Readers curious about food have been able to deepen their knowledge exponentially over the last decade. They know how bad fast food is (thanks to Eric Schlosser), understand the complexities of food production (thanks to Michael Pollan), and know how hard it is to work in a kitchen (thanks to Bill Bryson). There are shelves upon shelves of books about how, why and what we eat by restaurateurs, farmers, chefs and even moonlighting novelists.
Add to the mix Tracie McMillan, who found employment at the bottom of our nation’s food chain and wrote about it in The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table. It’s like a foodie version of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America. McMillan is an award-winning journalist whose work has focused on poverty.
A white woman in her 30s with a college degree, McMillan is an unusual figure looking for work in the fields of California’s Central Valley. When asked, she makes vague allusions to wanting to leave problems behind, be outside and stay away from people. But it takes her a while to be in the position of asking for a job.
“I’ve driven up and down the highway looking for onion crews to no avail, hindered by, in descending order, my ignorance of what an onion field looks like, how many people might be on a crew, and basic local geography,” she writes. Though she wields vast knowledge about the conditions faced by agricultural workers, she serves as an everywoman, an understandable lens on an unseen world.
In this way, the book is vital. She has the writing skills to bear witness, the research background to provide context, and the courage to take on the task. It is a constructed challenge: For each effort — farms in California, Wal-Marts in Michigan, Applebee’s in New York — she serves a two-month stint. She begins her project with a month’s savings, and when her car’s radiator fails, or a check amount is less than expected, like many other Americans she taps a credit card to make ends meet.
Each section begins by outlining how much she earned producing food and how much she spent on what she ate. In the fields, she spent 25 percent of her $10,588 annualized salary; at Wal-Mart, 17.2 percent of $11,487; at Applebee’s, 13.5 percent of $12,845. What those numbers don’t reveal is how much she depended on the kindness of strangers.
McMillan gets hired to pick grapes, sort peaches and harvest garlic. She lands her first job with the help of a sympathetic neighbor, who brings her along when the work is scarce in a mini-business of selling breakfast to other workers (McMillan provides the soda). Acquaintances share surplus food from the fields. A woman unloads a bounty from the throwaway bins at Trader Joe’s, including bread that a ravenous McMillan devours. A Michigan landlord stocks the kitchen and rewards on-time rent with pizza; in two houses where she rents rooms, the landlords regularly feed her home-cooked meals.
The fact that these actions are recorded but seem to go unrewarded by her — even after McMillan returns to her “real” life — becomes one of the increasingly uncomfortable elements of the book. These are, after all, the types of families for whom it makes sense to displace a teenage son from his bedroom for the $300 McMillan will pay that month; how can she rapturously write of the seafood soup without offering to stock the fridge once in a while? Perhaps these transactions happened but were too intimate to be recorded.
This is the other element that is missing: intimacy. McMillan is excellent at describing the surface of things — where to stand to sort just-picked peaches, how many training videos a new Wal-Mart staffer will watch — but more often than not, she omits the feel of things. If her muscles hurt after that first day in the fields, if she was bored stocking shelves all night, we don’t know it.
Instead, we get a rhapsodic detailing of urban gardening in contemporary Detroit, which feels off the point but fits into her larger ends of imagining healthier eating solutions for all Americans, even those who are poor. Similarly, her history of supermarkets, which have always made profits off processed, packaged food, seems to be ideologically driven: Wal-Mart recently added fresh foods; the success of Whole Foods (which, admittedly, is not above criticism) goes almost entirely unmentioned.
What’s just plain weird is how little we read of her own eating habits; what we see doesn’t adhere to the healthful eating she advocates. One kitchen is too gross, one too busy; she must cook in others, but she doesn’t write it up. She compares prices between tomatoes at a Wal-Mart and a local grocery store, but she doesn’t explain what she cooks with them. Once she can eat for free at Applebee’s, she does. I’m no food saint, but I want to shake her for drinking soda everywhere she goes. And when she sees men in the fields with camp stoves cooking hot midday meals, she mentions offhandedly that she buys sandwiches instead. This seems to be the core of her project, exploring how poor people who bring us food can eat healthfully; here are people doing so, but the how and what of it go unexplored.
The US food system is large and complex, and McMillan’s efforts to tell macro and micro stories never cohere into a complete picture. What she can give us that no one else can is her experience on the line. Tragically, that includes a sexual assault that happened, she writes, after the celebration of her last night at Applebee’s, where she had enjoyed the work (it was not a work colleague). Related in less than two pages, that experience may explain some of McMillan’s unwillingness to get too close, to reveal too much about what she was feeling during the project.
There is some insight here, about danger and vulnerability, about power and poverty, about what it takes to feed ourselves in a way that is good from the inside-out and top to bottom. But I’m not entirely sure what it is; McMillan isn’t either.