have the relationship with food that our grandparents had,” Kerry said. “The knowledge of how to use and appreciate what’s fresh right now. The understanding that local food gives back to our local economy.”


Her comments echoed something historian Ann Vileisis said when I interviewed her by email after reviewing her latest book, Kitchen Literacy: How We Lost Knowledge of Where Food Comes From and Why We Need to Get It Back. (Read the review on Story Circle Book Reviews.) “Many readers have told me they grew up on farms, or that they hunted with a grandfather, had backyard chickens, or made jam with a grandmother. In the course of their lives, many of those traditions,–and the food knowledge that was tied to them–were lost…” Losing those traditions, trading them for “convenient,” always-available, and cheap food, has cost us more than we imagine in terms of energy use, pesticide exposure, health effects, and something less easy to measure–connection. Connection to the rhythms of life and the seasons, to the particulars of the land- and seascapes where we live. Regaining that connection may be one of the best ways to not only lighten up our carbon footprint, but also to regain our sense of belonging on this beautiful blue and green planet.

Here’s a piece of the interview in which Vileisis talks about how she came to realize her own ignorance about what was in her food and where it came from, and what she learned about our changing culture of food knowledge in researching the book. (The full interview will appear on Story Circle Book Reviews soon.)

SJT: In the Introduction to Kitchen Literacy, you write that you began to be aware of your food in new ways about ten years ago: “When picking tomatoes, for example, I’d rather unconsciously considered their appearance, firmness, price, and gratifyingly low caloric content along with the culinary possibilities of salads or sauces. I’d never considered where the tomatoes had come from, how they were grown, and who did the work of raising them. Now I started to wonder: Why did I consider some things but not others? Why did I think the way I did about my food?” What prompted that “aha!” moment?

AV: While I was writing my first book about the history of wetlands, a huge percentage of which were drained to become farmland, I discovered that many current environmental problems are deeply rooted in agriculture. That started me wondering more about the stories of my foods. I remember buying some apple juice and noticing it was from Chile. I strained to imagine how on earth the frozen juice in the little canister had made it all the way from a Chilean orchard to my supermarket shelf for about $2. That was just one farm-to-market journey; ALL the foods on supermarket shelves had stories, and I knew absolutely none of them.

At that point, I realized that the environmental problems I was concerned about–such as pesticides and water pollution–weren’t just the result of our impersonal, industrialized, oil-based agriculture but also of cultural acceptance of ignorance about food as a norm. ALL of us shoppers and eaters were complicit in not paying attention to what was in foods and how they were produced. I started to read food history and was fascinated to find clues about how and when we stopped paying attention and realized it would be interesting to make that thread the center of a book. Along the way, I’ve found, too, that many of us have personal family food histories fit into the larger story that I tell in Kitchen Literacy. Many readers have told me they grew up on farms, or that they hunted with a grandfather, had backyard chickens, or made jam with a grandmother. In the course of their lives, many of those traditions,–and the food knowledge that was tied to them–were lost, and there’s a sadness about that, even as people enjoy the convenience of modern foods…

SJT: As a historian, it was natural for you to respond to your new awareness of what you didn’t know about food by researching our history with food. Did you have a sense then you were on the cusp of a revolution in our thinking about/eating/growing our food? Or did that revolution become clear as you were doing your research?

AV: The revolution seemed to happen around me as I was working, which was very exciting–to be writing history–right as it is shifting and changing. But as a result, I actually had to re-frame the whole book. I’d started out by researching the story of how Americans lost track of where their foods came from–and then, all of a sudden, it seemed everyone started to care about just that. My book was no longer a story of loss but one of tremendous hope. One of the things that history shows us is that how we know and think–something that seems so bedrock in our day-to-day lives–is actually very malleable. And the fact that culture can change is one of the things that gives me hope for the future.

Books like Ann Vileisis’ Kitchen Literacy, along with Alice Waters’ In the Green Kitchen (which I reviewed in last week’s Lighten Up blog post) give me hope that we are moving toward regaining a healthy relationship with our food, and with this Earth. We certainly need to.


On a personal note, something that gives me hope is the kindness showered on Richard and me as we walk this journey we never expected with his brain cancer. In the past few weeks, anonymous folks have paid our food tab at Ploughboy, given us fresh eggs from their hens (thank you, Maggie and Tony!), sent gorgeously hand-spun, hand-dyed and hand-crafted hats, socks, and sweaters to keep us warm (that’s me modeling the cardigan, Cathy and Mike!),

Cardigan Jam

mailed food including yummy and beautiful homemade jams (the raspberry jam is from my sister-in-law Lucy and the blackberry from Lyanda Haupt–thank you both!), given us the orchids that brightened Richard’s hospital room and still brighten our living room (thank you, Nancy and Dave!), dropped by a lucious berry galette still warm from the oven (that’s you, Louise and Ernie!),

Galette Orchid

cleaned our guest cottage between vacation renters (thanks, Kerry and Louella!) and done countless other things to cheer us on.

We are honored, touched, and yes, very cheered. Thank you all. Onward we go on this journey called life.