Thursday, 14 August 2014

/Kitchen Literacy/ in "The Westward-Moving House": A Joint Review

  • Ann Vileisis, Kitchen Literacy: How we lost knowledge of where food comes from and why we need to get it back. (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2008.) Book Website. 
  •  John Brinckerhoff Jackson, “The Westward-Moving House: Three American Houses and the People Who Lived in Them.” Places Journal, July 2011: Online. [Originally printed in Landscapes (2.3), Spring 1953.]

Food is essential to life. These two works, Ann Vileisis’s Kitchen Literacy and John Brinckerhoff Jackson’s “The Westward-Moving House,” focus on the social histories and cultural geographies of people and places at seemingly opposite poles of eating: the cooks and the farmers. This observation obscures the deep similarities in the important stories Vileisis and Jackson tell about how we have come to rely on distributed supply chains for our daily sustenance.

Both pieces start in colonial New England and, through stories of real (Vileisis) and fictional (Jackson) individuals, move forward to the author’s contemporary period. The stories Vileisis and Jackson tell serve to illustrate the changing relationship between American settlers, agriculturalists, and (sub)urban dwellers and the land where they lived, worked, and ate. By embodying the abstract forces of colonization, industrialization, and supply chain management, both writers show (in plain language!) how foundational ideas of being-in-the-world and human/non-human relationships are developed, expressed, and challenged through daily acts of food production and eating.

Jackson’s development of the fictional Tinkham family from the Puritan settler Nehemiah’s experience in the Massachusetts colony in the 1650s, to Pliny’s 1850 rebellious move to Illinois and, finally, Ray’s high modern Texan dream in 1953, highlight three important moments in the development of American geographic imaginaries. (Arguably these moments are also common, to an extent, to Canadian experience, albeit with slightly different periodizations.) The relationship between each Tinkham patriarch (and while Jackson ostensibly writes about couples, he really only talks about the men) and their agriculture economy is indicative of the ways the see not only themselves, but humanity’s place in the world and relationship with non-human beings.

For example, while both Nehemiah and Ray live close to town and some distance from their fields, their outlooks could hardly be more different. Where Nehemiah’s meadow and woodlot were carefully cultivated according to each parcel’s characteristics to ensure his family had enough food, Ray was radically reshaping his range, levelling hills and filling in dips to better support cash cropping. Pliny, on the other hand, lived in relative isolation on a prairie farm but was nonetheless connected to a wider economies and ecologies through his reliance on the railway for essentials such as clothing, lighting, and even some foodstuffs.

The three Tinkhams are meant to illustrate in broad strokes the development of modern, science-based ways of knowing and living. Indeed, where Nehemiah learned his farming techniques from his father and community, Pliny relied on books, and Ray attended an agricultural college. Scientific epistemologies and technological developments slowly begin to shape daily practices and, in turn, influence the arrangement of domestic places. This isn’t to say that Jackson presents a Whiggish account of American ingenuity—as his later piece, “The Stranger’s Path,” illustrates—rather, Jackson’s account leaves me wondering what is gained and lost in these ways of living. While I would chafe under Nehemiah and Pliny’s roofs, their ways of living are romanticised in our society and contain rich engagements with the world that Ray’s high modern approach to life literally demolishes in its attempts to create a level field for capitalist production.

Vileisis’s stories plot a similar trajectory through American history, but with a focus largely in the kitchen rather than in the fields. Starting in the diary of Martha Ballard, a Revoultionary-era farmwife, Vileisis traces the history and geography of American foodsheds (that is, the area from which one draws their food) up to the present day (the book closes in Vileisis’s own kitchen) arguing that over time our food has become less storied (or at least that the stories are muted by the tin cans that grew in popularity after the American Civil War) and we, in turn, have become less able to read what stories our food can tell us. Avoiding the language of phenomenology (and the pessimism of Martin Heidegger), Vileisis imbues the domestic acts of procuring, preparing, and eating food with existential importance.

Just as Jackson’s westward-moving houses illustrate ever-changing dynamics in agricultural settlement and economy, Vileisis’s exploration of how we know about our food, whether from the bodily knowledge of home grown tomatoes (one of two things money can’t buy) or through the “covenant of ignorance” fostered by twentieth (and twenty-first) century industrial agriculturalists and marketers, is demonstrative of how we (sub-) consciously see ourselves, as human beings, in relation to the rest of the world. To take one example, the shift from viewing songbirds from cheap meat for immigrants to a beautiful part of nature to be protected parallels views of the non-human world as a cornucopia of edible goodies to a sublime wilderness.

Taken together, Kitchen Literacy and “The Westward-Moving House” tell important stories about the development of the world we live in today and our relationship to what we eat. While neither work is in itself comprehensive, both spark self-reflection that leads to fruitful questions about our daily lives and interesting avenues for further study. Ultimately, as Jackson seems to suggest and Vileisis explicitly states, life is richer when we imbue our domestic places with, and interrogate our foods for, meaningful stories.