Restaurants and Feeding Families: Two on Foodways

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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23 thoughts on “Restaurants and Feeding Families: Two on Foodways

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  1. The first one sounds very interesting. I am against the food delivery apps as they take such a cut; two of our local restaurants do self-delivery and we do use those, but my husband doesn’t see so much of a problem. I’m harder-line than him anyway and there has to be a middle way. A shame the second one is structured oddly and repetitive.

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    1. I order directly from the restaurants wherever possible too. We have a group of restaurants in our neighborhood who always encourage you to use a different app so I downloaded and use that one too, it’s much smaller and I’m assuming better for them because even when I call they ask you to use it. It’s the massive ones that just have none of the restaurants’ interests in mind, only profit and such an unfair business model.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. The Next Supper sounds interesting. One thing that bothers me that you didn’t mention is all of the carryout packaging that is being used. It’s horrifying and may require legislation to force restaurants into using less environmentally toxic containers. Going a step even further, I’d love to be able to bring my own reusable food containers to a restaurant and just have them put my meal-to-go inside, but I can’t see our health departments approving anything like this in the near future.

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    1. I agree, the packaging is terrible. It would be much better to be able to use your own reusable containers, especially since I end up using them for leftovers at home anyway, but you’re right, the health department guidelines around that seem insurmountable.

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  3. I run a food pantry and the plight of the poor is very real. I try to give some fresh foods each week but it is hard to do. We are able to supply milk, bread, cheese and eggs. Often we can give potatoes and onions. Occasionally we have fresh fruit or vegetables, more often in the summer and fall. We do give fresh meats of some sort each week but they still get a lot of processed foods. Canned goods, hamburger helper, jarred pasta sauce, white pasta, etc. It is a conundrum.

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  4. The first one might interest my husband who likes nonfiction and is a bartender who’s been in the industry about 10 years. He’s certainly seen a lot of change in the last few years. But I agree, I don’t think restaurants are doomed. Too many people don’t like to cook for that to happen! I agree with Carol, restaurant packaging is a real problem.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I agree, especially in big(ger) cities restaurants are such a major part of the culture too! I can’t imagine that ever changing. Right now in NYC we’re in a bad Covid wave and most restaurants remain packed.

      I definitely think he’d find that one interesting, and would be interesting to hear his insights from his experience as well!

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Both sound interesting. In regards to the second book, we don’t have kids and still budget for food. I know we’re better off than a lot of people but I try to budget wisely so as to not put a damper on us financially. Prices of food are rising every time I go to the store, so I keep coming back with less. We’re probably going to start going the bulk route and freezer packaging what we can. I would say her research, without even reading the book, is accurate. Crappy food is MUCH cheaper than good food and if you’re struggling to feed an entire family, being fed crap is better than not being fed at all.

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    1. That’s exactly what her research disproved, actually – that junk food is so much cheaper than nutritious food. That’s been the predominant viewpoint that’s generally widely accepted for some time but she found it was rarely the case. Even the families she followed on the lower end of the economic spectrum had easy access to reasonably priced fruits and vegetables, whole foods for cooking, etc. and knew these were the more nutritious options. Her big point was that she found over and over it comes down to being able to say yes to something little like sugary cereal, Oreos, or pizza instead of always having to say no to the bigger things. It makes sense to me, packaged/processed foods aren’t all that cheap, really, and neither is fast food. But it comes down to what’s an acceptable indulgence that makes kids happy in the short term.

      Prices are definitely rising, I’ve been so disturbed by it too. I already felt like we spent SO much on groceries and now it’s really alarming. This was written before that though, so I’m sure it will affect future research much differently.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. The online press that I read has obsessively written about the issues that restaurants have been facing: the biggest being uncertainty that any changes they make will endure in the next surprise reversal of conditions. I have just given up, and get all my foods from Costco, Trader Joe, other supermarkets, bakeries, produce shops, and other retail. Sad stories all around, but despite your good review, I feel like I don’t need to read a whole book about it.

    best…mae at maefood.blogspot.com

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    1. Yes, it does seem early to make sweeping predictions, especially as the pandemic keeps going and changing. I cook the majority of our meals but I really like being able to support the restaurants I love, it’s just a conundrum of how to do that when it’s such a complicated industry all around.

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  7. I do like the sound of both of these. My best friend and I were talking about how we don’t know how poorer families can afford to ridiculous prices of food particularly healthy food. Is it any wonder that MacDonald’s is such a staple in so many diets?

    We don’t eat or order out anymore since I am home, I do cook meals now.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Both of these sound interesting. I like the idea of the second book taking into account how the subjects felt rather than just stats and facts. Also first books look at apps and lower price expectations of immigrant dining offerings would be well worth a look at

    Liked by 2 people

  9. I think it’s so fascinating how the Covid crisis and our time in lockdown will affect our consumer patterns in general. Probably, it’s too early to conclude anything. When it comes to eating, I don’t eat more takeaway than earlier. I don’t eat at restaurants as often, but when I go, I spend more money per visit. Hopefully, not all of the consequences are negative. Our time in lockdown has also illuminated things which didn’t work very well before. But let’s see.

    The first book sounds interesting, but I would also be interested in reading a book about consumerism post Covid in general.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I agree, I think it’s really too early to understand the long-term effects, especially as the situation fluctuates so much again every couple of months. I hope it has positive consequences too, this author seems to think that’s possible but we have to make the effort.

      I’m with you on wanting to read a book about how consumerism post-Covid has changed as well!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I’ve been interested in The Next Supper, but was skeptical about how good it would be. Perhaps because of how topical it is, it seems like it could be rushed? It sounds like it wasn’t perfect, but was interesting, thorough, and well worth a read.

    I wasn’t as interested in the second book until you mentioned it was set in the Bay Area. It’s a shame it had such a narrow focus and didn’t hold your interest as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It did feel a bit rushed. To be fair, there was enough of the back story of how badly the restaurant business has been run and how elements like delivery apps are structured and workers are treated, so to learn about that was very worthwhile. And some of the things I mentioned, like how certain immigrant cuisines are expected to be priced lower, etc. But any projections still feel so up in the air to me for the time being.

      You might find How the Other Half Eats really interesting with your perspective on the area – she does reference it often, and specific neighborhoods, the stark differences between a couple of miles, things like that!

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  11. Searingly honest…and that is your strength!
    Thanks for convincing me these 2 books are NOT what I’m looking for.
    Yes, moms and family are important..but as you said singles…and the elderly have a real problem keeping nutritious food on the table these days. I don’t eat meat…and was still shocked at my grocery bill. Can you imagine 10 bio eggs for 5 euros?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh thanks Nancy! Glad I could save you some time on ones that aren’t for you.

      My grocery bill has been climbing too, but eek, 5 euros for 10 bio eggs is really extreme. I paid around $67 for two brown paper sack-sized bags a few weeks back and kept checking the receipt for a mistake, I thought there’s absolutely no way, these aren’t luxury items. And yet. Scary times.

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