Fast Food

Reviewed by Juliet Eilperin
Sunday, November 18, 2007

KITCHEN LITERACY How We Lost Knowledge of Where Food Comes from and Why We Need to Get It Back

By Ann Vileisis | Island Press. 332 pp. $26.95

MOVEABLE FEASTS From Ancient Rome to the 21st Century, The Incredible Journeys of the Food We Eat

By Sarah Murray | St. Martin's. 256 pp. $24.95

After decades of blissful ignorance, Americans have begun pondering how the food we consume each day arrives on our plates. Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma (2006) forced readers to face the fact that our demand for a range of reasonably priced meats and produce comes with serious environmental consequences. Now two new books, Ann Vileisis's Kitchen Literacy and Sarah Murray's Moveable Feasts, give us even more reason to reevaluate the meals we take for granted. But they come to very different conclusions about whether to embrace or decry our increasingly complicated food web.

Kitchen Literacy chronicles how the growth of the increasingly complex food distribution system -- railroads transporting animals and factories producing canned goods -- eventually led consumers into a "covenant of ignorance" with supermarket chains, food manufacturers and advertising firms. All of them insisted that sleek packaging and catchy slogans mattered more than the traditional, hard-earned expertise homemakers had relied on for years.

Vileisis's tone can be preachy at times: "We as consumers," she tells readers, "will need to recognize how our everyday choices affect the larger environment and, then, to forge a new and influential role for ourselves." She approvingly offers up as a counterexample to present-day practices the story of a colonial midwife who knows the names of the cows her family eats, as well as every patch of ground on which her husband has cultivated grain for their daily bread. Yet her book performs a valuable service in reminding readers that we were not always so clueless when it came to making food choices.

Murray, by contrast, has more reverence for the technological marvels that transport comestibles across vast distances. She pays homage to the Emma Maersk, the world's biggest ship, which is capable of transporting 500 million bananas "in a single voyage," as well as to the cargo planes that bring food aid to Africa. While Moveable Feasts explores some of the downsides of these lengthy journeys -- the greenhouse gas emissions that inevitably accompany plane trips, for instance -- Murray tends to dismiss most environmental concerns. Buying food from impoverished foreign nations produces jobs as well as carbon emissions, she maintains, and "development experts argue that poverty is also environmentally damaging." She even questions whether buying local produce and meats is a laudable goal, claiming that the car trip to a distant farmer's market is often more environmentally harmful per unit of produce than buying food shipped long distances in an efficient vessel like the Emma Maersk.

Moveable Feasts is packed with fascinating information, including how nearly 5,000 deliverymen operating in the massive Indian city of Mumbai manage to deliver lunches from the tens of thousands of wives who've just cooked them to their husbands who have already been at the office for several hours, with an accuracy rate of "99.999999 percent." But it would have been a better book if Murray had provided her readers with a more critical assessment of some of the voyages she chronicles, such as the one taken by farmed salmon from Norway to China just so Chinese workers can pick out fish bones at 1/25th the wages of their Scandinavian counterparts. Instead, she's enamored with the sleek efficiency of the shipping container that serves as "globalization's porter," keeping the salmon at minus 9.4 degrees Fahrenheit the entire way. In the end, Murray's objective is not to focus on the mixed blessings of global trade but to tout the intricate mechanisms that sustain it. "The advance of civilization," she writes, "has depended on being able to convey food from where it is grown or produced to shops, kitchens, and dining rooms." *

Juliet Eilperin is the national environmental reporter for The Washington Post.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company