Ann Vileisis

Ann Vileisis

Environmental historian Ann Vileisis is author of Kitchen Literacy: How We Lost Knowledge of Where Food Comes From and Why We Need to Get It Back and Discovering the Unknown Landscape: A History of America's Wetlands, which won awards from the American Historical Association and the American Society for Environmental History.
Vileisis loves to explore and share history that helps to illuminate pressing modern-day issues. She became interested in environmental history while earning her B.A. at Yale University, went on to garner a M.A. from Utah State University, and has continued to pursue her research and writing as an independent scholar.
Vileisis has been a short-term fellow at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History and a writer-in-residence at Mesa Refuge in Point Reyes, California. She has spoken about her books at conferences, campuses, and a variety of other venues all across America.
Together with her husband author and photographer Tim Palmer, Vileisis lived for twelve years as a nomad, traveling in a Ford van as they did their research, writing, and photography. In 2002, while researching Kitchen Literacy, they settled in the small town on Oregon's coast, where she says she "recapitulated a transition from nomad to agriculturist" and became an avid gardener.
Vileisis now balances a life of research and writing with activism and engagement in a variety of local issues concerning the environment.
summer reading

Get Them While They're Hot: Island Press Summer Reading Picks

Summer is here! Whether that means slathering on the sunscreen or seeking refuge from the heat in an air conditioned room, this season means one thing for all bookworms: summer reading lists. To help get yours started, our staff have shared their...

Summer is here! Whether that means slathering on the sunscreen or seeking refuge from the heat in an air conditioned room, this season means one thing for all bookworms: summer reading lists. To help get yours started, our staff have shared their favorite Island Press books, past and present. Check out our recommendations, and share your favorite Island Press summer read in the comments below. 

1.) Nature's Allies by Larry A. Nielsen

In Nature's AlliesLarry Nielson shares eight riveting biographies of great conservationists. His profiles show how these diverse leaders—including a Native American who was arrested more than 50 times and the first African woman and environmentalist to win the Nobel Peace Prize—brought about extraordinary change for the environment. These stories are powerful, engaging reads for anyone who wants to be inspired to make a difference. But you don't have to take Island Press' word for it...Nature's Allies was also recently recommended as a New York Public Library staff pick

2.) River Notes by Wade Davis

In this remarkable blend of history, science, and personal observation, acclaimed author Wade Davis tells the story of America’s Nile, how it once flowed freely and how human intervention has left it near exhaustion. A beautifully told story of historical adventue and natural beauty, River Notes is a fascinating journey down the river and through mankind's complicated and destructive relationship with one of its greatest natural resources. Kyler Geoffroy, Online Marketing Manager of the Urban Resilience Project, says this book is the perfect summer read because "we need to stop and appreciate America’s most iconic waterway now more than ever."

3.) Bike Boom by Carlton Reid

As Vice President and Executive Editor Heather Boyer says, "there's no better time than summer to think about how to maintain the increase in interest in urban biking (and try to retain any funding for it in infrastructure budget)." A follow-up to his "fascinating" Roads Were Not Built for CarsBike Boom picks up where that story left off: immersing readers in cycling advocacy from 1906 to the doldrums of the 1980s. It is an extensively researched, at times humorous journey through time, flush with optimism for what could be the next, greatest bike boom of all.

4.) Natural Defense by Emily Monosson

Bugs and germs are big problems—and they’re evolving. But in the fight to protect our food and health, bugs and germs may also be part of the solution. Natural Defense by Emily Monosson is the first book to bring readers into this exciting new world, highlighting cutting-edge solutions such as pheromones that send crop-destroying moths into a misguided sexual frenzy, and proteins that promise targed destruction of infectious bacteria. Brooke Borel, contributing editor at Popular Science had this to say about the book: "With deft prose and fascinating anecdotes, Monosson’s survey of the latest scientific research leaves us in awe of humankind’s ingenuity."

5.) Immersion by Abbie Gascho Landis

If summer is the time for exploring neighborhood creeks and streams, Immersion by Abbie Gascho Landis is the summer read for you. A breathtaking journey into the world of freshwater mussels, Immersion explores the hidden lives of mussels in our rivers and streams, and asks whether our capacity to love these alien creatures can power us to protect freshwater for humans and nature alike. Blending science with artful storytelling, Immersion takes readers from perilous river surveys and dry riverbeds to laboratories where endangered mussels are raised one precious life at a time. Production Assistant Elise Ricotta says this is the perfect book to read at the beach or lake.

 6.) Seeking the Sacred Raven by Mark Jerome Walters

Associate Editor and Rights Manager Rebecca Bright picked up Seeking the Sacred Raven while she was preparing for an interview to intern at Island Press (we won't say how many years ago). The book tells the story of Hawaii's 'Alla, a member of the raven family that once flourished on the islands and now survives only in captivity. Mark Jerome Walters chronicles the history of the birds' interactions with humans throughout the centuries, painting a picture of one species' decline that resonates today, as many others face the same fate. The first Island Press book she ever read, Rebecca found the book to be "both fascinating and heartbreaking."

7.) Kitchen Literacy by Ann Vileisis

As you fire up the grill for summer barbeques and head to your local farmer's market, consider reading Kitchen Literacy by Ann Vileisis, a sensory-rich journey through two hundred years of making dinner. From eighteenth-century gardens and historic cookbooks to calculated advertising campaigns and sleek supermarket aisles, Vileisis chronicles profound changes in how Americans have shopped, cooked, and thought about their food for five generations. Revealing how knowledge of our food has been lost and how it might now be regained, Kitchen Literacy promises to make us think differently about what we eat.

8.) Water is for Fighting Over by John Fleck

Water is for Fighting Over by John Fleck makes for perfect reading while sitting by the pool, river, or ocean. In it, he offers a unique, fresh perspective on the catastrophe narrative of the West, showcasing how this region is less of a battlefield and more of a place where individuals and communities find common ground amid a changing geography. This book shows that even in the depths of the worst droughts, positive solution stories can still be found. Vice President and Director of Marketing & Sales Julie Marshall likes "John’s thoughtful and balanced approach to the issue. I also really appreciate the fact he has such deep knowledge based on his many years covering the issues in the west. It gives him great credibility but also makes his explanations of the issues and solutions seem solid based on 'all the facts' and not just a superficial assessment." 

9.) Within Walking Distance by Philip Langdon 

While walking around and enjoying the summer sunshine, don't forget to pack Within Walking Distance by Philip Langdon. In it, he takes an in-depth look at six walkable communities—and the citizens, public officials, and planners who are making them satisfying places to live. Civil Engineering said "Within Walking Distance shines...a warm, personal, and heartening depiction of our power to shape our communities in a positive way when we set our minds to it." 

10.) Tibet Wild by George B. Schaller

Hungry for adventure? Tibet Wild is George B. Schaller's account of three decades of exploration in the most remote stretches of Tibet: the wide, sweeping rangelands of the Chang Tang and the hidden canyons and plunging ravines of the southeastern forests. Throughout, it is an intimate journey through the changing wilderness of Tibet, guided by the careful gaze and unwavering passion of a life-long naturalist. Editor Courtney Lix loves the book because "it transports you to the wildest regions in Tibet, from describing the daily challenges of being a field biologist, to admiring breathtaking landscapes, and encounters with rare and beautiful creatures." 

What are your top Island Press reads? Share them below, so others can add them to their summer reading lists. 

Food Literacy: A Brief American History

This blog originally appeared on and is reposted here with permission. 

Two hundred years ago, most...

This blog originally appeared on and is reposted here with permission. 

Two hundred years ago, most Americans had a profoundly different way of knowing their foods. They knew it well. With 95 percent of the population living in rural areas, eating local was the norm. Food knowledge—firsthand and personal—lay just out the backdoor.

Consider a circa 1790 dinner: the meat at the center of the meal came from an animal raised in nearby pastures and was slaughtered by a family member out back. The green peas were grown from saved seeds in the bucket-watered garden by the creek. Eggs came from clucking hens in the barnyard. Huckleberries ripened atop a sunny knoll and stained the hands of their pickers. Mother baked bread with wheat grown by her sons. Cooks and eaters around a table could tell a story for nearly every bite taken.

Photo courtesy of The Smithsonian

How we know foods changed drastically in the late 19th century as cities grew and our food systems rapidly expanded to meet urban appetites. Newly built railroads, feedlots and industrial abattoirs made it possible for faceless food companies to supply anonymous meat from a thousand miles away. While historic cookbooks had urged cooks to know about the age, sex and diet of the animals that became their meats, this traditional food knowledge soon became obsolete, if not repugnant. Likewise, the shiny new technology of tin cans pushed former limits of perishability, giving us year-round access to fruits and vegetables though making it impossible for homemakers to use traditional sensory cues to know if the food inside was ripe and wholesome.

As distance between farms and kitchens grew, so too did food fraud. Homemakers encountered flours bulked up with sawdust, underweight packages and fake jams made with hayseeds and dyes. A federal study in 1890 found that one in six “manufactured foods” were not what was claimed. Educators became alarmed that kids growing up in cities would be the first generation to not know where their foods came from, leaving them ill-prepared to discern what was genuine.

In response, Progressive-era activists started some of our nation’s first food-literacy initiatives. They pressed Congress to enact the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which required food labeling for the first time. They also started school gardens, giving tens of thousands of city kids the experience of growing vegetables.

Meanwhile, to address persistent skepticism about distant steaks and enigmatic cans, food companies cultivated the new medium of advertising to ease Americans into new ways of knowing about packaged foods. Ads redirected homemakers’ attentions from the places and particulars of foods’ provenance, posited new meanings for “fresh” and “natural,” and persuaded us that modern and factory-made was better than homemade. By the 1920s, food companies had convinced most homemakers to leave the complexities of food preparation to professionals and to instead embrace a new role as “consumers.”

Brand names became the most important element of food knowledge, abetted by more ethereal notions of how products make us feel–savvy, fit, loving, loved. Along the way, manufactured foods even became associated with fictional characters such as Betty Crocker and Aunt Jemima, conveying trustworthiness to allay anxieties that homemakers felt about the intrusion of industry into their homes.

Continue reading the full post here

Photo Credit: Shrimp farming in Aceh, Indonesia. Photo by Mike Lusmore/Duckrabbit, 2012 via user WorldFish

#ForewordFriday: Thanksgiving Edition

As Thanksgiving approaches, take a moment to consider your food. Ask children where food comes from, and they’ll probably answer: “the supermarket.” Ask most adults, and their replies may not be much different. Where our foods are raised and what...

As Thanksgiving approaches, take a moment to consider your food. Ask children where food comes from, and they’ll probably answer: “the supermarket.” Ask most adults, and their replies may not be much different. Where our foods are raised and what happens to them between farm and supermarket shelf have become mysteries. How did we become so disconnected from the sources of our breads, beef, cheeses, cereal, apples, and countless other foods that nourish us every day? 
Ann Vileisis’s answer is a sensory-rich journey through the history of making dinner. Kitchen Literacy takes us from an eighteenth-century garden to today’s sleek supermarket aisles, and eventually to farmer’s markets that are now enjoying a resurgence. Vileisis chronicles profound changes in how American cooks have considered their foods over two centuries and delivers a powerful statement: what we don’t know could hurt us. 

Check out chapter one below.