When you leaf through Bon Appetit or the dining section of a major newspaper, chances are there will be gorgeous food photos, expertly tested recipes and lifestyle features that include kitchen products you may drool over. There may also be excellent food writing, perhaps the kind that details a great restaurant meal or shares a family food tradition. But don't expect Tracie McMillan to author any of those.
"Most writing about food in the U.S. has come from a gourmand tradition," McMillan told The Huffington Post. "Very few people dedicate serious reporting efforts to how the food system works."
McMillan's new book "The American Way Of Eating," reminiscent of Barbara Ehrenreich's "Nickel And Dimed," reveals a story that goes way beyond the meal on your plate. It tells of Walmart employees who spend hours peeling off layers of moldy lettuce before restocking it on the shelves, illegal immigrants with no hope of workers' compensation and Applebee's chefs who don't actually cook anything, since most food is pre-made and then shipped to the restaurant. McMillan can tell these stories because show knows them first-hand -- she immersed herself as a migrant worker, Walmart employee and Applebee's staffer to see for herself how America eats.
McMillan tells her story as it happens, interspersing her experiences with research -- she spent a year digging into policy before going undercover. Sure, there are moments of tears, frustration and the feeling of utter exhaustion, but McMillan never wants you to feel sorry for her. Rather, she wants you to acknowledge that America is not just the land of plenty. It is also a land of back-breaking field work and trailer park accommodations.
The book has received a rave review from The New York Times and what McMillan calls a "totally fair" review from the Wall Street Journal. In the San Francisco Chronicle, food writer Michael Stern had a different take. He called McMillan a "privileged reformer who knows how and what everybody else should eat."
McMillan rejected the criticism, saying it's "everything I am writing against."
"If I tell a single mom to cook more, I’m being a jerk," McMillan said. "I have absolutely no right to tell her how to run her life. I think the use of the word 'should' is really problematic, particularly if you are from a community that is told that a lot."
McMillan doesn't criticize poor people for eating too much fast food. But she doesn't pretend every meal is a healthy one -- often the choice is motivated by money. "If you want to see that kids are picking oranges over Oreos, you really have to spend time in a community," she said. McMillan said she believes her firsthand experience allowed her to tell a much richer story.
So is there an American way of eating, and did McMillan find it? Not surprisingly, the answer is complicated, and probably necessitates many more years of living in unfamiliar environments. "People are always going to find a point to be moralistic about things they want to be moralistic about," said McMillan. "I do think that there is an emerging cadre of voices really questioning that healthy food is an elitist proposition. But I see this at the grassroots."
At the very least, with McMillan's book -- regardless of whether you agree with everything she says -- succeeds in describing more than an American way of eating. It's an American way of life.