Lost in the Supermarket

Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America
Michael Ruhlman

Like the singer in Mick Jones‘ lyrics, I am quite capable of getting lost in a grocery store. I don’t even need a special offer to entice me. The Clash may have been commenting on consumer society. I just like to food shop.

That, I suppose, could be construed as evidence of just how confused I am. I’ll grant you, abhorring the supermarket is not a gendered response, although avoiding it may be. Growing up, my mom did the shopping, but except for the time away from the turmoil of our boisterous home, I don’t think she enjoyed it. My father never really adjusted to doing his own shopping after she passed. Even Mrs. AHC, she of the bargain-hunting, cents-saving radar, finds it a tiresome chore.

I, on the other hand, love every minute of it. My years as a city dweller left me with the bad and, in the suburbs, particularly inconvenient habit of shopping daily. Even though I’m the cook I resist menu planning. How do I know what I want to cook until I’ve seen what’s fresh?  Or what’s new? I could be missing out on something.

This is not the way America shops for food. Despite changes– even radical changes, many of which figure in this book’s sketch of the grocery business’ recent history–America is not a food culture.

A grocery store is a grocery store. Stick to the periphery and pay for quality.

In this country, food is fuel, a necessity or practicality. If we just apply some good old-fashioned Yankee common sense to the subject we can get it out of the way PDQ and get back to the business of business. (New Orleans, of course, stands as a single-market rebuke to this way of thinking about our daily bread.)

Michael Ruhlman, I suspect, might share some of those beliefs though he’d no doubt express them in a less dismissive manner. For those who don’t know of him, Ruhlman writes about food and chefs. He’s also sort of a brand. Not just because he writes almost entirely on this one subject, but because chefs trust him enough to be their co-authors. That camaraderie probably owes a lot to a particularly formative experience–attending CIA, the Culinary Institute of America–an adventure he shared in one of his early books, The Making of a Chef.

I own some of the cookbooks and have read The Soul of a Chef, a follow-on volume that follows three CIA students closely, so I knew what to expect. Still, I found the going tough at times. That’s nothing to do with Ruhlman’s talents. He’s a fine writer who demonstrates obvious delight and deep interest in his subject. The problem is a little too much, well, Michael Ruhlman.

Once upon a time, the butcher could build a grocery business around him. Joe Heinen on the left.

Social science geeks like me are well acquainted with participant-observer studies. And the new journalism forever broke the constraint of a disembodied detachment. So why does this bother me here when I suffer no similar reactions to, say, Calvin Trillin or Peter Mayle? I’m not certain I can answer that question though it certainly shouldn’t keep anyone else from reading the book.

There’s a lot to savor here and you’ll probably discover any number of things that will make your future trips to the supermarket better informed. A warning is in order: meat-eaters will have to come to grips with the reality that to eat meat is to consume a recently living animal. That’s no easier on the grocer than the eaters. At least that’s what I told myself as I learned about lamb and beef “programs.” Eupehmisms seem to go with the territory.

You’ll also find yourself in closer touch with the industry behind the boxed, processed and pre- and par-cooked foods that fill most of the space in the supermarket. If the only effect of reading Ruhlman is to spend more time shopping on the periphery of the store–where produce, meat, fish and dairy typically are found–you’ll be ahead of the game.

Not every grocery store offers a butcher counter. Around here, only Wegmans and Kings do.

For me, the best parts of the book were about those departments. Even if you mostly cook from scratch, as I do most nights, the sheer scale of the enterprise is staggering. Just consider what goes into making lettuce or tomatoes or zucchini or blackberries available in almost every store in the nation. Fresh and on-demand. Then consider the cost. It’s the bargain of a lifetime and we ought to be reveling in it instead of trying to find a way to avoid it.

Yet people hate the supermarket and are certain they’re getting ripped off. Here’s where a critical authorial choice enters. Ruhlman could have reported this in any number of venues. A huge national chain like Kroger. A super regional, employee-owned chain like Publix. A national organically-oriented chain like Whole Foods. A local institution engaged in the expansion that could doom it, like New York‘s Fairway. (He does visit Whole Foods’ flagship store in Austin, but we’ve already done that. Ruhlman’s take doesn’t strike me as terribly different than my own.)

Instead, he chose Heinen’s, a chain based in his hometown of Cleveland that also operates a handful of stores in Chicago. Because he’s known the stores since boyhood, the changes of the decades are more apparent. And because it’s a family-owned entity, it’s possible to describe the evolution of the category in personal terms, looking back all the way to the company’s origins as a single butcher shop and talking to the 3rd generation now running the chain.

Okay, maybe not every grocery store is the same. A flagship’s a flagship.

That doesn’t prevent a slip or two. Despite the repeated lessons of the Heinen family about how unforgiving the grocery business is, the scant margins sometimes escape even Ruhlman. A single store might reportedly have a $216,000 day the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. That the net profit probably lies between $2,000 and $6,000 goes unnoted. Elsewhere, the occasional gripe about mark-up creeps into even casual encounters.

As I write all this I feel myself lightening up just a little. Ruhlman calls himself a home cook. In a world where chef–a word that should connote running a commercial-scale kitchen and years of apprenticeship as well as a feel for creating with agricultural products–is appropriated willy-nilly, I find that honest and respectful.

And those words ought to describe our food as well.




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