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The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee's, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table [Kindle Edition]

Tracie McMillan
3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (96 customer reviews)

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Book Description

When award-winning (and working-class) journalist Tracie McMillan saw foodies swooning over $9 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 that—city or country, rich or poor—everyone wants good food, McMillan guarantees that talking about dinner will never be the same again.

Editorial Reviews


"The book Ms. McMillan's most resembles is Barbara Ehrenreich's bestseller Nickel and Dimed. Like Ms. Ehrenreich, Ms. McMillan goes undercover amid this country's working poor...This is a voice the food world needs."

- Dwight Garner, The New York Times

"This book is vital. McMillan has the writing skills to bear witness, the research background to provide context, and the courage to take on the challenging task."

--Los Angeles Times

“The book Ms. McMillan’s mostresembles is Barbara Ehrenreich’s best seller Nickel and Dimed. Like Ms.Ehrenreich, Ms. McMillan goes undercover amid this country’s working poor….This is a voice the food world needs.” —New York Times

"With much courage and compassion, McMillan explores the lives of those at the bottom of our food system. Here is a glimpse of the people who feed us—and the terrible price they pay. If we want to change the system, this is where we must begin." —Eric Schlosser

“Tracie McMillan is gutsy, scrappy, and hard-working—you'd have to be to write this book. The American Way of Eating takes us local in a new way, exploring who works to get food from the field to the plates in front of us, what they are paid, and how it feels. It's sometimes grim but McMillan doesn't flinch; I especially appreciated her openness in telling us what she spent in order to get by (or not). A welcome addition to the urgent, growing body of journalism on food.” —Ted Conover, author of Newjack and Coyotes

“These tales lay bare the sinews, the minds, and the relationships that our food system exploits and discards. In a work of deep compassion and integrity, Tracie McMillan offers us an eye-opening report on the human cost of America’s cheap food.” Raj Patel, author of Stuffed and Starved and The Value of Nothing

“To uncover the truth behind how our modern food system works, Tracie M. McMillan took jobs in a supermarket produce section, a chain restaurant kitchen, and the fields alongside migrant laborers. If you eat, you owe it to yourself to read this masterful book.” —Barry Estabook, author of Tomatoland

"McMillan provides an eye-opening account of the route much of American food takes from the field to the restaurant table." --Kirkus

“Three cheers for Tracie McMillan; this book is a revelation! It is the sort of engaging first person adventure story that reads like a good novel, all the while supplying the facts and figures that make the larger picture clear. I'm grateful to her in equal parts for the stamina and courage to undertake this undercover journey, the narrative skill that makes the account so digestible, and the commitment to social justice for both workers and consumers that infuses the whole project.” Janet Poppendieck, author of Free for All and Sweet Charity

"This is an amazing book. Tracie McMillan willtake any reader into new territory. The implacable fierceness offarmwork, the slovenliness behind the produce section at Walmart—prepare to besubmerged in harsh little worlds and shocked. But McMillan keeps hercool, always presenting the context and the content of her struggles withenough analytic detachment to rough out a complete, and convincing, vision offood as a social good. Read her book and your dinner will never look thesame."

--William Finnegan, author of Cold New World

“Tracie McMillan has written a remarkable book for right now—a book that smartly tells us what is wrong with what we eat and how we might improve it. But what is even more remarkable about the book is how deeply engaging it is. With her intimate and confident portraits of American food workers, she crafts a touching, emotional narrative that will stay with you long after you have finished the last page.” —James Oseland, author of Cradle of Flavor

“This is a wonderful introduction to the triumph and tragedy of the American food industry. Mixing compassionate participant observation with in depth, up-to-the-minute background research, Tracie McMillan takes us for an eye-opening, heart-rending tour of the corporate food chain. Along the way we meet unforgettable people who, at great personal cost, labor hard so that we can eat cheaply and easily. Having seen what it takes to move our meals from farm to table, the reader will emerge shaken, enlightened, and forever thankful.”
Warren Belasco, author of Appetite for Change and Meals to Come

“This book is vital. [McMillan] has the writing skills to bear witness, the research background to provide context, and the courage to take on the challenging task.” Los Angeles Times

“A compelling and cogent argument that eating healthily ought to be easier.” Cleveland Plain Dealer

“Clear and essential.” The Boston Globe

From the Back Cover

The New York Times:
Before the Food Arrives on Your Plate, So Much Goes on Behind the Scenes
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 forSaveur 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 th

Product Details

  • File Size: 1731 KB
  • Print Length: 338 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 145265753X
  • Publisher: Scribner (February 21, 2012)
  • Sold by: Simon and Schuster Digital Sales Inc
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B005GG0MF6
  • Text-to-Speech: Not enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #233,204 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

3.9 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
107 of 113 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The book reads like a novel, this first person account of the author's undercover journey into the world of the working poor in the food industry. The author is a remarkable storyteller, recounting all aspects of her adventure in a way that makes you feel like you are entering into her world and joining her and the other workers at each place she is employed. She covers what it felt like, how it was to live and work under harsh conditions, where she lived, the friends she made, the choices she was faced with by living on such a small amount of money. It is fascinating to be able to feel immersed in a world that perhaps few of us would voluntarily enter into, but that many of us find ourselves.

The author spends time harvesting grapes with Hispanic farm workers, harvesting peaches, cutting and gleaning garlic, working at Walmart (including in the produce department), and working at Applebee's. During this time the work is grueling--she gets injured and suffers heatstroke, experiences identity theft, and even is sexually assaulted. She is also taken advantage of repeatedly by her employers in so many creative ways that it's mind-boggling. The reader comes to understand and empathize with workers trapped in low-level jobs and see how hard it becomes to fight back and/or to move beyond a daily existence.

But this is not really just a memoir of an undercover adventure. It is another book as well, an important social commentary. It is not just about one woman's journey, but it is about our food supply. How it works, what drives it. How, "It is far easier to eat well in American than in most of the world but we've done little to ensure that fresh and healthy food is available to everyone.
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88 of 98 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This is the food book everyone should be reading February 22, 2012
This book is so much better than I could have even hoped for. Sure, it has a fascinating and entertaining story about a journalist embedded in farm fields, produce sections, and restaurant kitchens. This is the stuff that probably brings you to the book. It has a great balance of humor, nuance, and heartbreaking stories of the work behind the food we take for granted.

So just for that, you won't be disappointed. But there is a whole unexpected side to this book that will rock your world. Tracie McMillan brings some really thought provoking analysis to add context to what she goes through while in the ranks of the nations food workers. Some of the stats she uncovers will make your jaw drop. Other times she digs up some history, like the development of supermarkets or the impact of the national highway system on how we get our food, and you will be left with a deep new understanding of things you probably never thought about before. Trust me, there are some mind blowing revelations in store for you.

I found that this book really made me think, and changed my understanding of the issue of food - not just what food we eat, but what the production of that food means for people working all along the chain. The approach to talking about poverty and economics made these issues accessible and easy to relate to. I didn't feel talked down to, and I didn't feel lectured at. Reading this book is like talking to someone who respects you enough to level with you and give you the real deal. This is the food book you need to read.
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58 of 68 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Hungry for a great book? February 22, 2012
A deeply personal story of one woman's quest to understand "how America came to eat this way, why we keep doing it, and what it would take to change it." This was an incredibly engrossing read - smart, well-researched, funny, and gritty while at the same time hopeful. McMillan takes us inside some of the worst parts of America's food industry and working conditions, sharing rich stories of the people who help out on her unusual journey. She also challenges us to think about what would happen if access to fresh and healthy food were just as high a social priority as water and electricity. Like The Omnivore's Dilemma, this book is a delight to read and a much-needed contribution to our national understanding of food.
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24 of 27 people found the following review helpful
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I first read about journalist Tracie McMillan's debut book The American Way of Eating in a New York Times review by literary critic and author Dwight Garner on February 20th, 2012. He had opened his review with this: "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.'"

This interested me, as I've been following articles about food and its sources for some time, so it was worth a closer look. I had read and enjoyed Garner's witty and informative 2009 book Read Me, so when he closed his review with this comment, I was further intrigued: "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.'"

Author McMillan's book begins with a few paragraphs explaining that her book is "a work of journalism," and that she had gone undercover to write it, choosing to work side by side with the people involved in various aspects of what we look at as the food industry in America today.
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More About the Author

A working-class transplant from rural Michigan, Brooklyn-based writer Tracie McMillan is the author of the New York Times bestseller, The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee's, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table. Mixing immersive reporting, undercover investigative techniques and "moving first-person narrative" (Wall Street Journal), McMillan's book argues for thinking of fresh, healthy food as a public and social good--a stance that inspired The New York Times to call her "a voice the food world needs" and Rush Limbaugh to single her out as an "overeducated" "authorette" and "threat to liberty." In 2012, Whole Living magazine named her a "Food Visionary," building on her numerous appearances on radio and television programs, which range from the liberal The Rachel Maddow Show to the "tea-party favorite" Peter Schiff Show. She has written about food and class for a variety of publications, including The New York Times, the Washington Post, O, The Oprah Magazine, Harper's Magazine, Saveur, and Slate.

McMillan moved into writing about food after a successful stint as a poverty and welfare reporter while working as the managing editor of the award-winning magazine City Limits in New York City. While there, she won recognition from organizations ranging from the James Beard Foundation to World Hunger Year. In 2013, she was named a Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellow at the University of Michigan, a year after she was named a Senior Fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism. Visit her at or follow her at @TMMcMillan.


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