An important flip side to foodie lit are books looking at the ethics of the food business, foodways, the food supply chain, and aspects of the food industry.
Two recent books take deep dives into the rapidly evolving future of the restaurant and delivery industries post-Covid, and how different families eat at varying income levels.
In The Next Supper: The End of Restaurants as We Knew Them, and What Comes After (PublicAffairs), Corey Mintz looks at the myriad changes that hit the restaurant industry suddenly at the start of the pandemic, necessitating rapid change in order to survive. And as the pandemic continues to affect indoor dining — sometimes more, sometimes less depending on season, tourism, Covid waves — and these fluctuations are expected to continue, how to adapt continues to be a major issue for the restaurant industry.
Mintz had his lightbulb moment thanks to Ruth Reichl, who I’m always happy to see even in a brief cameo. Mintz worked as a restaurant critic and food journalist, and got to interview Reichl while she was at Gourmet. He cooked dinner for her at his home, and she “grilled” him about where he’d sourced his ingredients, which got him thinking.
Suddenly, all I could see were the systemic problems in food that I’d spent years ignoring — in our restaurants, fields, oceans, classrooms, hospitals, prisons, boardrooms, and chambers of government.
Mintz examines the restaurant industry from many angles: the cult of personality around “chef-driven” restaurants, the pressure for faddish Instagrammable dishes, the paradox of the immigrant restaurant whose cuisine is expected to cost less, and the pricey problem of food delivery apps.
These all end up fascinating topics, although you could probably guess the outcomes of each: we shouldn’t support restaurants built around a superstar chef, where employees are often underpaid and treated terribly; the need to create Instagrammable atmospheres and special dishes is immense but costly, generally resulting in food that’s barely edible, only meant to be photographed and drive traffic; and perhaps what floored me most: we inherently expect certain “immigrant” cuisines to be cheaper and aren’t willing to pay more for them despite the expense and number of their ingredients, not to mention the effort of these cooking methods. As examples, we expect Mexican and Thai to be cheap and aren’t willing to pay much more for them, but we are willing to shell out for Japanese and French restaurants.
This is generally bad news all around, and we haven’t even gotten to the delivery apps, which “extract value by charging the restaurant, which can range from 10 to 40 percent, usually hovering around 25 to 30 percent. How can you take 30 percent off the top from a business with such thin margins? You can’t.”
Although I did end this with the feeling that the problems are far more numerous than the solutions, Mintz does make a lot of effort to provide his solutions and suggestions, while admitting that this is very hard and imperfect. It can also be a bit businessy, which was often helpful and of course important for understanding how exactly the industry functions and how it’s so messed up, but elsewhere I was bored with it.
I’m also unsure I agree with all his conclusions, and it’s still too early to tell how the restaurant industry is going to fundamentally change post-pandemic — whenever that might be. I think that the subtitle could end up being inaccurate – I’m just not convinced it’s the end of restaurants as we know them, I think it’s more likely that the current problems — low pay and bad hours/treatment, dependence on tips, more encroachment by tech companies at the restaurant’s expense — will just get worse behind the scenes. So it’s even more important to be aware of how this industry works and how you can try to make the right choices.
It’s comprehensive too, sometimes surprisingly so — you know how every cafe and cookie shop now offers the opportunity to tip on the credit card screen? This isn’t as straightforward as you might think, and Mintz says there are points to be taken into consideration here, including just asking employees if they’re making a living wage or dependent on such tips, which they may not even be receiving. On the whole it’s very good and undeniably important, and I think anyone who dines out or orders frequently has a responsibility to be aware of these issues and how you can help or at least not actively make them worse.
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review. Shop used or new @SecondSale.com
For How the Other Half Eats: The Untold Story of Food and Inequality in America (2021), sociologist Priya Fielding-Singh spent extensive amounts of time with dozens of families across the economic spectrum and with varied ethnoracial backgrounds in the San Francisco Bay area to learn how the families ate and what choices shaped their food decision-making.
She asks them how they feel about those choices, not only why they make them (beyond the common villains of budget, store distance). The result of her research is far more nuanced than what current research provides: that is, America is a place of food deserts, where the economically strapped are forced to buy cheaper junk food at nearby corner stores and have limited access to fresh vegetables, which would be unaffordable for them anyway, or that income equates with education about what food is more nutritious and what isn’t.
This is such an important topic and her work is completely fascinating, but this got repetitive, down to the same anecdotes with the same details repeated multiple times, and what felt like way too many chapters explaining the concept of lower-income moms being able to say yes to something like candy or a Frappuccino instead of always saying no to bigger unaffordable things, hence allowing for less nutritious food choices and treats. It was a solid and important point to make, especially as her research disproves the widely-held theses of food deserts, barriers to access, etc. coupled with budget as being the primary factors in poor food choices or expensive treats, but felt done to death.
And despite the repeated details, others are mentioned very specifically, emphasizing the level of commitment she put into this research, but end up feeling odd and inexplicable. One family of four (with teenagers, not little kids) goes through 36 rolls of toilet paper in 30 days?!?! If anyone from such a family of four can shed further light on the accuracy of this, please do so because WTF.
I also think parents will be able to take much more from this and probably understand their own choices and decision-making better. I got tired of reading about moms and the same-sounding issues and would’ve liked to have seen at least some focus on singles, couples, or the elderly, all of whom face unique challenges in this nutrition vs. economics topic area. It’s almost entirely mom-focused, which Fielding-Singh goes to great lengths to explain reflects the reality of feeding families in the US. I don’t doubt her, but I lost interest.
This shouldn’t negate the importance of the topic in general though, and I would recommend it to any parent who might question their own reasoning in decision-making. (Also, grocery shopping as a parent sounds like an actual vision of hell.)
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