three-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
58-May-June-2012
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0

737354.pngA New York writer and senior fellow at Brandeis University, Tracie McMillan grew up in a blue-collar household eating Tuna Helper and Ortega Taco dinners.

The Topic: To answer the question, "What would it take for us all to eat well?," Tracie McMillan—a white, college-educated woman in her 30s—spent a year undercover eking out a living at the bottom rungs of the American food industry. She worked alongside Mexicans in the fields of California’s Central Valley, picking and sorting produce, earning less than minimum wage, and depending on the largesse of her landlord for home-cooked meals. After then sorting moldy vegetables in a Walmart in Detroit, she had a two-month stint at Applebee’s in Brooklyn, where she was shocked to discover that workers defrosted, microwaved, and reassembled more than they actually cooked. In this exposé on food and class, McMillan offers an intriguing look at our urban food economies, in which fresh meals are a luxury that not all Americans can afford.
Scribner. 336 pages. $25. ISBN: 9781439171950

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"She is not a slash-and-burn critic of either [Walmart or Applebee’s]: 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." Dwight Garner

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 4 of 5 Stars
"Her book is a pleasure to read, illuminating complex arguments and statistics with vivid details and engaging stories. … In the face of all these obstacles, the book, and the author, remain surprisingly optimistic." China Millman

Cleveland Plain Dealer 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Living as well as toiling with the fieldworkers, McMillan subsisted on her pittance and learned how hard the labor is. These are the books’ best chapters, contrasting the warmth and camaraderie of the workers with their harsh economic reality and often unfair treatment at the hands of the corporations that employ them." James Sweeney

Oregonian 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The result is both an indictment of America’s industrial food system and a vivid, compassionate portrait of the working class. … McMillan never answers the question she set out to address—why is healthy food so expensive?" Hannah Wallace

San Francisco Chronicle 3 of 5 Stars
"The book provides fodder for those who agree with its assumptions, confirming the dogma that we are a nation of victims, farm to table. … McMillan’s undercover work for The American Way of Eating takes readers on an educational journey, but the story is sapped by recurrent reminders that she doesn’t really belong in the wretched world she visits, that her real life is better than that of the proletarians she yearns to help." Michael Stern

Los Angeles Times 2.5 of 5 Stars
"The American food system is large and complex, and McMillan’s efforts to tell macro and micro stories never cohere into a complete, connected picture. What she can give us that no one else can is her experience on the line." Carolyn Kellogg

Wall Street Journal 2.5 of 5 Stars
"As long as Ms. McMillan concentrates on what she actually saw and did, she has an interesting story to tell and she tells it well. Unfortunately, again and again, just as one settles into her persuasive personal testimony, she starts taking polemical potshots." Aram Bakshian Jr.

Critical Summary

The American Way of Eating is to food what Barbara Ehrenreich’s exposé Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America (2001) was to the working-class. In giving a forthright, first-person account of working at the bottom of the food chain, McMillan hopes to shock—and that she does. Through solid reporting, she shares engaging, often heartbreaking stories of poverty, backbreaking labor, abuse, and generosity. But the book becomes less compelling when McMillan uses "ill-digested statistics" (Wall Street Journal) and politicizes the larger story of food inequality. And because her "perspective remains that of a privileged reformer who knows how and what everybody else should eat" (San Francisco Chronicle), some of her insights sound too idealistic. In the end, the book may be best as a starting point for exploring questions of food and class in America rather than in providing answers.