By Joe Eichman
The Tattered Cover Book Blog • Feb. 23, 2012
What if you can’t afford nine-dollar tomatoes? That was the question award-winning journalist Tracie McMillan couldn’t escape as she watched the debate about America’s meals unfold, one that urges us to pay food’s true cost—which is to say, pay more. So in 2009 McMillan embarked on a groundbreaking undercover journey to see what it takes to eat well in America. For nearly a year, she worked, ate, and lived alongside the working poor to examine how Americans eat when price matters.
From the fields of California, a Walmart produce aisle outside of Detroit, and the kitchen of a New York City Applebee’s, McMillan takes us into the heart of America’s meals. With startling intimacy she portrays the lives and food of Mexican garlic crews, Midwestern produce managers, and Caribbean line cooks, while also chronicling her own attempts to live and eat on meager wages. Along the way, she asked the questions still facing America a decade after the declaration of an obesity epidemic: Why do we eat the way we do? And how can we change it? To find out, McMillan goes beyond the food on her plate to examine the national priorities that put it there. With her absorbing blend of riveting narrative and formidable investigative reporting, McMillan takes us from dusty fields to clanging restaurant kitchens, linking her work to the quality of our meals—and always placing her observations in the context of America’s approach not just to farms and kitchens but to wages and work.
The surprising answers that McMillan found on her journey have profound implications for our food and agriculture, and also for how we see ourselves as a nation. Through stunning reportage, Tracie McMillan makes the simple case that—city or country, rich or poor—everyone wants good food. Fearlessly reported and beautifully written, The American Way of Eating goes beyond statistics and culture wars to deliver a book that is fiercely intelligent and compulsively readable. Talking about dinner will never be the same again.
“The subtitle of The American Way of Eating by Tracie McMillan is ‘Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table’ and, despite the apt description, it manages to miss some of the scope of this book. Tracie McMillan does, indeed, go undercover while working in these three aspects of American food life.
She picks garlic, peaches, and grapes in the fields of California. Often she is the only white person working in these pre-dawn fields, and one of the few women. What she encounters is the human side of the produce we eat: people who are here because they’ve been displaced from their own countries and ways of life often by American corporate interests, only to find themselves working in the United States illegally, often for other corporate interests. But these are people who espouse the American ideal: that through hard work and determination, a small piece of the American dream can be theirs. She finds people living on the edges of society, and often on the vast amount of produce leftover from the fields. Generous, friendly people who, upon learning of McMillan’s real purpose for working with them, only want her to spread the story of their work. To show Americans how their food is really picked, and how little they are paid.
Her stint at Walmart exposes both the human and less-than-humane side of the world’s largest grocer. During her time spent at Walmart, Tracie McMillan learns what life under the poverty level is like for many of this nation’s workers. Life without healthcare, full of processed food, and economically pressured into working grueling hours for little pay.
Her stint at Applebee’s, the nation’s largest restaurant chain, put Tracie into the world of the kitchen staff: long, tedious shifts ‘preparing’ pre-made food and getting it out to a steady stream of customers. Again, low pay, no healthcare, among workers as grateful for their shift meal as the Walmart workers were of food too old to sell, given to the employees. Beyond all this work in America’s food industries, McMillan shows us how difficult it is to find fresh produce in much of the country, and how easy unhealthy, mass-produced food is to get.
But Tracie’s book is about more than just her story. It is about how good food, healthy, fresh produce is available in much of the country. And that there are people working to bring healthier options to the country as a whole, especially the nation’s poor, who now make up more than half the population. Farm-fresh produce should not be the exclusive food of the wealthy, McMillan argues. Instead, it is the right of every American.
The American Way of Eating is a book that should be read by everyone who loved Animal, Vegetable, Miracle or The Omnivore’s Dilemma. It belongs on the shelf next to those books, just as her argument belongs on Main Street, in the halls of Congress, and in the minds of citizens who are striving for a more humane, less corporatized, America. I loved this book. I underlined and commented in so much of it. McMillan swept me up with her story and had me until the end of the book.
Unlike some other books on this topic, this book focused squarely on the role privilege plays in our food system. The effects of not only corporate, but political decisions that support an industrial food system not on the animals, or the plants, but on the people who keep the system running. This book is about so much more than just the American way of eating. It’s about immigration, women’s rights, the vast poverty in our nation. It’s about not only food deserts, but the bright spots that exist within those parts of our inner cities abandoned by corporations and government; how life goes on in them, often richer and more personal than in the suburbs.
Ultimately, I found this book to be something of a call to arms. Good, healthful food should be available for everyone. We need to examine the true cost behind our cheap food, and demand system-wide changes that benefit our fellow citizens and not just corporate bank accounts. Perhaps that means abandoning our nationwide, corporatized, industrial food system. Perhaps that means living more locally, more seasonally, more communally. Perhaps it’s something we haven’t invented yet. But action is needed, and Tracie McMillan’s book is one that I foresee shining a light on that need.”