McMillan offers ‘a voice the food world needs’

Press Citizen • Oct. 14, 2013

Good books about food and farms are plentiful these days, and it’s hard to keep up with them all. But every once in awhile, a book comes along that you want to keep, re-read and loan to everyone you know. “The American Way of Eating,” by Tracie McMillan, is one of those. As the reviewer in The New York Times said last year, “This is a voice the food world needs.”

McMillan is a reporter by training and an engaging writer. She builds her story around what might have been a gimmick in lesser hands. She quits her day job to spend a year working in the back side of the food industry, following the trail of fresh produce from field to grocery to kitchen. She chooses three very different jobs: cutting garlic in the fields of California, stocking produce in a Detroit Walmart and working the cook-line at an Applebee’s in Brooklyn, N.Y. She grounds her experience with extensive research on the history and mechanics of the food industry and sets out to really understand the system behind our food supply, as well as the lives of the people whose daily labor keeps that system in motion.

McMillan has a journalist’s eye for detail and accuracy, combined with a clear-eyed, respectful view of the world. She deftly locates herself in the story as both observer and participant. Humor, generosity of spirit and forthrightness give her narrative complexity, without ever becoming self-absorbed. She’s curious, resourceful and genuine.

She clearly explains the logistics and economics of the usually invisible supply chain that gets food to market. It’s easy to paint the players in food business as “big” and “bad,” but McMillan gives us a more useful vantage: the businesses she works for do what the system is set up for them to do. If we’re serious about changing the way Americans eat, she writes, we have to remake the system that brings food to average working folks.

And then there is her quiet outrage. That so many Americans are unable to afford good fresh food, don’t have access to it, and often, have not been taught how to cook it, becomes an insistent thread throughout the book. Most people want to eat good food and would if they could.

McMillan is brave and honest about her own position as a young, single, white female. In the world of food writing, that makes her somewhat of a star; in the lower rungs of the food system, it’s a vulnerable place to be. That dual understanding, woven throughout, gives her story tremendous power.

The last chapter is where McMillan delivers the punch she’s been quietly building. It’s powerful not because it’s unexpected, but because of the moral clarity with which she lays out a challenge for anyone who envisions a better, fairer, healthier food system. We need to think of food not as a commodity but as a social good.

“It’s worthwhile, of course, to talk about food as a meal or as the product of a farm, but to engage with our meals solely on those terms is to ignore food’s core essence. Food is not a luxury lifestyle product. It is a social good. … The food infrastructure that brings food into neighborhoods is in many ways just as important to our health as what goes on in the fields.”

By the time she has shared meals with fellow farm workers, clipped coupons to afford to eat and found both satisfaction and risk in the camaraderie of a fast-paced commercial kitchen, McMillan is certain that food, and the infrastructure that gets it from farm to table, are more than just a series of commercial transactions; they are a social good and a reflection of our humanity. By the time you reach the end of the book, you’ll not only have a greater appreciation for what it takes to get food to your table but you’ll also want to make the table big enough to pull up a few more chairs for the neighbors.

[Editor’s note: The wrong day was originally included in the information for Tracie McMillan’s reading. She will be reading at at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 16, in the Congregational United Church, 30 N. Clinton St.]

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