Book review: The Secret Life of Groceries, by Benjamin Lorr
This book is about the grocery store. About the people who work there and the routes of supply that define it. It is the product of five years of research, hundreds of interviews, and thousands of hours tracking down, and working alongside, the buyers, brokers, marketers, and managers whose lives and choices define our diet.
Could such a book have come at a better time? At the beginning of the pandemic, it felt like one topic that came up constantly, in public discourse and from my personal observation, was the grocery store. We saw endless photos of ransacked shelves, and I remember early during the lockdown seeing a cart loaded — positively loaded — with bags of frozen shrimp, scallops, and assorted seafood. I’ve never seen such a haul that wasn’t on the deck of a ship on a reality show about fishing, but all other meat was completely wiped out that day so I guess that was this family’s grab for protein.
My point is, our relationship to the grocery store and food supply chains have been spotlighted recently in a big way, in a don’t-know-what-you’ve-got-til-it’s-gone way. We spend 2% of our lives in the grocery store! (Personally, I’m sure I spend more than that.) As someone obsessed with food writing and curious about the workings of all pathways of the food industry, I couldn’t devour this book fast enough.
Journalist Benjamin Lorr opens with an anecdote about a dazed “flashbulb memory” of going into a Manhattan grocery store after spending a summer living in Kenya, on his first evening back in the city. The intense, surging, surprisingly emotional memory of what it felt like to be back in a supermarket in his home country was the defining memory to him of this entire summer, despite the much more intense, and one would assume lastingly memorable, experiences from Kenya. It serves to underscore just how powerful our connection to the grocery store as institution is.
This hit me hard, because in my years abroad I missed my neighborhood supermarkets so much, and at the same time, grocery shopping became an almost calming, grounding activity when I was figuring out life in strange lands as well. If you have those kind of connections to food shopping, this book is a necessity.
Over the course of five years of research, Lorr embedded with workers along the supply chain — taking a job at the fish counter of the Bowery Whole Foods in Manhattan; accompanying a female trucker on her route while learning the complicated, exhausting, and financially trying world of trucking; the expensive difficulties of being an entrepreneur with a new product fighting for shelf space and the madness of trade spend; Joe Couloumbe, Trader Joe himself, on his supermarket philosophy, how he’s differentiated his stores and what was important to him; and a horrifying look at the slave labor industry in commercial fishing and shrimping in Thailand. Sorry to end on a big bummer, but this is something that can’t be ignored and yet ends up often looked away from, sadly.
These are the primary topics, but there’s so much more that gets covered in between, like how supermarkets and packaged foods rose to prominence in America (to the envy of the Soviet Union!) and where this thing called Piggly Wiggly came from. Lorr packs in facts, figures, and stats while still keeping it entirely readable. The information here was astonishing. I couldn’t believe that trucking, a seemingly lucrative job on the surface and an industry that the country is massively reliant on for virtually any product you can think of, boils down to being independent contracting with the highest expenditures you can imagine. My mouth was hanging open through most of this chapter. Some of this just doesn’t seem possible, especially for something that’s the very definition of essential.
That’s what’s so fantastic about this book — there’s so much behind the scenes in our supply of goods and economy, things that we rely on so heavily, that we know virtually nothing about and we absolutely should. Or we think we do, but it’s much more complicated, brutally capitalistic, and just generally worse than what we think. Take the pay-to-play system that entrepreneurs encounter if they want any shelf space for their products. Julie Busha and her condiment, Slawsa, are the example Lorr traces to illustrate this:
The euphemism is “trade spend” and it is an area of the industry nobody wants to talk about too loudly because it is so murky and backward. The idea that the best products are on the shelf — rather than say, the producers who ponied up the biggest bucks — benefits the supplier and the store. And what the customer doesn’t know, can’t hurt them.
There were a few details here and there that baffled me without explanation, and this was the book’s sole drawback, in my opinion (besides that I would’ve read a book twice as long). Lorr asserts that “the fact is we spend less money than almost every other country in the world on food,” which shocked me, because having just moved back to the US from Europe, I’ve been astounded and pretty concerned that my grocery bills have close to doubled for essentially the same items. I’m really curious about how this calculation was worked out and what it’s based on and couldn’t find it specifically referenced in his sources, so I need to go digging on that myself. [Edit: I’ve learned that the sentence quoted will read in later editions, “the fact is we spend less of our money…”, so that mystery is solved.]
There is a minor bit here about international connections, beyond the chapter on human trafficking in the Thai fishing industry (which is painfully terrible, but an important aspect to examine). But in relation to supermarkets themselves, Lorr just covers a bit about the German economic miracle that is ALDI, namely that ALDI’s success is “directly credited by economists with spurring the postwar German recovery.” Consider where Germany started postwar and where they are now and let that blow your mind a bit, considering the humble German ALDI store. He includes some information about the famously reclusive founding family (although with a kidnapping in their past, no wonder) and it’s an all-around fascinating topic.
This is also one of those books where the footnotes are as interesting as the main text. Lorr writes with an abundance of humor and knows when to insert some levity to break up a potentially dull bit of history or economics, or worse, the depressing impact of some of these disturbing revelations. Yet he’s respectful of those he worked alongside, or who allowed him to accompany or interview them. We all owe this kind of respect and awareness to the people we depend on to keep us fed.
To end on a humorous note, at least: he hilariously skewers tiki decoration, like at Trader Joe’s, that “insist[ s] you goddamn better be relaxing,” or that his work at the fish counter is essentially “maintaining a mortuary”: “keeping all our skinned dead friends looking glam for the customer” with “the fish mortician’s makeup of cut lemons and squiggly halos of sliced red pepper.” Try to ever look at the fish counter the same way again; wait until you read his description of how it’s cleaned and what that smells like.
Eye-opening and incredibly informative while still entertaining, this is a must-read in food nonfiction, especially from a social justice angle investigating the oft-overlooked human perspective in this industry. Highly recommended if you love Fast Food Nation.
The Secret Life of Groceries:
The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket
by Benjamin Lorr
published September 8, 2020 by Avery
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.