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

From its title, Kitchen Literacy by Ann Vileisis, might sound like any other how-to manual for finding one’s way around the items tucked away in one’s cupboards, cabinets and utensil drawer. But its subtitle reveals its true intent: “How We Lost Knowledge of Where Food Comes from and Why We Need to Get It Back.”

It’s a history book, complete with more than 60 pages of notes.

In the course of the exposition, Vileisis mentions things most modern Americans probably have never really thought about, like the fact that as recently as the American Revolution, most of what people ate came from within a mile of their houses, or that the women developed their sensitivities about food as much from personal observations as they did from hand-me-down knowledge and folklore. She describes the origins of things we take for granted like canned vegetables, super markets, food preservation, mass production and TV dinners.

And she details the change society in general underwent as more and more people left the farms for cities and towns. And we’re not talking about the mass exodus since World War II. This initial march toward urbanization took place in the early to mid-19th Century as part of American expansion.

“As the infrastructure and landscapes that provided America’s food changed dramatically with industrialization,” Vileisis writes, traditional assumptions and expectations about food, “would soon shift.

“What had been mundane would soon become mystified in the minds of most Americans.”

As a result of these new mysteries, what some people exhibited was the same type of sentiment we today link to anti-hunting activists and which we ascribe, generally speaking, to their overall lack of connection to the land. It seems even the first generations of Americans to leave the farms also left behind the sense of communion with nature, the land and other living things that farmers and hunters still acknowledge rumbles in their bellies and souls.

What Vileisis writes next about people in general has been said in many different ways over the past few decades as wags, pundits and frustrated consumptive users of the outdoors have tried to explain what motivates anti-hunters:

“As more city dwellers knew less and less about the particularities of their food and its origins, cultural notions about place, wildness and animals’ lives would begin to shift, leading to an increasing disassociation between eating and food production and, ultimately, to a mental disengagement from nature.”

One aspect of food we rarely think about is the notion that at some point, butchers quit hanging animals in the back room, slicing off the meat to order, and started offering meat pre-cut, wrapped and arranged in an attractive manner.

Vileisis says, during the 1890s, “as city dwellers purchased more and more cuts of dressed beef in packages at markets, knowledge and awareness that meat was linked to a particular animal, let alone a knoll of pasture or an expanse of grassland, was lost. In such a very short time, the warm, living, breathing animal that had made the steaks and roasts vanished with scarcely a trace from the mind’s eye of American shoppers.”

Initially, meat charts showed an entire cow in a pasture with the cuts of meat drawn on its side. By the end of the 19th Century, to encourage the disconnect of the consumers and to keep them from thinking about the animals that had to die to provide them meat, large meatpacking firms, “typically depicted the animals only as dotted outlines, with no eyes and not situated in a landscape.”

A further tendency to disengage from nature was an unanticipated byproduct of Americans’ appetite for wild game and birds, dishes the urbanites were able to serve while such meat was available in the markets.

“After 1911, when New York City finally closed its markets to wild game,” Vileisis says, “the once common awareness that wild plants and animals could be delicious foods would become as rare as a curlew or a heath hen. Not only were particular foods and flavors lost, but the very idea that food might come from an abundant nature was quietly forgotten.”

By the time sportsmen started working toward reforms to protect wild animals sought for the marketplace, it was, of course, too late for several species. Vileisis mentions one irony: consumers had moved so far from their understanding of nature, that by and large they failed to “grasp the connection” between their cooking all those passenger pigeon pies and the extinction of the species.

Now, while I can’t find any sources to corroborate my claim, here’s what I think I once read: To help people understand the distinction between the “bad” market hunting that had taken so many animal species to the brink and beyond and “good” hunting practiced by people like himself, Teddy Roosevelt coined the term “sport hunting.” He called it this because hunters were “good sports,” held themselves accountable to the standards of “fair chase” and supported the new hunting laws and conservation measures of the early 20th Century.

The problem we face now, well into the 21st Century, is a well funded and growing anti-hunting movement in America. Its adherents are the philosophical descendents of those earlier consumers who decried the loss of the passenger pigeon but failed to conceive they had played any role in that loss. To make matters worse, for over a century they have heard about “sport” hunting and have honed their words to attack that notion. “Killing for sport is killing for fun” is one of the mantras they’ve developed.

Well…perhaps it’s time to level or at least readjust the battlefield by defining a new term. Not “subsistence” because none of us is hunting to survive. How about calling what we do, “personal” hunting? Each of us hunts for a “personal” reason, whether it’s family tradition, recreation, spirituality, a kinship we feel with nature, to watch the dogs work, because we like the taste of game, whatever. Our reasons for hunting are as varied as we are. And as long as we obey the laws and hunt safely, our reasons can and should remain personal.

We don’t have to explain ourselves to anyone.

I realize my suggestion won’t cool the fanaticism or thin the wallets of the antis. But at least it would afford the general public the opportunity to see things in different terms.n