Before the Food Arrives on Your Plate, So Much Goes on Behind the Scenes
By Dwight Garner
The New York Times • Feb. 20, 2012
One of the first things to like about Tracie McMillan, the author of “The American Way of Eating,” is her forthrightness. She’s a blue-collar girl who grew up eating a lot of Tuna Helper and Ortega Taco Dinners because her mother was gravely ill for a decade, and her father, who sold lawn equipment, had little time to cook. About these box meals, she says, “I liked them.”
Expensive food that took time to prepare “wasn’t for people like us,” she writes. “It was for the people my grandmother described, with equal parts envy and derision, as fancy; my father’s word was snob. And I wasn’t about to be like that.” This is a voice the food world needs.
Ms. McMillan, like a lot of us, has grown to take an interest in fresh, well-prepared food. She’s written for Saveur magazine, a pretty fancy journal, and she knows her way around a kitchen. But her central concern, in her journalism and in this provocative book, is food and class. She stares at America’s bounty, noting that so few seem able to share in it fully, and she asks: “What would it take for us all to eat well?”
The title of Ms. McMillan’s book pays fealty to Jessica Mitford’s classic of English nonfiction prose, “The American Way of Death” (1963). Ms. McMillan’s sentences don’t have Mitford’s high style — they’re a pile of leeks, not shallots — but both books traffic in dark humor. Standing in a Walmart, where she has taken a minimum-wage job, Ms. McMillan observes that its “produce section is nothing less than an expansive life-support system.” Most days, when it comes to vegetables, she’s putting lipstick on corpses.
The book Ms. McMillan’s most resembles is Barbara Ehrenreich’s best seller “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America” (2001). Like Ms. Ehrenreich, Ms. McMillan goes undercover amid this country’s working poor. She takes jobs picking grapes, peaches and garlic in California; stocking produce in a Walmart in Detroit; and working in a busy Applebee’s in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn. She tries, and often fails, to live on only the money she earns.
The news Ms. McMillan brings about life on the front lines is mostly grim. In the California fields, where she is the only gringa, she makes far less than minimum wage, sometimes as little as $26 for nine hours of back-breaking work. She lives in cockroach-filled houses, all she can afford, with more than a dozen other people. She delivers a brutal takedown of corporations that, in her view, pretend on their sunny Web sites to treat workers well but in practice use labor contractors that often cheat them. She names names. Here’s looking at you, the Garlic Company in Bakersfield, Calif.
She charts the toll this work takes on people’s health. “My thighs look as though they’ve been attacked by an enraged but weaponless toddler,” she writes after a day of garlic picking. “My hands, swollen and inundated with blisters the first few days, have acclimatized, but there’s a worrisome pain shooting up my right arm.” She develops a sprain, which forces her to miss work and ultimately quit. Other workers, she notes, would not have that option.
Among this book’s central points is that food workers are, in terms of money and time, among the least able to eat well in America. Most are too exhausted to cook. “By the time I finish my stint at Applebee’s,” Ms. McMillan says, “I’ll have learned how to spot the other members of my tribe on the subway: heavy-lidded eyes, blank stares, black pants specked with grease, hard-soled black shoes.”
Ms. McMillan’s chapters about Walmart and Applebee’s are the book’s best. She is not a slash-and-burn critic of either company: both provide needed jobs and treat their employees at least moderately well. But you will steer clear of both places after reading about her travails.
The produce sold at the Walmart where she works is second-rate, often slimy, mushy or merely bland. “Walmart doesn’t always have the freshest stuff,” one manager says to her. “That’s how we keep the prices low.” The produce management is so sloppy that “the newer among us are still working our way from recognition to acceptance, as if advancing through the stages of grief.”
Much of her time in Walmart’s produce department is spent trimming rotted leaves (small bunches of lettuce have usually been trimmed many times) and “crisping,” a method of rehydrating limp greens so they appear to be fresh.
At Applebee’s, almost no actual cooking is done: premade food in plastic baggies is heated in microwaves and dumped onto plates. Ms. McMillan deplores this practice while also finding it fascinating. “I watch an endless assembly line,” she writes, “a large-scale mash-up that hits the sweet spot between McDonald’s and Sandra Lee’s ‘Semi-Homemade Cooking.’ ”
Much of the friction in “The American Way of Eating” comes from Ms. McMillan’s writing about being a woman — and an unmarried white one, to boot — working at the bottom rungs of the food industry.
“Episodes of sexual quid pro quo and even rape are not unheard of in the fields,” she writes, and she has her own scary moments. Near the end of the book she is sexually assaulted while sleeping after being drugged during a farewell party with fellow Applebee’s workers.
Ms. McMillan is an amiable writer, yet her book is lighted from within by anger at the poor food options many in this country face. Noting that Detroit is a city of 700,000 without a single store from a national grocery chain, she writes: “Food is one of the only base human needs where the American government lets the private market dictate its delivery to our communities.”
She argues for small changes, like cooking classes to demystify the kitchen and coupons for savings on fresh food, not just things like Chef Boyardee. But she’s gloomily aware that far more needs to change.
“So far as I can tell, changing what’s on our plates simply isn’t feasible without changing far more,” she writes. “Wages, health care, work hours and kitchen literacy are just as critical to changing our diets as the agriculture we practice or the places at which we shop.” She bolsters her arguments with dense footnotes, which run at the bottom of the pages like a news crawl on CNN.
By the end of “The American Way of Eating,” the author ties so many strands of argument together that you’ll begin to agree with one of the cooks at Applebee’s, who declares about her in awe: “You see that white girl work? Damn, she can work.”