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

The following is excerpted from Kitchen Literacy by Ann Vileisis, copyright 2008 by the author. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington D.C.

Has it ever occurred to you just how odd it is that we know so little about what we eat? Each day we feast on cereal, bread, salad, soup, chicken, cheese, apples, ice cream, and more. Over the course of our lives, each of us has eaten thousands of different foods. We have tasted their saltiness and sweetness, crunched their crispness, chewed their fleshiness, swallowed them, and incorporated their nutriment into our bones.Yet despite this biologically intimate and everyday physical connection, most of us have little idea where our foods come from, who raised them, and what went into making them.

The absurdity of this situation struck me about ten years ago. The news was rife with stories about how large-scale food production harmed health and the environment:pathogens such as Salmonella and E. coli had become more prevalent in meat and eggs raised under crowded factory-farm conditions; pesticides used to grow foods were contaminating drinking water and harming the health of farmworkers and their children; agricultural chemicals were causing declines in amphibian and bird populations; the cod fishery was collapsing; and the fungicide methyl bromide, used in growing strawberries, was even linked to the erosion of the earth's ozone layer.

I began to wonder, were these the berries and eggs that I bought? As I pushed my shopping cart through the supermarket aisles, questions rose insistently in my mind: How were my eggs raised? Who grew my tomatoes? Where did my fish come from? What about the milk? The colorful boxes, cans, and jars that had long appeared familiar and comforting now looked cryptic.

Each product, I realized, was the culmination of some hidden story that I -- and most of my fellow shoppers -- had never bothered to consider. Everything we ate had a story ,but we didn't know any of them.

I was just starting to grasp that choices I made about what to buy in the supermarket had punch and bite -- in real places and in real people's lives.Yet when I shopped, these matters had rarely before come to mind. A much narrower set of criteria had always guided my decisions. 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? I began to have vague misgivings about what might be happening beyond the scope of my awareness, yet it was difficult to take responsibility when the whole supermarket system seemed to make it almost impossible for me -- or for any of us -- to know about the origins of our foods. I was certainly curious about the stories behind my milk, eggs, and tomatoes, but even more, I was drawn to larger questions: How on earth did we get into the modern situation where we know so little about what we eat and yet regard it as entirely normal? How was it that basic ignorance about foods had become truly the norm in our culture, and what difference has it made?

That's what this book is about.

The answers to my questions, I looked to history. By keeping my bead on what America's home cooks have known and not known about their foods, I began to track the gulf in understanding that rapidly grew over time as distance between farms and kitchens widened. Two hundred years ago, most Americans knew a lot more about what they ate in a direct, firsthand, rooted-in-the-earth way because most had an actual hand in growing a sizable share of their foods.

As America went from being a nation of farmers to being one of workers and consumers, growing numbers of city dwellers had to grapple with procuring and cooking foods in new ways. Over the course of only a few generations, we went from knowing particular places and specific stories behind our foods' origins to instead knowing very little in an enormous and anonymous food system.

Those who have written about food history have dropped clues about this cognitive shift as they've chronicled how Americans adopted new products, new nutritional understanding, and new culinary practices in the dynamic social context of urbanization and ethnic diversification. And those who have written trenchant critiques of America's modern agriculture have generally regarded the separation of consumers from producers as a lamentable side effect of a much larger industrial transformation of America's economy, landscape, and culture.

Yet as I began to wrestle with my own food choices, what intrigued me most was the uncharted terrain in between those other histories and analyses. I wanted to home in on how people's thinking had changed as the experience of eating became wholly separate from that of raising and producing foods. How had our mental habits as shoppers, cooks, and eaters evolved toward the out-of-sight,out-of-mind approach that I'd recognized in myself and in others?

In seeking to understand this drift toward indifference, I found an important clue in the work of anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. In the late 1960s, he made the perceptive suggestion that food must be just as "good to think" in a cultural sense as it is to eat in a nutritional sense.

The idea that foods must be appealing in our minds as well as in our mouths becomes particularly illuminating when considered through the lens of history. As foods were changed to meet the demands of America's rapidly urbanizing society -- often in ways that did not at first appeal to many people -- the mental framework we consumers used to understand food was invariably stretched and fudged to accommodate those changes.

At the same time, what constituted a home cook's competency was also radically transformed. By investigating these shifting frameworks -- the defining and redefining of kitchen literacy that went hand in hand with industrialization -- we can better grasp how and why the more shadowy and unappetizing context of our foods' origins was gradually whittled away from the ken of what we know about what we eat. We can also begin to discern some of the far-reaching implications of this subtle but unmistakable drift in our everyday way of thinking.

The history begins in a late eighteenth-century kitchen, exploring the day-to-day work of one woman who depended on a substantial body of traditional knowledge to feed her family. Martha Ballard knew specific, intimate details of the foods she cooked: the age and sex of the animal that became her roast lamb, the garden stories of her knobby potatoes, the contours of the cornfields that supplied her bread flour, and the muscle it took to transform raw ingredients into satisfying meals. Martha and most other women of her time knew where much of their food came from and how it was made.

Following the dominant urbanizing trend, this story next takes us into city markets and then grocery stores to explore how the kind of first-hand knowledge Martha possessed was upended and transformed over the course of the nineteenth century. At first, most rural transplants to the city expected to know the same things they had always known about their foods -- the places, particulars, and stories of their foods' provenance.

In early city markets, shoppers could still pinch a goose's webbed foot, look a fish in the eye, or talk with a farmer.But before long, the scale, complexity, and anonymity of the emerging food supply system made such awareness impossible as fewer and fewer people with more and more machines delivered food products from farther and farther away -- especially after the transcontinental railroad linked the coasts in 1869.

Because the lengthening food chain was plagued by problems of adulteration, particularly in the case of factory-made foods, late nineteenth- century women did not readily welcome these new products into their kitchens. Some factory foods challenged a cook's traditional means of appraising ingredients with her senses: cans concealed their contents with tin armoring; oleomargarine with artificial coloring effectively mimicked butter. Moreover, as America's food system industrialized with the logic of mass production, the very idea of knowing where foods came from and how they were made became less appealing.

As food production became more abstruse, a newly emerging mass media cut its teeth by helping to ease upper- and middle-class Americans into accepting new ways of shopping, cooking, and eating. It took a relentless legion of ad men and home economists about five decades to convince America's skeptical homemakers to adopt the new products and new ways to think and "know"about foods. Over the course of these decades, what had once constituted valued knowledge passed on from mother to daughter was rejected and deemed irrelevant, while what had first been mocked as ignorance was eventually elevated to a desirable and respected status.

For example, knowing about the lives of animals that became meat had been considered essential kitchen lore until the 1880s, but then the big Chicago meatpacking plants with their tidy cuts and wrappers made this knowledge obsolete and memories of it repugnant. Before long, as the barnyard was distanced from the kitchen, ignorance about all farm animals became typical and even a matter of prestige. Through the same period, knowledge of brand names, which had seemed at first rather trivial, became the hallmark of a contemporary woman's food savvy in the new industrial age.

Eventually, by the late 1920s, a new ideal of modernity had gained powerful cachet in society and exerted new influence on what attributes were valued in foods; the uniform and hygienic trumped the flavorful and distinctive. As homemakers learned to rely more and more on advertisements and outside experts for information, they came to mistrust their own taste buds and kitchen know-how.

Indifference about the origins and production of foods became a norm of urban culture, laying the groundwork for a modern food sensibility that would spread all across America in the decades that followed. Over time, the mores that trend setting, affluent city women adopted in their kitchens influenced broader cultural ideals even for the poorest mothers of the rural South, many of whom aspired to cook, serve, and eat processed foods they couldn't afford.

Eventually, American shoppers of every class and gender would experience this transformation in one way or another. Within a relatively brief period, the average distance from farm to kitchen had grown from a short walk down the garden path to a convoluted, 1,500-mile energy-guzzling journey by rail and truck.

As food production became more remote and complex, consumers' fundamental literacy about foods shrunk and wizened even as a guise of new "knowledge" based on brand names and ad-attached attributes was erected.The everyday task of feeding families had once depended on the substantial knowledge of homemakers and other household helpers, but more and more, this work depended on what might well be called an unspoken covenant of ignorance between shoppers and an increasingly powerful food industry.

Ultimately, the ignorance of shoppers became as integral to the modern food system as any technology or infrastructure. The new sense of "knowing" that had been vigorously cultivated to encourage homemakers to trust experts and accept modern foods went on to shield an increasingly industrial style of food production from public scrutiny in the 1940s and 1950s.

During these critical decades, agriculture was utterly refashioned to meet industrial ideals of efficiency: small farms were consolidated into larger farms operated by fewer people with larger equipment and more petroleum; more synthetic fertilizers and pesticides were brought into use to grow high-yield monoculture crops; more wetlands were drained to bring more farmland into production; more rivers were dammed to irrigate more cropland in arid but temperate areas; and the expanding use of antibiotics permitted meat production to grow to a scale never before imagined.

All these changes had consequences for rural communities and landscapes nationwide -- and for dinner tables, too, as hundreds of new additives and pesticide residues became routine parts of the American diet unbeknownst to those doing the cooking and eating. Although rising interest in gourmet cooking and then widely publicized perils of the chemical age would prompt many Americans to question the modern food system in the 1960s and 1970s, through the same period, new generations grew up with paler expectations of what they could and should know about foods and cooking. As more women opted for careers and -- by economic necessity -- worked outside the home in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, time available for learning about foods and for home cooking became constricted in many households. (Few men were helping to shoulder the work of shopping and cooking just yet.)

As families more frequently consumed quick-fix convenience dinners and ate meals out at popular fast-food restaurants, indifference about foods' sources further increased. Ultimately, we have ended up in the absurd situation today that most of us, as consumers, know very little about what we eat; and, sensing a "dark side"to our foods' production, many of us don't even want to know.

Typically, the history of America's remarkable food system has been recounted as a singularly progressive tale.Yet for many of us,the marvel of fresh leafy lettuce in the winter nests right beside uneasiness that our children don't know milk comes from cows. This characteristic modern uneasiness about not-knowing and not-wanting-to-know our foods is just as deeply a part of our history, our personal experience, and our psyches as the triumphant ease of serving Hamburger Helper.

Any America history that examines how we've lost track of where our food comes from must confront a deep, almost wistful question that lurks just below the surface of our collective consciousness: Is the "where"where our food comes from "nature"? Of course, our food does ultimately come from soil, sunlight, and water, and for tens of thousands of years the human experience of procuring food -- be it by hunting, gathering, or agriculture -- was linked closely to knowing the ins and outs of the natural world.

Today, however, beyond the supermarket, food derives not only from an obscured nature but also from behind-the-scenes tractors, gasoline, laser-leveled fields, fertilizers, irrigation ditches, pesticides, combines, migrant workers, laboratories, sanitized factories, stinking feedlots, semitrucks, and highways. In spite of this -- and perhaps because of this -- the cultural idea of nature (as opposed to the soil, sunlight, and water that make up the physical environment) has become an important, if confusing, category for how many of us think about our foods, and one worth examining more closely from a historical perspective.

It's not surprising that concern about the "naturalness" of foods first emerged when the food system began to industrialize. Yet over time, our cultural bearings about what "natural"means, in terms of both land and food, have gradually shifted as American society has adopted a more generally urban outlook. For this reason, from behind today's shopping cart, it's difficult to imagine our food as a means of physical connection to the natural world.

When we consider "connecting to nature," we are more inclined to imagine gazing at a spectacular waterfall than to consider rows of crops on a farm, let alone the frozen-foods aisle. In one of those great modern ironies, food is rarely regarded as "natural"unless it has been so labeled. Yet each time we eat a turkey sandwich or a bowl of cereal, we are dependent on land and water -- we are fixed in food chains that link us to places that are surely embedded in ecological systems.

Author Michael Pollan has recently described eating as "our most profound engagement with the natural world." 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 alarming potencies.

Though our modern culture's estrangement from the natural world has oft been lamented from many angles, it seems important to consider afresh how losing knowledge of our foods has contributed to this rift. Through history, we can see that what we know (and don't know) about our foods has played a central role in how we perceive ourselves (and fail to perceive ourselves) in the broader context of the natural world.

Understanding this dissonance becomes especially crucial as environmental consequences of large-scale food production become more evident and more troubling.

While urban and suburban eaters have, for the most part, embraced the benefits and convenience of the modern food system and adopted its requisite habit of "looking the other way," a growing number of Americans have recently become more concerned about where and how their foods are produced. Today, interest in local and organic vegetables and meats has burgeoned into a sophisticated revolution, with organic sales growing by 20 percent each year and farmers' markets sprouting up in cities everywhere.

This revolution draws on many motivations and historical tendencies, yet central to them all has been the desire of shoppers, cooks, and eaters to better know the provenance of their foods .By knowing more, these hopeful consumers aspire to both avoid and subvert the harmful aspects of the dominant food system, and -- in the process -- to find better-tasting, healthier fare.

This movement of eaters remains small relative to America's mammoth food economy, but already it has become a promising force toward reforming some of the most egregious excesses of modern industrial agriculture. In the final chapters, I will discuss this emerging trend of consumers striving to bring knowledge and stories of foods back into their kitchens and lives in new ways.

Ultimately, if our market-driven society is to build a healthier food system, we as consumers will need to recognize how our everyday choices affect the larger environment and, then, to forge a new and influential role for ourselves. In an age when farms and factories of food production seem impossibly remote from our dinner plates, history can sharpen our outlook with its perspective and its ironies, and remind us of the opportunity for change.

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