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When awardwinning and workingclass journalist Tracie McMillan saw foodies swooning over $ organic tomatoes, she couldn't help but wonder: What about the rest of us? Why do working Americans eat the way we do? And what can we do to change it? To find out, McMillan went undercover in three jobs that feed America, living and eating off her wages in each Reporting from California fields, a Walmart produce aisle outside of Detroit, and the kitchen of a New York City Applebee's, McMillan examines the reality of our country's food industry in this clear and essential The Boston Globe work of reportage Chronicling her own experience and that of the Mexican garlic crews, Midwestern produce managers, and Caribbean line cooks with whom she works, McMillan goes beyond the food on her plate to explore the national priorities that put it there Fearlessly reported and beautifully written, The American Way of Eating goes beyond statistics and culture wars to deliver a book that is fiercely honest, strikingly intelligent, and compulsively readable In making the simple case thatcity or country, rich or pooreveryone wants good food, McMillan guarantees that talking about dinner will never be the same again


10 thoughts on “The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee's, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table

  1. Petra-X Petra-X says:

    The author is a journalist. Maybe her metier is short pieces, it's certainly not books. It could be that she is an interesting person, but in this book she whines, is lazy and puts her personal life above the important subject she is researching. If the book had been better written and not so much about the author, then I wouldn't have known about her lack of rigour in researching the American Way of Eating.

    The premise is that she will work at all jobs connected with the food industry for two months each, and live off the wages just as if it were her only source of money. That is interesting but she's not up to it. After the author finds herself not quite capable of farm work although the Mexican women are fine with it, I think if the author she starts off by flunking out of research this early in the book, are there always going to be excuses if she doesn't want to do something? She comes across as some first world person with money in the bank who has a nice place to go to, not the poor person she is pretending to be who needs the cash as much as the Mexicans and will work as hard to get it.

    What I did learn that was interesting was that California (but not Texas) protects it's low paid farm workers to some extent. It is not clear if they are illegal Mexicans but I would think so as $40 for an eight hour shift is very low. The protection of these illegal aliens bespeaks a very cynical state of mind. Like, 'we need them for cheap food so we will give them some benefits and protections, but not enough that they can't be deported when we don't need them any more.' Either be honest about it, like Texas where they have no protection or give them work permits, there is no need to go the whole hog of citizenship.

    I had always thought that the main reason for illegal farm workers was to keep the wages bill down to enable very cheap produce, but that isn't completely right. The wages bill is so low (storage like refrigeration and transport are very high) that adding a dollar or two makes very little difference.

    So 1 star because it was scarcely readable and 1 star because some of the information was interesting.


  2. Belinda Belinda says:



    I started reading this book after being intrigued a Salon piece written by a journalist (Tracie McMillan) who goes undercover to investigate the field-to-plate journey of food in America. I enjoyed Nickel and Dimed and I found the article well written and intriguing, so I was looking forward to this deeper picture of America’s relationship with food this book would provide.

    However, I wish I had not wasted my time. White female privileged smug middle-class journalist Tracie McMillan decides to go investigate three aspects of the food industry – agriculture, distribution and preparation – by pretending to be a poor person and working as a labourer, at Walmart and in the kitchen at Applebees. This is similar to what Barbara Ehrenreich did in Nickel and Dimed. The difference between Ehrenreich and McMillan’s books is that Ehrenreich acknowledges her privilege and states on a number of occasions that she understands that what she is doing is at best an imitation of the life of an actual poor person. McMillan not only doesn’t seen to understand her privilege, her poverty tourism actually causes harm to the very people her book seeks to give a voice to.

    For example, McMillan’s first job is working in the fields in California. She concocts a not-very-believable reason for why an educated, well-spoken white woman is looking for manual labour and then proceeds to find a job, aiming to live on the money she earns from her own labour. The first problem with this is that the first two places she lives in are owned by friends or acquaintances of hers and she doesn’t have to pay rent. Her privilege, as evidenced by her strong social network, is already providing an (unacknowledged by her) benefit to her that the people whose lives she is investigating do not have. Through her neighbour, who lives with six other people in a two-bedroom trailer that she pays rent for, she finds a a job picking grapes. In this job, pickers work in groups of three and are paid on the number of boxes (cajas) of grapes the group can pick. Due to her inexperience, McMillan can only fill nine boxes, meaning her group members earned over 30% less than they normally would. Even though she did picked fewer grapes than others, the payment is divided three ways equally. She says: “There’s only one word to define what just happened: charity. And I know I am in no position to refuse it.” YES YOU ARE! You have an education and a strong social network and a well-paying job and an apartment that you live in on your own in New York City. It is reprehensible that your little games of poverty tourism literally took food out of the mouths of people who need it much, much more than you do. Tracie McMillan, you should be ashamed of yourself.

    It doesn’t get any better. To study the distribution of food, McMillan gets a job at Walmart. She manages to find a place to rent where the landlord provides her with food staples – more free stuff. She comes up short on her rent because she has been going out for sushi, so she puts the difference on her credit card. Heads up, Tracie, the reason you were able to go out for sushi is because you are able to do things like put the rent on your credit card and then pay your credit card using your regular job. Actual poor people don’t do things like that, because if they did they would actually get evicted and not be able to call on their extensive social network for free housing or to just, you know, return to their NY apartment. When McMillan’s sister gets cross at her when Tracie says she “can’t afford” to go to a Christmas party which involves baking two dozen cookies, I had to stop reading for a while until I calmed down in order to prevent me throwing the book at the wall. McMillan’s sisters are a lot more refrained with her than I am with mine – if either of them had pulled that crap with me I would have sat them down and had a serious conversation with them about privilege and being an obnoxious dick. After the cookie party, McMillan decides she’s had enough of playing poor and quits her job and I quit reading the book.

    Investigative journalists are important. They can provide a window into another way of life and expose, like Ehrenreich did, the appalling conditions some people work under and the human cost of the first-world consumer life we live. Tracie McMillan is a talented writer and the research in this book was excellent. But her particular type of privileged poverty tourism that caused harm to those she was aiming to write about is appalling. I give this book one star.


  3. Mark Mark says:

    The American Way of Eating is a supremely aggravating book. Tracie McMillan goes undercover to learn more about the American food industry at various parts of the process, at a farm, grocery store and chain restaurant. This is an important topic that needs to be told, but the author is not quite up to the task.

    She is not hardy enough to handle farm work, so those chapters tend to be more about her physical condition than the work itself. Again at Wal-Mart, where she works as stock clerk, she quits before she really has a chance to start, deciding to quit to attend her sister's cookie party. Only at Applebee's do we really learn enough about the work to make any kind of judgment about what its place in America's food culture is. It's probably not a coincidence that this is the only job that she likes.

    I'm not sure, however, that the book would have succeeded even if she had taken her undercover work more seriously. McMillan is just not a very good writer. It was during the section about Wal-Mart that I realized her writing resembled much of the processed food that she was discussing. The unnecessary adjectives are the equivalent of soy lecithin, the boring digressions the high fructose corn syrup of writing. After I finished the book, I felt like I had a meal at Applebee's; I was left full, but not nourished.


  4. Kathy Kathy says:

    I always thought the food at Applebees tasted like plastic. Now I know why! I haven't eaten there in years and now I won't ever again.

    I already knew Wal-mart was evil and this just confirmed it. I never shop there. The Waltons are rich enough.

    And, the way the migrant workers are treated and paid is shameful. Ms McMillan said it would cost the average American family $16 per year to increase their wages by 40%. I think most people could handle that.

    But, I really do have to take issue with something Ms. McMillan said near the end of this book. Page 237 American shoppers don't eat anywhere near as many fruits and vegetables as they should. That kind of food costs more than processed foods, and preparing it is more complicated than most people feel comfortable with... Really? A pound of apples costs more than a box of pop-tarts? I don't think so. And, what preparation is she talking about? Washing the apple or peach or plum or carrot or tomato? Most fruits and vegetables can be eaten raw with little preparation. And if you want to cook vegetables, what is so hard about steaming them for 5 minutes? No harder than cooking a hot dog. People make bad food choices because they want to. They LIKE sugar and fat and they don't WANT to eat vegetables. Fat people raise fat kids because if chubby little Justin or Joshua doesn't want his broccoli or carrots, mom gives him chicken fingers and koolaid or a McDonalds Happy Meal. And so the cycle begins again. Please, don't make excuses for them about vegetables and fruits being too expensive or too hard to prepare. It just isn't true.


  5. Ciara Ciara says:

    hmmm. one of the key rules of writing book reviews is to review the book you actually read & not the book you wish that book had been. i admit that this book was not what i expected it to be. i saw the title & read that it was an expose of the american food system. i was expecting something informational & sociological--kind of like all the books i have been reading about the baby industrial complex, but about food. instead, i got a bizarre stunt memoir by a well-educated young woman/freelance journalist who decides to cop barbara ehrenreich's shtick & take a series of jobs in different spheres of the american food economy & write from the inside about what really goes on. she also plans to truly live like the people she works with by living off her wages, making the same financial sacrifices they have to make, & spending her budget accordingly, including her grocery budget.

    i am really burnt out on these kinds of books, where people do some dumbass thing for a year & then write about everything they learned. & i have NEVER been a fan of books where someone purports to see how the other half lives & to report back on it. who does she think she's reporting back to? nothing she says is going to be breaking news to farm workers, grocery employees, & food service workers. so she's basically doing this community service for other well-educated professionals. the whole thing just grosses me out.

    her writing style is also tough to take. it varies wildly between fairly readable sociological research & somewhat whiny personal anecdote, & it is peppered with an endless stream of annoying footnotes. put it in the text, write up an endnote, or just leave it out, but CAN IT with the footnotes, people! it's not cute.

    basically, she is shocked that all these jobs she takes are hard. she gets dehydrated, overheated, wounded, & tired working in the farm fields. she finds the graveyard shift at her local walmart disruptive to her social schedule & her natural rhythms for sleeping & eating. she finds restaurant work incredibly busy & overwhelming. & all along the way, she writes about her relationships with her co-workers, landlords, & neighbors in a way that just reeks of white guilt & that weird condescension that white people so often bring to their relationships with people they consider to be living a plight, if you know what i mean.

    it also seems like a lot of her co-workers risk a lot to help her--courting the wrath of bosses, taking food off their own family's plates in order to feed her, thinking she's some down on her luck sad kid that needs to be taken care of. all for a stunt. some dumb journalistic stunt. it seemed like she played fast & loose with the livelihoods of a lot of people who would be hard pressed to find other employment if things didn't work out, just to preserve the integrity of her book project. it really bothered me.


  6. Meghan Meghan says:

    This book clearly stated a couple facts that I knew to be true but hadn't ever articulated in my own head. The most striking was a response to the argument that the French spend a greater proportion of their income on food because they just appreciate it so much more than (bovine, tasteless) mainstream Americans. McMillan addresses this squarely by explaining how French people also have to spend much less than Americans for their health care, child care, and other government benefits, and when you look at the whole package, Americans cut their food budget by a percentage equal to their additional spending on health insurance and child care. Anyway, it's not really because of a lack of education or appreciation for the taste of expensive heirloom
    vegetables, etc., but because of the struggle to get by, the need to work long hours to keep treading water, the lack of options. This book's main argument is that class matters, and that food is a precious shared resource which in America has been left to the vagaries of capitalism, leaving gaps in distribution of fresh foods,
    and migrant farm workers who earn in the low five figures for a year's work of punishing physical labor.

    Striking thing #2: McMcillan straight up acknowledges that it takes skill to be a farmworker, to stock shelves at Wal-Mart, and to work in the kitchen at Applebee's. You have to be able to prioritize, use logic, multitask, and implement an efficient system to do a good job. In many towns and cities, the vast majority of fresh produce is bought at a Walmart, duh. And the person in charge of the fresh produce at Walmart - the produce manager - might be someone who doesn't have experience or affordable health care or much of a paycheck. This person, with little support, might be in charge of overseeing the quality of produce for an entire town, and produce managers aren't necessarily given any better training to manage a town's fresh food supply than they are to stock sneakers. (p. 234)

    This is great because the author isn't just a blogger with a book deal, but rather someone who's done serious research into food justice, backed up with a ton of end notes and citations. This is great because the author keeps reminding us that class matters, in America, right now.


  7. Kate Kate says:

    McMillan is trying to do two things at once. First, she's tracking the life cycle of food in America by taking jobs on a farm, at a grocery store, and in a restaurant. Secondly, she's exploring the challenges that these workers face when they try to eat fresh, healthy food on their incomes. From her experiences, she hopes to learn more about how food gets to your table, why it costs what it does, and why so many of us seem to be living on Little Debbie and Chef Boyardee.

    It's good, but it doesn't come together all that well, and I struggled sometimes to remember what exactly was being investigated here. Her experiences and observations are backed up by facts-and-figures sections that were well written and clearly presented, but removed enough from the human interest of the narrative that they were a chore to read. (I felt the same about similar passages in Wisdom of the Radish.)

    I do wish she'd update her website with all the doucmentation she promised -- some of which, like her timecards from Applebee's shifts, might have helped emphasize the connections between her story (Applebee's ripped me off) and the term-papery sections (Ripping employees off is actually quite common, and such-and-such study found that x percent of restaurant workers, etc.)

    Re: my earlier complaint about Barbara Ehrenreich not being name-checked at all...her name shows up (along with Bill Buford's) in the acknowledgments sectino, as part of a rather long thank-you list.




  8. Jessica Jessica says:

    i'm stil pulling my own thoughts together on this essential and hugely enjoyabe book. It will change foodwriting if we let it. In the meantime, the review that hits a lot of the points I'd want to make has already been written by the man who spent 10 years as the editor of the New York Times Book Review. Please check this out.

    Before the Food Arrives on Your Plate, So Much Goes on Behind the Scenes
    By DWIGHT GARNER
    Published: February 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.


  9. Kecia Kecia says:

    I picked this book up only because the author was attacked by Rush Limbaugh. Just days after his infamous attack on Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke, he attacked Tracie McMillian. Her crime - being a single, white, educated female. Oh the horror!!!

    So for once in my life I can say thank you Rush. I really enjoyed this book. I was expecting something dry and academic but instead it is spicy read! Ms. McMillian is a journalist so her writing style is very easy and breezy.

    She spent a year undercover to investigate the American food system. She goes to California and picks crops with farm laborers, she works at Walmart selling food, and then she works at Applebees serving food. But as much as she talks about food, she also gives us an unforgetable look at the people doing these jobs and the lives they lead. I'm already looking at food in a new way even though I have little contact with the world she writes about.

    I feel really privileged after reading this book. I grew up cooking. This is what my family does when we get together. Some families drink, some make music, some play football - my family cooks. I can't even imagine not knowing how to cook. To me that's like saying you don't know how to eat! The two go hand in hand for me. I also gave up on Walmart 20 years ago (and my parents live in Bentonville!). In the past 20 years I've made 3 purchases at Walmart. I also don't eat at places like Applebees. I can only recall eating at an Applebees 3 times and all 3 were unremarakable. I have much better choices when eating out.

    Luckly I not only live in a place where I can buy all my produce from Amish and Mennonite farmers, but I can afford it too. I also buy from a few urban farms. The building I work in has a cafeteria that serves only local organic fresh food. We even have program called Fruit My Cube where every Monday a box of fresh fruit is delivered to my desk...although that fruit is probably picked by the workers depicted in this book.

    This book brought back memories from my younger days when I scrimped and ate some really gross stuff because it was cheap and easy.

    I highly recommend this book. It's interesting and eye-opening.


  10. Kathrina Kathrina says:

    McMillan's writing is sometimes a little sludgy and redundant, but her message is strong. A century of industrial infrastructure has created the eating habits we're entrenched in today, and until fresh produce becomes accessible, affordable, and practical for all lifestyles, eating healthy will never win over affordable, convenient, and readily-available processed foods. Until now, I hadn't considered that fresh produce really is difficult to find in some urban areas, where there's one grocery store for every fifteen convenience stores. And it's not a result of low demand, necessarily, but a lack of cost-effective infrastructure in delivering the produce to those urban neighborhoods. A single decade under those conditions creates a generation of eaters who don't seek out fresh produce because they weren't raised to seek it. Now we have obese, diabetic, caffeine-addicted kids.
    McMillan writes her book as a series of undercover exposes in California farmwork, Midwestern Walmart produce retail, and New York Applebee's expediting. Apart from the farmwork, which really does cross a class line that sits far beyond the pale of my experience, it seems almost indulgent that the author pretends to need a job at Walmart or a local restaurant chain. My middle-class, work-through-school and second-job experience makes these jobs - and the people and attitudes she encounters there -- less exotic to me than she seems to find them. But she writes with utter honesty and little delusion that she is white, young, attractive, single, educated, and a little naive, and therefore gets some breaks that many others would not. Her honesty here is brave.

    My bias has been confirmed -- F*#ck Walmart.