Minus the Pilgrims (who would have starved to death without the Indians' help) the immigrants who settled America brought significant farming know-how from the fields and barns they left behind in Italy, Ireland, Germany, Sweden, China, etc. These tough settlers had the savvy and determination to eke out a living in areas with harsh winters, little rain, and poor topsoil. Those who were lucky enough to end up in the nation's topsoil-rich heartland sat down and praised their gods, then got to work growing those famous "amber waves of grain" and much, much more.
Up until about 100 years ago, even city-dwelling Americans grew large kitchen gardens and enjoyed hunting and fishing in nearby woods, lakes, and streams, then cleaning, gutting, and cooking their catch.
So how on earth did we go from a nation of self-sufficient farmers to one in which many Americans are so removed from the origins of their food that they don't even know what animal ham comes from?
In her new book, Kitchen Literacy: How We Lost Knowledge of Where Our Food Comes From & Why We Need To Get It Back, Ann Vileisis answers that question with fascinating clarity and depth, weaving together scientific and cultural data with historical accounts and personal anecdotes. As I read, I was blown away by how much I did NOT know about America's food history.
Luckily for us, Ann was kind enough to agree to an interview. I found her to be a lovely person - friendly, thoughtful, and incredibly knowledgeable and passionate about her subject. Below is an excerpt from our talk.
To learn more about Ann and her work, visit her web site. You can buy a copy of Kitchen Literacy at Island Press or Amazon.com.
EF: What prompted you to write this book?
AV: My background is in environmental history – and in the course of writing my first book (which was about wetlands) I became aware that many environmental problems were related to food production: conversion of wetlands to farmlands, the pollution of rivers and estuaries, and the contamination of drinking water with herbicides. I realized that there was a serious disconnect between that reality and my experience as a shopper, cooker, and eater. And it struck me as a very important disconnect that I wanted to study and think about.
I also really wanted to focus on the consumers’ point of view. Other people have written a lot about the industrialization of agriculture but I was interested in thinking about it from the perspective of people who were shopping, cooking, and eating at the time. I wondered--what did they think about these huge changes, and did they care?
Also, I hoped by looking at the story of how we’ve become so disconnected that I might find clues that could help us figure out how to reconnect to the people and land that produce our foods.
EF: How would you characterize most Americans attitudes towards knowing where their food comes from now?
AV: I think we’re in an odd spot right now. More and more people are starting to think about this question of "where does my food come from?" So many supermarkets now sell organic food that there's clearly a broad element of the population that is asking the question. But on the other side, we have an epidemic of obesity with more people eating fast food on the run than ever before. So we have both attitudes growing side by side. It’s kind of like a culture war.
I do find it heartening that the Farm Bill was a big topic in 2007. For the first time ever, the American Medical Association (AMA) came out with a statement saying that the Farm Bill should subsidize growing more fruits and vegetables—foods that will make Americans healthier--and less soybeans and corn—the ingredients in so many processed foods. This, of course, makes great sense, but to have the AMA come out and say we need to pay attention to farm policy because it affects public health was pretty significant. In the past, only those in agriculture and agribusiness have paid attention to the farm bill—even though it affects the health and well-being of us all.
EF: How do you advise people to start learning about where their food comes from (besides reading your wonderful book, of course)?
AV: We now have so many options that we haven’t had in the past. First, people can buy more local foods by shopping at farmers markets and farm stands. There are now more than 5,000 farmers’ markets in America. Buying foods in this ways enables shoppers to get to know the farms and farmers that provide their foods—it gives us a chance to ask questions, to get to know what’s in season, to learn about the challenges farmers face. Buying local also helps to reduce our dependency on fossil foods, and it rewards us with fresher, more nutritious and better tasting foods, which increases people’s enjoyment of foods and helps build their interest in cooking.Another exciting thing people can do is to join a CSA (community supported agriculture) farm—the kind where you pay up front and then get a share of the harvest all through the growing season. Participating in a CSA gives people the best opportunity to know the stories of their foods firsthand because they can actually go visit the farms.
Another option is that people can also buy more organic foods in supermarkets. Buying organic foods helps to reward farmers that pay more attention to stewardship of land and soil. This is an especially good option for items that aren’t available at farmer’s markets, such as rice and other grains. Finally, people can also start gardens—that’s what I did and it’s been really fun! It’s been rewarding to learn how to grow vegetables and to go out into my backyard and pick things for dinner so many days of the year (I live in a temperate climate so things grow all year long.) It has also encouraged me to be more creative in my cooking. I’ve really enjoyed learning a whole new approach to cooking and eating.
So in general, I think people need to start where they’re at, learn more about local eating opportunities, and then do what makes the most sense for them. Once people get going, they may be drawn into all sorts of interesting food adventures.
EF: The New York Times has published a few articles about a growing new trend called agritourism -- people going to vacation on working farms - a more touristy version of the WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities On Organic Farms) system. Any thoughts?
AV: I know that it’s been happening in Europe for a while. I think small farms are being very resourceful -- this direct connection to food and the land it’s grown on is one of the main things they have to offer wealthier urbanites. Even if agri-tourism begins as something that is only accessible to the very rich, I would still hope that appreciating the good work of farmers in producing excellent food would become a larger part of our culture. With a historical perspective, I see agri-tourism as one the many trends that will hopefully, help to move us in the direction of better valuing and respecting the work of farmers.
EF: You wrote about the way the concept of "natural" was quickly co-opted by agribusiness to sell more of its products when public awareness began to shift in the 1970's. Do you think "organic" will suffer the same fate? Will the relatively new federal standards protect the integrity of organic food or will they just get weakened by agribusiness lobbyists and their government friends until they're meaningless and we're forced to find a new word/concept to distinguish food that is grown in a certain way?
AV: It’s a really good question. I don’t know exactly what the answer is, but I know that the activists who pushed for organic certification did so believing that certification would help sustainable agriculture in the long run. The crucial piece is going to be staying vigilant. So far, activists and consumers have been able to stave off some of the worst threats to watering down the regulatory meaning of organic, but the pressure is bound to mount as the potential profits grow.
One of the things I realized when I was writing the book that we’ve come to expect a single word answer-- like the brand name or the “organic” label, but the most reliable thing to do is track down food that you can actually know, meet the people who grew it, etc. Of course, we can’t always do this, but it’s a good standard to aim for whenever possible. Many food activists and farmers are now talking about ways to market high-quality foods produced on small organic farms as “beyond organic.” I think as consumers become more sophisticated in their understanding, a certain group will seek out these foods—but it will definitely require a new level of “kitchen literacy.”
EF: Europe has held much more tightly to its knowledge of food - as a culture they are much more food-focused than America - they've fought tooth and nail against McDonalds, genetically modified foods (GMO), etc. Do you think we can learn from their example?
AV: I found it eye-opening to learn that Europe has long been boycotting American products – beef in the early 1900s, lead arsenate on apples in the 1920s, GMOs in the 1990s, and there are probably many more examples, too.
And yes, I think that there is a lot to learn from looking at how Europeans think about food. I recently had a chance to talk with a French scholar about the difference between American and French attitudes toward food. He talked about the centrality of the meal in French culture—they take time to find the best ingredients, to cook, to savor the flavors, to discuss cooking and foods with family and friends. This is, of course, in stark contrast to Americans who typically eat on the run, often alone, often squeezing in quick snacks of pre-processed products. In my book, I discuss the dominant American metaphor for eating—food is fuel that feeds the engine of our bodies. The corollary of this metaphor is that we figuratively allow ourselves to become machines. Becoming aware that there are different ways to consider cooking and eating can help us to think afresh about these everyday aspects of our lives.
EF: Since becoming a legislator, food policy watchdog, or hardcore activist is not for everyone, I was really thankful that you talked about the influence of "gourmets" - people who are driven by a love of food - like chef Alice Waters. Would you talk a little bit about how she's changed America's relationship to food?
AV: One of the most wonderful things about Alice Waters’ approach is that it centers on enjoying eating, cooking, and making discoveries about foods. She woke America up to the fact that we’ve been getting crummy food and losing touch with the basic pleasure of eating. Then, even more remarkable, she managed to revive and popularize good food and the joyous experience of eating it by building a local food system that could supply her restaurant, Chez Panisse, with wholesome, fresh, delicious ingredients.
Along the way, she became an articulate spokesperson for a new way of eating in America and also a wonderful role model for many other chefs who were probably struggling with the same questions. Now, all across America there are many chefs following her approach, which is very inspiring and hopeful. They are having tremendous influence in setting up farmers markets and regional organic food supply systems.