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Kitchen history

(article, Christina Eng)

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Once upon a time, Ann Vileisis says, we knew where our food came from. We raised animals on family farms, for instance. We grew our own fruits and vegetables. We ate according to the seasons because we had to, not necessarily because we wanted to. 

That people in the U.S. these days often understand so little about the fundamentals of food is disconcerting. 

In Kitchen Literacy: How We Lost Knowledge of Where Food Comes From and Why We Need to Get It Back, Vileisis offers an engaging culinary and cultural history on how we have eaten in the past, and how we continue to eat. 

The Oregon resident successfully examines shifts in the ways we have procured our food, as well as changes in the ways we have cooked and thought about food. How do certain items wind up on our plates anyway? 

She begins with a look at an American household in the early 1800s, describing the work Martha Ballard did. The woman left notes about pioneer life in Maine in a series of hand-sewn booklets; her diaries were filled “with details of weeding and cooking, seeds and eggs, turkeys and cows.” 

When Ballard baked bread, she realized what it required. The flour she used, for example, “was not an anonymous powder,” Vileisis writes. “She knew the curve of the fields where the wheat grew, the hardened muscles of her husband’s arms that cut it, and the coursing waters of Bowman’s Brook that ground it between millstones.” 

There was an undeniable connection to time and place, a connection that could occur only when individuals had a vested interest. 

In the decades since, what we ate reflected the progress that took shape around us socially and economically. People went to the cities when jobs moved there. We started to shop for groceries in stores such as the Piggly Wiggly during the 1900s when they promised value and convenience. We learned to rely on brand names trumpeted by TV and magazine ads. 

We simplified our lives, but we also stripped ourselves of basic food information, insight generations before us had understood quite naturally. We traded one thing for the other, Vileisis says.

Like Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma), she also sheds light on “the industrial-scale slaughter and distribution system” established over the years by meatpackers across the country, an arrangement that gave us low-priced and occasionally low-quality beef. 

“It was the trip by rail,” she writes, “that most concerned traditional butchers and other critics of the emerging meat supply system. On their thousand-mile, four- to five-day journey to market, cattle were cramped and confined in rail cars without food or water. Agitated and frightened by the experience, many lost upwards of 120 pounds; others died.”

Less comprehensive but no less compelling, The Warmest Room in the House: How the Kitchen Became the Heart of the Twentieth-Century American Home provides a fascinating examination of our modern food culture, too. 

Washington, D.C.-based writer Steven Gdula carefully tracks many of the trends we have embraced, offering a chronological survey sorted decade by decade. He looks at manufacturing and technology, at inventions and appliances, and at cookbooks and other food literature. 

He also notes the ways in which the designs of our cooking spaces, and in turn our living spaces, have evolved. The kitchen, for example, used to be hidden from the rest of the house, sealed off by doors. These days, of course, the kitchen is generally out in the open, the visual as well as metaphorical center of the home. 

[%image reference-image float=left width=425 caption="A mid-20th-century stovetop."]

Though Vileisis bemoans the 20th-century rise to power of sugary drinks, packaged items, and canned goods, Gdula cannot discount their significance. 

With restrictions on alcohol consumption during Prohibition, he writes, we started to get our quick rushes elsewhere. Coke and Pepsi, for example, put “a spring in the step of those who favored them . . . Nehi began bottling Royal Crown Cola as an alternative to the two major cola drinks, and lemon-lime flavored 7-Up was introduced as the alternative to the alternative.” 

Products such as SPAM, Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup, and Kraft macaroni and cheese, along with countertop tools such as pressure cookers, blenders, and eventually microwaves, had profound influences on our menu choices and dining habits. 

Irma Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking, first published in the 1930s, helped to further broaden our meal options, Gdula says. “The book’s tone was sympathetic without being condescending, conversational without being chirpy.” Its popularity rivaled those of M.F.K. Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf and Mollie Katzen’s Moosewood Cookbook, among others, in subsequent decades. 

Julia Child, who took “what was considered to be the loftiest of cuisines and (broke) it down into manageable steps,” he writes, and Alice Waters, who opened Chez Panisse in Berkeley in 1971, “relying on the locally grown bounty of organic seasonal vegetables,” became lasting icons as well.

Both Vileisis and Gdula wrap up their discussions optimistically. Vileisis’ fatalistic warnings about our so-called kitchen illiteracy, for example, give way gradually to more hopeful predictions for the future. Gdula’s observations on the food choices we have made, and continue to make, remain consistently upbeat. 

So long as we keep educating ourselves about the items we buy, he says, maintaining an active interest in what we eat, our kitchens will always be the warmest room in the house. 

p(bio). Christina Eng is a writer in Oakland, California, and a frequent contributor to Culinate.

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