Review: The American Way of Eating

The American Way of Eating by Tracie McMillan

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Before striking out on my own, I was not the kind of person who could improvise with food. While I adapted recipes right and left to my own nefarious purposes, I always needed to start with a recipe. But a few weeks ago, I, eager for something other than baked eggs, sweet potatoes, and muffins, finally snapped. I, a woman who once cried when I undercooked a chicken breast (even though I could just put it back in the oven), improvised a fish curry with what I had on hand—curry paste, almond milk, frozen vegetables, leftover mushrooms, and some manager’s special salmon. Once finished, I declared it a template for “whatever curry,” so perhaps my days of slavishly following recipes aren’t entirely over. But it’s still a big step for me, towards what Tracie McMillan calls “culinary literacy.”

Much of The American Way of Eating will sound familiar to those with a remote interest in food politics—nobody chooses to eat like crap on a regular basis, it’s difficult to afford organic food while you’re making minimum wage, the immigrant labor that American agriculture relies upon is not treated very well or especially educated about their rights by their employers, and what you order at the neighborhood Applebee’s is about as fresh as what you order at McDonald’s. (Given the centrality of a Chili’s molten chocolate cake to a story about Obama’s inauguration that I tell a lot, this felt a little like a betrayal, although I should have known better.) All points worth repeating, of course, but it’s McMillan’s focus on America’s food distribution system and her focus on culinary literacy that sets it apart. McMillan wants to reframe food as not a luxury (something she repeats in the piece collected in Best Food Writing 2013), but “a social good” (236). To that end, McMillan argues, the American food distribution system needs a publicly controlled infrastructure, and Americans must become culinarily literate.

It’s a very convincing argument, even if you’re already on McMillan’s side. If Walmart provides 25% of Americans’ food supply (and up to 50% in some areas), then these Americans are at the mercy of a private company whose main goal is to increase profits, not provide a basic utility. As Walmart grows bigger and bigger, McMillan argues, it will have less incentive to provide low prices, because it’s competition that generates low prices. She’s not out to destroy Walmart (or Applebee’s for that matter), even if neither company comes off particularly well in her coverage of her work at both establishments. But neither do they come off as the scum of the earth. McMillan is merely pointing out that the system, when played successfully, doesn’t need to take into account what foods people should be able to afford at all price points. And, as that’s the system Americans rely upon the most for our food, it has to change.

But it’s the concept of culinary literacy that sticks with me the most, as someone who is very aware of how culinarily illiterate she is. McMillan briefly quotes Bonnie Slotnick, a cookbook editor, who notes that her instructions have become more and more basic as the years have gone by. Without home economic classes and with less cooking skills being passed on by parents for various reasons, Americans are much less comfortable with a stocked kitchen than they once were. The market has, as it always does, risen to fill a need for easily made meals, providing prechopped salad (that’s more expensive per ounce than a head of lettuce) and starter sauces. At one point, McMillan crunches out the price difference between an Applebee’s entree and making the same thing at home. Unsurprisingly, it’s cheaper to make it at home—it’s just more difficult, if you’ve never been taught how to judge when meat is properly cooked. I can see readers of various political stripes disagreeing with McMillan’s visions for America’s food distribution system, but the idea that having people knowing their way around a kitchen will improve their health is hard to refute.

Opening The American Way of Eating, I expected to just read McMillan’s thoughts on America and its food. I didn’t expect something that could have easily fallen into being “I did X for a year!”, although McMillian transcends that by offering just enough analysis on what she went through as she worked in various sectors of American’s food industry. (I would have loved more analysis, however.) While reading this, I was actually reminded of a friend of mine who hates Nickel and Dimed; she sees it as a kind of class tourism. (I’ve never read Nickel and Dimed, by the way.) McMillan avoids anything of the sort by being constantly aware of her privilege, especially the fact that she can just walk away from her job.

The writing is straight-forward and almost completely unadorned, and the structure is rigid and uncompromising. McMillan’s goal is to make her point efficiently, not prettily, and in that, she succeeds.

Bottom line: In The American Way of Eating, Tracie McMillan argues that the American food industry needs to be reformed by taking its distribution system public and providing American citizens with culinary literacy. The writing style is as plain as can be, but the points it makes are worth listening to. If you’d like.

I rented this book from the public library.

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