Mystery Meat

Who touched your trout before you did, asks historian Ann Vileisis.

After reading in the newspaper about yet another E. coli scare, Ann Vileisis found herself pushing a shopping cart through a supermarket wondering where the fish and fruit she was buying had actually come from. How many hands had touched these items — and where, and whose? “Everything we ate had a story,” she realized that day. Yet these stories went untold. An award-winning environmental historian and an avid cook and gardener, Vileisis started wondering how Americans had come to know and care so little about what they put into their mouths. Her research revealed that a typical rural 18th-century housewife knew the age and sex of the animals she cooked, and knew “the contours of the cornfields that supplied her bread flour, and the muscle it took to transform raw ingredients into satisfying meals.” Such knowledge kept cooks keenly aware of the seasons, the soil, and sea, and the sweat on workers’ brows. But now? “Within a relatively brief period, the average distance from farm to kitchen [has] grown from a short walk down the garden path to a convoluted, 1,500-mile energy-guzzling journey by rail and truck,” Vileisis writes in Kitchen Literacy, a sad but ultimately hopeful cri de coeur which she will discuss at Cody’s (1730 Fourth St., Berkeley) on November 14. Much of what we take for granted today would have appalled our ancestors, she says. “For example, consumers were very resistant to canned foods when they first came onto the market. And if you think about it, it’s no surprise. Before cans, foods could be picked up, smelled, and touched, but cans concealed their contents that seemed mysterious and guileful … until advertisers managed to cast the sleek silver capsules and colorful boxes as modern and hygienic.” At Cody’s, she’ll show slides to further illustrate the environmental costs of incurious eating. 7 p.m.

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