By Jamie Menaker
The author of the New York Times acclaimed book, The American Way of Eating, makes the case that good, fresh food isn’t just for foodies.
Tracie McMillan is deep within the peach orchards of California’s Central Valley. She is sweaty, dusty, covered in peach fuzz, and just recovering from a bout of heat stroke while picking alongside field workers trying to make enough money to live. Laborers are deep within the trees searching for ripe enough fruits, runners are carrying loads of peaches to crates, and sorters are picking out the ones that are too ripe or too small to make the cut. It’s dirty, hard work, and much of the time McMillan is both the only white person and the only woman in the orchard. She is undercover for her first book, The American Way of Eating, and ready to give up.
Ultimately, she decides against throwing in the towel, but continues her experiment picking garlic in the cooler fields of Salinas, closer to the coast. In 2009, McMillan spent a year of her life reporting undercover at the bottom of the food chain: the farm fields and dinner tables of immigrant workers, the grocery department of a Detroit Walmart, and the kitchen line at a Brooklyn Applebee’s restaurant. As a journalist, she had already made a name for herself covering both poverty and food, and her book is a combination of the two, digging deep into the intersection between social class and what we eat.
“It was sort of a mix of journalistic curiosity and financial desperation,” she says. “I wanted to do work that was both meaningful and that I thought had a chance of shifting broad debate. What I’m really interested in is engaging with the threads in American culture that I find really inspiring. I just really like talking to people about their lives and how they work.”
McMillan comes from humble beginnings herself: her mom died when she was a teenager and her dad was a salesman just outside working-class Detroit, Michigan. She attended NYU on a partial scholarship and worked her way through school to pay for the rest. After landing a full-time gig at City Limits magazine, which explores civic policies in New York City through investigative journalism, she set out on her own as a freelance writer and wandered her way into writing the book.
“People were saying, ‘Your work is good, it’s really in depth, you should do a book,’” says McMillan. “And what I initially thought of was doing an investigative history of supermarkets, sort of like Fast Food Nation but about supermarkets. And then I met with my agent, and she said, ‘Do you actually want to sell books?’”
McMillan had to rethink her idea to come up with a topic that would be interesting for both her and the readers she was attempting to entice with her book. “My agent asked me, ‘What do you really want to write about?’ And I’m sure roughly what came out is: foodies are making it harder for everyone to eat well because they make it seem like you have to be rich to care about your food, and that’s really stupid. And I’m so tired of foodies talking about how everybody should spend more money on food, as if most American families have so much extra money.”
She set out to study the lives of America’s poorest workers in the food industry, both to follow the path of our food from farm to table and to study how the most poverty-stricken people in America eat. She spotlights both the behaviors of the workers she is engaging with and her efforts to live and survive on such small earnings herself.
“We talk about local and sustainable food as if it’s this thing that just got invented a couple years ago by Michael Pollan and Alice Waters, but low-income neighborhoods have been growing food for a really long time in cities… I think the book serves to remind us that there’s a broader world of American food culture than poor people eating Popeye’s fried chicken and rich people eating mesclun salads.”
McMillan suggests educating kids about food and cooking when they are still young, allowing affordable food preparation to become second nature, like brushing our teeth or washing our face. “What I would love to see is for the book to start helping break down some of the divides that get cropped up around food. There’s actually a lot of common ground between what lower income folks want and what higher income foodies want. Everybody likes and appreciates fresh food, and how do we have that conversation and use food to bridge some race and class lines and build some solidarity?”