I’ve often found myself, in this strange time we are living in, wishing I were Norwegian, and never more so than when engaging with the debate over American foodways. There are some unalterable facts about how the U.S. feeds itself today, or, as Tracie McMillan puts it in her fine new book, The American Way of Eating. One is that a lot of people are fat and unhealthy; another is that not enough people have enough nutritious food to eat; and a third is that the first two groups of people are generally to be found among the poor.
These truths poison all discussions of food that appear in the public space. Once you get started talking about poverty and “food deserts” and why there are no supermarkets in Detroit, you’ve wandered into an ideological hot zone. That’s why the best parts of McMillan’s The American Way of Eating — in which she recounts her year spent as a fry cook at an Applebee’s in New York, farm worker in California and produce stocker in a Michigan Walmart — come from actual experience, not hypotheticals, and thus can’t be refuted by empty bloviation of the David Brooks type. When McMillan describes people ecstatically eating food thrown out by Trader Joe’s or a girl downing seven coffee creamers in Burger King because they’re free, these images stick with you. Barbara Ehrenreich wrote an even better book, Nickeled and Dimed, that should be read by everyone who wants to argue about work and wages. George Orwell did the same in Down and Out in Paris and London, and the value of books like these is that they aren’t about policy. They’re about life.
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Sadly, The American Way of Eating loses its way toward the end, when it enters the political fray. “My publisher wanted me to offer some positive suggestions,” the author told me, but I think her publisher was wrong. There are any number of people who can craft liberal legislation that has no chance of being passed. Why bother? McMillan makes vague calls for a publicly-funded food distribution system, standard bleeding-heart stuff that I expect will attract the most fire from her critics. And yet, strangely, a number of them have jumped on her for the “elitism” in the reportorial parts of the book.
The most conspicuous has been Rush Limbaugh, who, unfazed by the Sandra Fluke fiasco, took to the airwaves yesterday to blast McMillan for embarking on the project, calling her another example of these “young single white women, overeducated [which] does not mean intelligent.” Meanwhile, Michael Stern, a lifelong celebrant, with his wife Jane, of roadside Americana, took umbrage with McMillan, saying that she “believes commoners eat poorly not because they prefer junk food to artisanal fare but because America’s food distribution system makes good groceries and salubrious meals elusive to all but the advantaged few.” This trick, of distancing oneself from a tone that the reviewer invented from whole cloth, is certainly unworthy of Stern, who himself is hardly a man of the people. His own books, like American Gourmet and The Encyclopedia of Bad Taste, are written in a tone of bemused irony, far more patronizing than anything that comes from McMillan.
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Others have followed the same line: “Though McMillan’s account sheds light on the lives of her co-workers, the book’s narrative is really about her own experiences and hardships. She acknowledges that she can enter and exit these low-income jobs at will while her co-workers are stuck there, so the complaints and desperation she expresses often fall flat,” writes the Boston Globe. McMillan is stung by these criticisms. “Just because I’m white and college-educated, everyone assumes I come from money and privilege,” says McMillan, who grew up eating Velveeta in a working-class family in the Midwest, drives a 1994 Escort, and had been a reporter covering the poverty beat when she got the idea to to write The American Way of Eating. It is obvious to anyone who has actually read the book that its author is a million miles from being an Alice Waters-type gourmand.
But none of these unfounded critiques should come as a surprise. Shooting the messengers is the traditional way of blunting the force of the news they report. The fact is that the people McMillan writes about – as an eyewitness, it has to be remembered – don’t need defending. They need better jobs, and better food. But some reviewers find even this assertion questionable, such as the fellow who trashed in the Wall Street Journal, mocking McMillan’s “fellow nutrition activists, whose claims of simultaneous hunger and obesity epidemics among the needy imply that somewhere out there are millions of very poor, very hungry Americans who are also very fat.” That’s the voice of someone who has never left his office or learned even the most basic nutritional science. McMillan’s whole book is filled with people who lack the time and money to cook wholesome meals and instead eat junk food that makes them hungrier sooner than would more nutritious fare.
The American Way of Eating doesn’t break any new ground. It simply tells the truth about what the author saw. But of course, what she saw involves class, and class meanspolitics, and politics — at least now — is the most unhealthy diet of all.