Originally published in the Washington Post
Most food writers begin their tales with fond reminiscences of the great grub they grew up with: Mom’s Sunday meatballs or the secret recipe for Grandma’s beloved Christmas cookies. Tracie McMillan takes the opposite tack. She grew up in a working-class family in Flint, Mich., eating Ortega taco dinners and salads made with iceberg lettuce and Wish-Bone ranch dressing. The lesson her grandmother taught her was that any meal that took time or money to prepare — or worse, both — was for “fancy” people. Her father called them snobs.
It was only after a decade in New York that McMillan began to question the assumption she had been spoon-fed since childhood. On the poverty beat for a small magazine, she was assigned to cover a cooking class for city youth. There she met Vanessa, a classic “mouthy” Bronx teen who explained that, sure, she ate a lot of fast food. But she’d much prefer to eat broccoli and tomatoes — if they were affordable and easily available in her neighborhood.
That was McMillan’s aha moment. Why, she wondered, is it so difficult for so many Americans to eat well? To find out, she went undercover in a series of unskilled jobs that took her, as she describes it, from farm to plate: She labors as a farmhand in California, picking grapes, sorting peaches and cutting garlic. She stocks shelves at a Wal-Mart in suburban Michigan. She expedites orders at a busy Applebee’s in Brooklyn. And she lives on the paltry wages that she earns to see what culinary compromises she is forced to make. Along the way, she unpacks how these jobs, and the corporate food chain as a whole, have evolved and shape the way we eat. Think of it as the food version of “Nickel and Dimed,”Barbara Ehrenreich’s classic undercover investigation of life in low-wage America.
McMillan is a lively storyteller. It’s not easy to create narrative tension while describing repetitive, menial jobs such as unloading pallets of processed foods, but somehow she keeps readers’ attention. “Like any stranger in a foreign land, I’m overwhelmed by the landscape around me,” she writes of her first overnight shift in the grocery department of a Wal-Mart in Kalamazoo. “Finding the Great Value (the Walmart house brand) flour is akin to locating North America on a map, but locating the solitary strip of Great Value Sugar-Free Strawberry Banana Gelatin is more like being tasked with finding the capital of Bhutan.”
More important, her investigation pulls back the curtain on a host of unsavory practices along the food chain.