Benjamin Lorr’s excellent new book on the creation of the modern grocery store
Is there any subject more relevant to feminism, industrialization, and the American Dream than the grocery store? In a new book, The Secret Life of Groceries, Benjamin Lorr makes a strong argument that the modern grocery store was as responsible for the rise of the middle class as the baby boom and the GI Bill that sent thousands of people to college.
It’s easy to romanticize European markets and the lifestyle of going to the store on a daily basis until, say, a global pandemic hits. We can sentimentalize popping from one picturesque specialty store to the other, but this very act held American women back from being able to work outside of the home, as it could take an entire day just to put dinner on the table at night.
In the Secret Life of Groceries, we learn about Clarence Saunders, who believed merchandise should be handled and that the women should be able to “frolic among the abundance” thusly ushering in the modern grocery store and fundamentally changing the way Americans engage with food. This gave rise to packaging and transportation advancements, and as one store became a chain a diversity of food became available to a larger audience. At this time more people have access to a greater variety of fruits and vegetables than any other in history.
Our food system contains terrible inequities, and Lorr doesn’t deny us those arguments. In one chapter, he dives deeply into trucking and distribution riding along with Lynne Ryles who drives a lease-to-own refrigerated truck. He reports that in one year Lynne estimates she grosses about $200,000 based on the miles driven but she is clear her take-home is no where near that. After fees her take home pay looks more like a pauper’s wages of less than $17,000. Lorr goes on to unfold a cycle-of-poverty story that will make the staunchest conservative gnash their teeth.
He devotes an entire chapter to Joe Coulombe of Trader Joe’s fame that’s worth the price of the book alone (spoiler, they used to carry ammo) Lorr had the judiciousness to sit down with Coulombe several times before Columbe’s passing earlier this year.
Lorr at once delivers an unbiased and deeply passionate review of the American food system. To him, it’s not that we are what we eat, but that “We eat the way we are,” and by that he means big and chaotic and messy but also industrious and prosperous and equitable—simultaneously proletarian and lavish. To Lorr, the supermarket is as American as apple pie.
(Avery, September 8, 2020)