Reading about how our relationship with food shifted so much over 150 years

I’ve been reading a few books over the past year on various aspects concerning North America’s food system (be it Canada or the United States or both). The latest book that I just finished isĀ Kitchen Literacy: How we lost knowledge of where food comes from by Ann Vileisis. The book is a quick walk through recent history, describing how our relationship with food shifted from:

  • “we know” (subsistence farming or community farming)
  • …to “we don’t know” (shift towards urbanization and industrialization of food production)
  • …to “we don’t want to know” (introduction of supermarkets, branding, pesticides, preservatives, and loss of knowledge of food production)
  • …to “we want to know but we don’t know how” (movement starting in the 1960’s/70’s for back-to-the-land farmers and conscious shopping whilst trying to resurrect the lost knowledge around food production and preservation).

Some interesting concepts that stood out for me from reading the book include:

  • the use of lead arsenate as a pesticide…and how its use was accepted for such a long time, partly due to large agricultural operations lobbying for its continued use based on ‘safety’…sound familiar?
  • the skepticism for packaged foods when they were first introduced, in complete contrast with the easy acceptance and ubiquity of packaged foods we see today.
  • the shift in the societal relationship with food from being based on nature and balance, where life is a cycle and food production is based on seasons, geography, climate, pre-planning, etc. to being based on a concept of the vessel and fuel, with sayings like “you need to fuel your body” and the breakdown of foods into vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, calories, fats, etc. No longer the concept of wholesome foods.
  • the self-service aspect of the first supermarket, where one takes a basket or cart and selects whichever items they would like to buy off a shelf on their own then takes everything to a check out where they pay cash (instead of having a tab), was such a novel idea. It’s such a norm today!
  • how marketing influenced homemakers, who had initially questioned the safety and validity of using packaged products, to bring packaged products into their home and how companies used labels to evoke sentiments associated with nature and nostalgia of the way things used to be done (back on grandma’s farm).
  • how companies stressed brand loyalty as the food production process and the content of packaged foods became too complex to convey to consumers (not that they wanted to share all of that information anyways).
  • how labels changed over time to reflect the overarching societal relationship with food.

If you’re interested in a brief historical review of our changing relationship with food, check out this book. I also found a clip of Ann Vileisis talking about her book: