108 of 114 people found the following review helpful
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." (pg 153) This book explores answers to the questions: "What would it take for us all to eat well?" and "What are the realities of food and eating in America, especially for the working poor?" It answers these important questions literally BY telling the author's story, and helps the reader to see why we all need to care about access to fresh and healthy food--to work for equality in so many areas besides food as well. It shows the reader how many of these social issues are inexorably linked.
For those who enjoy details (as I do) the book is painstakingly footnoted--the notes take up almost 40 pages of very small print. This was a good way to organize the book, as those who are interested can read every footnote of supporting information (as I did), whereas those who just want a good story can easily avoid all of the detailed information.
If you are interested in this topic at all, you will not regret reading this book. To find out more before buying, you can google the book's title and find the author's book web site; the book also has a Facebook page that you can find by searching for the title on Facebook.
89 of 99 people found the following review helpful
on 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.
59 of 70 people found the following review helpful
on 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.
24 of 27 people found the following review helpful
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. Her introduction begins with this somewhat jolting statement, and it's one that made this reader sit up and take notice, wondering if her book was going to be some vegan manifesto against anything that had to do with meat: "The first Brooklyn supermarket I ever walked into had a cockroach in the deli. Not one of those stealthy critters stealing along the crevices in the floor, or hanging out backstage in dry storage. No, this was a proud-to-be-here New York City roach, crawling openly up the wall's white tile before dropping, unceremoniously, onto the meat slicer below. I decided to skip the lunchmeat and headed for the produce aisle."
My initial suspicions were quickly alleviated, as this book is an actual first-hand exploration, one that took the author to jobs such as picking grapes and peaches in the California fields, then moving on to cutting and gleaning garlic, working right beside the other farmworkers, most of whom she converses with in Spanish, the only gringa, and one making well under minimum wage. This is for nine hours of grueling and physically exhausting work. And in all of this, she's working with the people that she encounters, not standing aside with public relations people and repeating the media hype that is seen in advertisements. She lives with these people, discussing their kids, doctor visits, food... in short all of the things that regular people discuss with their coworkers in almost any field of work in America.
From those California fields, author McMillan moves on in Part II to Michigan for a stint working at Wal-Mart, which it turns out, has become the "largest grocer in both the U.S. and the world." Her in-depth observations are both fascinating and revealing, especially since Wal-Mart, founded in 1962, didn't really get into food until the 1980s. While she's describing her experiences working side by side with other employees there, she interleaves the paragraphs with hard facts about how large Wal-Mart is in our American food chain, and she backs it up with extensive footnotes.
Part III takes us to the cooking of food, and here she starts as a kitchen novice at Applebee's in Brooklyn, NY. There are over twenty Applebee's restaurants in New York City, and McMillan was trying to get a kitchen job in food preparation with the chain. This was one of the more fascinating sections of the book, though there's an unsettling part, which results in the author being assaulted (and not by a work colleague) after the get-together following her last night at Applebee's, a place that she had openly enjoyed the work.
Each of the book sections starts by listing how much she earned picking, producing or handling food and how much was spent on what she ate, both percentagewise and in terms of annualized salary. Some of these numbers can be quite sobering in terms of comparative living in this country today, and wondering where we may be headed.
It's all too easy to compare this book with cultural critic Barbara Ehrenreich's bestselling Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, and in that comparison, both Ehrenreich and McMillan have gone undercover among the working people of America. Having read both, this reader found more depth in Ms. McMillan offering, but perhaps that's due to the difference in the fact that self-proclaimed "myth buster" Ehrenreich seems to dwell on class struggles. McMillan's working family background offers a more three-dimensional feel to the people and the situations that she encountered.
But there were times that she seemed to be reluctant to get too close or reveal what she was feeling about those with whom she was involved during her work. That may be a subjective observation on this reader's point, but there were times that I found myself waiting for the author to indeed open up with the emotions that she was surely feeling just below the surface, yet so often it went 80% there... and stopped.
It should be noted that Ms. McMillan's extensive footnotes sprinkled throughout this book are surprising in both their depth and their accuracy. This reader spent quite a few hours bouncing between the Kindle and the computer looking at some of the sources that she had listed, and it became clear that she had really done her homework. Her appendix entitled "Cheap Food?" is intriguing, and worth the time to read, and her wide-ranging bibliography could make food reading into quite a project for those so interested. This reader has already bookmarked a number of her sources for more in-depth reading.
There are some holes here and there in this book, but without making excuses on behalf of the author, that's to be expected in any journalistic work such as this. All questions and answers cannot possibly be put into a book such as this without either making it completely boring or dull, and in this author McMillan has succeeded quite well. What stands out is that this is a good read, and often moving on much like a novel, with dialogue that makes one wonder what's coming next.
As a debut offering, this reader is impressed with the depth that Tracie McMillan has gone into with this book. If you're at all interested in food, where it comes from and how it's handled, this book is a solidly recommended 4-star read, and a worthwhile look at the actual politics involved in food policy in America today. I'll be looking forward to what she comes up with next.
43 of 51 people found the following review helpful
on February 23, 2012
An informative, provocative, and important exploration of the food industry ranging from the fields of poorly regulated farms in California to the aisles of Walmart to the Applebee's in my own backyard here in Bklyn, NY. And even better, it's a well written and highly engaging read. I strongly recommend this book.
I am passing this recommendation on to the folks I know who are interested in food or the economics of massive industries in our country -- that's going to be everyone I know.
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on July 5, 2013
I was very excited to read this book. I first heard about it while I was in Australia on a working holiday, where I picked and packed fruit and then worked at a supermarket. I was excited to read about someone doing the same thing in America, learning about our food and where it comes from and the lives of the people responsible for it. I couldn't get my hands on it until I got home, and I bought a copy a couple of weeks ago. I'm disappointed.
McMillan intersperses her narrative with a lot of interesting facts about the American food system, and at times the book was enlightening to read. I had a problem with her actual narrative, though. She tried to emphasize her working-class roots, talking about growing up on hamburger helper. But different working-class people have to get by in different ways, and she seems to go over her budget every single month. I think it would have been more meaningful if, instead of running out of money because she can't afford her lifestyle, she was able to describe the kind of lifestyle someone on those wages *can* afford.
This book gives an interesting picture of where our food comes from, and what it's like to work on a farm or in a supermarket or restaurant (to an extent--she did get a lot of special treatment at the farms for being a white woman.)
But the other part of it, giving a picture of what it's like to survive and eat on those wages, is completely inaccurate. McMillan shuns affordable housing because she isn't familiar with the neighborhood and how to keep safe in it. That's reasonable for her to do, but not an accurate representation of what it's like to actually be poor. She assumes she won't qualify for food stamps, even though she does, and runs out of food at the end of the month. She spends a lot of money on staples all at once and doesn't have enough for produce. I feel like a more accurate picture of life on a food worker's salary could have been achieved by spending more than just two months at any job, and showing the reader what it takes to survive on those wages, rather than just concluding that it's almost impossible for her to survive on them.
The numbers in this book are interesting, but there are lots of books about American food systems that can give you those. What makes this book unique is McMillan's story of what it's like to be a farm worker or a supermarket worker, and unfortunately the picture she can paint is incomplete.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on September 2, 2012
This book is worth it just for the anecdote about the Detroit hipster trying to explain why his being "really into food" is different from your average resourceful Mexican-American mom.
McMillan gives a powerful reality check to precious foodie culture--not saying that $9 tomatoes are inherently terrible, but simply telling the story of how regular food gets to your plate. And, more important: the stories of the people who get it there. They may not be "foodies," but, as McMillan so clearly shows, they care just as much about food as anyone else in America--and have just as much of a right to it.
The book mixes McMillan's personal experience working at the bottom end of the food industry with extremely well-written reportage, for general context. Nearly every personal story she tells is backed up with research that shows it's not an anomaly. The stats are there, but it's McMillan's stories that will stick with me. The woman who considers a fresh orange a "treat" because it's so expensive? That's how wrong things are.
This is a powerful book, very much in the style of Barbara Ehrenreich's "Nickel and Dimed." Like Ehrenreich's book, it's a bit overwhelming to see just how grim the economic situation really is in America--and to consider what it would take to change it.
McMillan has some ideas, and perhaps the most powerful one is that the food production system should be treated more like a public utility than a private corporate tool. It's a pretty radical concept, but when you get to the end of this book, you'll see how it makes sense.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on May 27, 2012
I read the whole book cover to cover, even skimming the notes for interesting points to look up. So, unlike some other reviewers who read only as much as they could stand, I can honestly review the entire book.
Disclaimer: I am a middle-class Republican who is not a fan of the nanny state or the term "food injustice."
With that said, Tracie McMillan is a good writer, who utilizes good research (and apparently some tireless researchers) to bring an account of what it is like to be the working poor in the food industry of America. She lives and works among them, allowing us a glimpse into their lives, their struggles and their joys. She introduces us to real people with real jobs and real families. They welcome her so much so that I can imagine Ms. McMillan must be a lovely person to be around.
As far as the comments that she is just rewriting old stories, some of these topics have been covered before but not in the same way, all at the same time and making connections between them. Ms. McMillan tells us the story of America's working poor and the struggle to get work, to make money, to support yourself, to feed yourself, and to eat well all while showing us what systems make it difficult for them to do so.
She doesn't just offer up simple solutions like, "pay the workers more." She discusses many options and alternatives to help remedy the lack of affordable healthy food in America. For example, educating Americans, starting in schools, about how to cook at home, taking away some of the mystery of what to do with good food once you get your hands on it. She points out the massive amounts of food that comes into Detroit only to be loaded onto trucks and shipped out to the suburbs. We meet community garden coordinators who are helping to feed inner-city Detroit. She talks about the success of food-stamp type programs across America that allow people to buy fresh produce.
As I said before, I am a die-hard Republican so if anyone was going to see an obvious political agenda, it would be me. But I think she did a pretty good job sticking to the facts. Sorry folks, but sometimes the facts just speak for themselves. There were a few times where I rolled my eyes and said, great one more thing for the government to spend money on, but those were rare moments.
I doubt that Tracie McMillan is trying to get us to overthrow the current food network and let the government take over. It seems to me that she wants us to think about how food is produced, transported, and consumed in America and consider how that all affects not only our health but also our well being, financial and otherwise. I found it to be a very thought-provoking book and I will definitely recommend to everyone I know.
And... I'll be trying to feed my family better. That's one way I can help support the farmers, encourage stores to carry better produce, and be healthier in the process.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on June 8, 2012
Fascinating, fascinating book!
Reporter Tracie McMillan, inspired by conversation with subjects of her stories on the 'poverty beat' of the paper for which she worked, embarked on an undercover, year long quest to find out how food gets to our tables and how the people that make this possible, often the lowest paid workers in our society, make ends meet. From the growing fields of California, to retail sales in Michigan, to a neighboorhood family chain restaurant in New York City, McMillan works and lives alongside the people about whom she writes, discovering the hardships as well as the strong community ties necessary for the American 'underclass' to get by.
I've been thinking about food a lot lately. As the SAHM of my lower middle income family, it's my responsibility to get food in the house and on the table in the most cost efficient and yet healthy way possible. Anyone who is trying to do that now, with the way food costs have been rising, can tell you that is a challenge. This book caught my eye in the library, and kept my riveted from beginning to end.
McMillan has managed to tell her very real story with the skill of a novelist, blending anecdotes about her various jobs with facts and figures (all carefully footnoted and documented)to support her conclusions in a way that never made me feel overwhelmed with data, yet had enough gravitas to fully support her observations.
I want you to read this book, so I'm not going to tell you the whole story here. Suffice to say that I'll not take the produce I eat for granted again (nor will I likely eat at a chain restaurant-not that I do often anyway-without a lot of consideration).
McMillan does not shy from revealing her own mistakes along the way, nor does she seem to edit her own reactions. Despite her humble upbringing (according to her), there are every so often hints of a bit of classism that were a little jarring, but not often enough to stop me from reading the book. I think her conclusion that Americans need to make changes in how they eat and what they eat seem to be valid, and the need for so many to learn to cook has been clear to me for quite a while.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and it's given me much food for thought.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on September 7, 2013
Through this journey, we learn where our food is sourced, how it's grown and harvested. The author makes a great connection to how our a present day circumstances (lack of time, cooking and food knowledge) contribute to this mess of unhealthy options. This book also dispels the notion that the poor care less about their food. We also learn how marketing and transportation heavily influence what we see in our stores and restaurants. I only wish that she was able to go deeper into the importation of food and the unintended consequences of having certain foods available year round.
I don't think I will ever look at garlic, grapes or Applebee's the same way again.