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The American Way of Eating, Tracie McMillan

2012/04/28

Books about food and food culture in America seem to be a dime a dozen these days. And any book in which the author works undercover is bound to have comparisons drawn to Elhenrich’s now classic “Nickled and Dimed.” All that said, McMillan’s book is a unique investigation into three different sections of the food industry — growing, selling, and serving. In her introduction, the author, a Midwesterner relocated to New York City, describes her attitude towards food when she first moved to the city (shopping at a roach infested supermarket because it was convenient and most similar to the stores she was accustomed to); and how it changed over the years as she spent time around affluent families and tried her hand at preparing “fancy foods.” But because of her childhood, where the standard meals came out of a box and were accompanied by “salads of chopped iceberg lettuce tossed with diced carrots, celery, wedges of tomato, and some Wish-Bone Ranch dressing” (2), she still had the underlying assumption that “fancy food was for the rich, box meals were for the rest of us, and there was no point in making a fuss about it” (3).

McMillian works in three different sections of the food industry, starting with fieldwork in California, picking peaches and grapes, uprooting and trimming onions and garlic; during this last one, she seriously injures herself and has to go to a clinic, where they advise her, “no repetitive movement,” to which her response is “But my job is to cut garlic. All I do is grasp. I’m just a farmworker. All I do is cut garlic” (91). Working amid immigrants, she stands out simply by being a white female, and at different jobs, many of the workers ask her to help them with their English. She also knows enough about wage law to realize that the farmworkers are being paid by the piece, not by the hour — their paychecks are adjusted such that the total amount for their piecework is doled out according to hourly wages — an eight hour shift where she only picked $19.20 worth of garlic is listed as two hours work. McMillan also works in the produce department at Walmart, where she learns the secrets of “crisping” produce to make it appear fresh and salable for longer, and in the kitchen at Applebee’s, which she turns out to genuinely enjoy.

I found this book to be an interesting look at the food industry from multiple vantage points. As someone who can presently afford what McMillan calls “fancy foods,” but who also grew up close to immigrant grandparents and family members who cherish traditional cooking, some of the author’s observations about American habits baffle me. Having been ingrained with good shopping and food preparation habits, I can see from peers and those around me how different upbringings and values can affect their perspective and attitude towards food. This is a worthwhile read, and will hopefully provoke you to think about your own food habits and attitudes.

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