Kitchen Literacy:

How we lost knowledge of where food comes from and why we need to get it back


Ask children where food comes from, and they’ll probably answer, “the supermarket.” Ask most adults, and their replies may not be much different. We know remarkably little about what we eat. Where our foods are raised and what happens to them between farm and supermarket shelf have become mysteries. How did we become so disconnected from the sources of our beef, cheeses, cereal, lettuce, and countless other foods that nourish us every day?

Ann Vileisis’s answer is a sensory-rich journey through the history of making dinner. From eighteenth-century gardens and historic cookbooks to calculated advertising campaigns and sleek supermarket aisles, Kitchen Literacy chronicles profound changes in how Americans have shopped, cooked, and thought about their foods through two centuries.

This history of our changing awareness—not only of food but of nature itself—takes us to bustling city markets, school gardens, ad-packed women’s magazines, and home economics classes. While the distance between farm and table grew, we went from knowing specific stories behind food’s origins to relying instead on advertisers’ claims and government assurances. As consumers gradually—and often begrudgingly—adjusted to buying modern foods in boxes and cans, they unwittingly adopted a habit of knowing very little in an enormous and anonymous system.

Today, most foods travel 1,500 miles before they reach us. Fruits are doused with pesticides, and steaks come from feedlots of 50,000 animals that few people even want to go near. The industrialized eating that is so convenient has resulted in a host of health and environmental problems, including foodborne pathogens and water pollution.

In response, a movement toward eating local and organic has been gaining ground and now gives us new opportunities to find healthier, better-tasting fare and to learn the stories behind our foods once again. By revealing the history of how we’ve known—and not known—our foods, Kitchen Literacy promises to make us think differently about what we eat.






“Her book performs a valuable service in reminding readers that we were not always so clueless when it came to making food choices.”

—Washington Post

Kitchen Literacy brings home just how essential it is for eaters to cultivate knowledge of their food.”

—American Scientist

“This important and eye-opening book uncovers the machinery behind the modern food industry….Vileisis gathers it all in one place, weaving a clear, easy-to-read tapestry whose meaning is plain by the end of the book: you are what you eat, so think about what you've been eating.”

—Library Journal

“It’s a fascinating read and, in my opinion, should be on every nightstand in the country!”

—Lake Oswego Review

“A ‘must-read’ for modern-day consumers in the post-family farm era.”

—Midwest Book Review

“Vileisis' book provides an urgent historical overview on how distant foods rose to such prominence in the American marketplace and diet.”

—Seattle Post-Intelligencier

“Unless you are out to sea in a kayak hunting whales, or unless you are harvesting songbirds while aloft under a handglider, you will want to read this book.”

—Kip Anderson, The Victory Garden

“a clearly written, historically grounded, and impassioned discussion of how and why Americans became so ignorant about the food they buy, cook, and eat.”

Journal of American History

“Vileisis offers well-crafted prose, deep and careful research, and a provocative argument. She reminds environmental historians that ‘knowing food isn’t solely the means to a meal; it also provides a fundamental means for making sense of our place in the world.’ Like a chef who prepares a great dinner, Vileisis leaves her reader sated, but also eager to see where the menu—or story—may lead next.”

—Environmental History

This book is important to me because it lays out our nation’s skewed relationship with food and delves into history to do so.”

—Deborah Madison, chef and author of Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone and many other books.


    “It is no exaggeration to say the the single most vital connection any of us has to the natural world is the food we eat. And yet the paradox of modern life is that over the past century, most of us have become profoundly ignorant about where our food comes from and the myriad ways it affects us. In her wonderful new book Kitchen Literacy, Ann Vileisis explains how we came to forget so much about the food we eat...and how much we gain by remembering the journeys it makes to reach our tables.”

—William Cronon, author of Changes in the Land and Nature’s Metropolis

Kitchen Literacy goes to the heart of our disconnection from one of the most vital and intimate aspects of our lives—how we feed ourselves and our families. Accessible, entertaining, and enlightening, Ann Vileisis’s new book has given us the historical context to understand what we have lost and how to bring food back to where it belongs--at the center of our families and communities.”

—Michael Ableman, farmer, author of Fields of Plenty