“Food is not a luxury lifestyle product. It is a social good.” – Tracie McMillan
Take a deep breath and either plow through the first few pages of snottily written tripe about the poor state of Midwestern food compared to the treasure trove that is New York City or just skip those pages because the rest of Tracie McMillan’s The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table is worth the effort. I wish people would stop generalizing the Midwest as this vast expanse of people who eat nothing more than Wonder bread and SPAM.
Treading in the footsteps of Barbara Ehrenreich’s now classic Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, McMillan seeks to ruminate on two topics—how our food is produced and how we consume that food. The author spends time working in the fields of California’s Central Valley, as a clerk at WalMart in Michigan, and as an expediter at an Applebee’s in New York City.
Fieldwork is something that has been covered extensively in other books, but it is a topic that bears constant examination because of how poorly these people are treated by the system that produces our food. If we did not demand ever cheaper food then we would not end up with horsemeat or pink slime in our ground beef and workers would be treated with a modicum of respect. Furthermore, criminalizing the people who come to this country to do this work—albeit illegally—is an atrocity when the companies that knowingly engage in these labor practices are unimpeded.
What I found most interesting about this book is the work that the author did at WalMart and Applebee’s. Sure, there are other authors who have taken on WalMart but McMillan wanted to examine it through the lens of groceries. As she and many others have pointed out, WalMart is the 800 pound gorilla of groceries in the United States. On a national level, it controls approximately one quarter of the grocery sales but that does not tell the whole story because in a lot of markets it represents more than half and in some it is the only game in town. When one company controls what and how you buy groceries—the basics of living, in essence—then attention must be paid and scrutiny must be applied.
If you want to consumer cheap, processed calories from shelf stable or frozen foods…WalMart is the place for you. The entire distribution and logistics system employed by the Arkansas behemoth is designed to put products on the shelves cheaply. If it works for a bottle of shampoo or motor oil, it will work for a box of cake mix or can of beans. However, produce is something else entirely. From the moment it is packed there is a clock ticking. Unlike SPAM, whose shelf life may be infinite, produce’s clock is ticking quickly toward its inevitable end.
As McMillan finds out quickly, produce is just not that well suited to WalMart. The rot is one thing, but the lack of dedicated professionals to oversee the food everday—low prices demand cheap and interchangeable labor—leads to an alarming lack of real oversight. I know that I pay more to buy my produce from HyVee, but I see the same people every Saturday morning working in the section and have seen those same people for years. Let me repeat, the same people for years. There is no replacement for people who know their jobs well and have pride in what they do. I am willing to pay an extra dime per pound for my apples to get that peace of mind.
The world is full of authors who write about their experiences in high end restaurant kitchens, but rarely do people write about the places where millions of people go to eat every day. Where is the Kitchen Confidential for the Olive Garden?
If you want to be alarmed about what we eat and how we eat in America, savor the passages about Applebee’s. It’s like the triumph of Sandra Lee and her semi-homemade, i.e. from a can and reheated, method of “cooking.” Everything is reduced down to simple motions, so that once again labor becomes ubiquitous and utterly replaceable. Who needs knife skills when bags of broccoli and peppers come pre-cut off the truck? Sauces require little more than a pair of scissors and a microwave to cut open the bag and melt the frozen lump of sauce. Ugh.
These stories, while illuminating, will come as little surprise to anyone with their eyes open. Walk through a WalMart and wonder how you can buy something for so little, regardless of the fact that it represents food in the most reduced way possible—cheap calories to sustain in a way that is not entirely healthy. Sit down and flip through the menu at an Applebee’s wondering how a kitchen could make so many different items.
Where McMillan makes the most interesting observations come at the end of the book that really got to me. On page 213 of the paperback edition she writes:
“The key to getting people to eat better isn’t that they should spend more money, or even that they should spend more time. It’s making the actual cooking of a meal into an easy choice, the obvious answer. And that only happens when people are as comfortable and confident in the kitchen as they are taking care of the other endless chores that come with running a modern family…”
That’s it. Cooking real food just needs to be part of what we do on a daily basis. If it is part of the routine, it is no different than a thousand other things that we do.
Find a cop of this book, read it, and let me know what you think.