Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America
© 2017 Michel Ruhlman
Let’s go shopping! There’s a few errands to take care of first — an homage to dad, a quick review of the history of grocery stores — but then, straight to business. Aisle by aisle, from dried pasta to fresh fish, the way Americans approach food is changing, and Michael Ruhlman’s Grocery shows us how, using — literally — the neighborhood grocery store, the one just down the block from his childhood home. Ruhlman has a particular passion for food, one inherited from his father — a man who genuinely looked forward to his weekly run to the grocery, one who kept journals of the meals he’d entertained company with — and has turned that into a series of books, including one that took him into chef school. Here he’s spending his time with the twin brothers who run a series of stores that grew out from their father’s, one that has continued to stay on top of modern eating trends.
During Ruhlman’s childhood, the grocery store was a place where you bought groceries. Wal-Mart changed that, though, when they invaded the grocery market, and other stores like Target followed in their wake. A lot of what a grocery stocks, the stuff in the center aisles, are commodity goods that are the same regardless of where you buy them: a box of Cheerios, say, canned soup, or jar of olives. The quality doesn’t change from store to store, and it’s hard for a local grocery to compete with prices against the likes of Wal-Mart, let alone Amazon. Their future will lie in offering high-value goods or culinary experiences that can’t be thrown on a truck. Although Americans cook increasingly less — Michael Pollan speculates gloomily that the next generation may view food prep as weird and alien to their life as milking a cow or beheading a chicken — we’re still obsessed with food. Part of this is not a healthy obsession, although “health” is the object: there is an increasing tendency to view food as medicine, buying it based on its advertised health claims rather than its actual quality. Neither Ruhlman nor anyone he interviews are impressed with the USDA’s track record in declaring foods as “healthy” or unhealthy, having previously damned eggs and butter to the devil’s bin.
What most people miss is that no food is “healthy”, Ruhlman writes. Food can be nutritious, but it’s only part of a healthy lifestyle. Even if the granola bars people are so increasingly fond of were unequivocally good for them — and they aren’t, really, given the amount of sugars packed in as preservative — people need varied diets and physical activity to be “healthy”. Still, what the market demands is what it gets: the Heinen brothers visit organic expos and look for genuinely nutritious snacks they can introduce in their stores, but they’re mostly beholden to what people demand…be that Cheerios or free-range lambchops. Happily, the market in general is shifting to favor organics and local produce, so the absence of spring fruit in winter is no longer a deal breaker for people who visit the store. Grocery stores are having to go beyond food, too: the Heinen brothers have long emphasized health in the products they stock, and their most recent store (in a renovated Beaux Arts bank) has a restaurant and bar. This is not not unique to the Heinen brothers, as other chains like Trader Joes have experimented with coffee houses and the like; from the surviving neighborhood grocers to WalMart, prepared food is an increasing part of the grocery store’s stock in trade. What is unique to the Heinens is that they have a doctor on staff, one who vets the quality of their produce and health departments, and who gives community seminars about food and wellness.
Grocery has a lot of topics thrown in the buggy — the history of grocery stores, critiques of our modern diet, insight into the marketing and purchase decisions of grocers — and some of it may be repetitive if you’ve been reading an author like Michael Pollan. The store he chose has a unique character, and I enjoyed learning about the brothers’ business and their attempt to contribute to a fresh food culture in their part of Ohio. Also, I have to be a fan of anyone who takes a beautiful but abandoned building and turns it into a community center, at a big risk to themselves.