The Secret Life of Groceries: The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket
© 2020 Benjamin Lorr
The Secret Life of Groceries opens at a fish counter and invites the reader to consider how much labor, creativity, money, pain, and devotion are required to fill its pans with fish for our grills. But this isn’t just a book about fish, or even about the logistics of aquaculture and food; instead, the author uses them to reflect, with the reader, on how we create meaning for ourselves through what and how we consume.
I never fail to be interested in microhistories, or in books that shed light on how a given industry or service works: human action and the world it creates continually awes me. The Secret Life of Groceries more than delivers in that area, as Lorr begins at the fish counter and then explores what happens before. How are food products conceived, marketed, and sold? What are the stories behind how fish, shrimp, and other goods come to market? The book originally began as a journalistic effort to understand the unique appeal of Trader Joes, but then grew into a larger examination of the grocery market. Separate chapter focus on the harried life of just-in-time trucking, where turnover can be as high as 112% in a given year, to the expensive and crushing battle of small entrepreneurs to get their products onto grocery shelves – and if they’re not tired of bleeding money, we also see what it takes for a product to be ‘certified’, for extra appeal to market niches. After considering brands and how we use the spaces of grocery stores, we then move to the high seas – -where Burmese slaves, trapped on trawlers that never dock because they offload their goods to support transports — gather the junk fish that keep the shrimp industry fed. Although this and the chapter on trucking are harrowing, this is not a Fast Food Nation esque expose to make the reader feel guilty about eating shrimp salad. We are reminded that cheapness comes at a price – to quality, to human lives — but we’re also warned that the wealthy western obsession with certified food products (“organic”, “free-range”, “fair trade”) creates its own distortions, and that to a degree conscious consumers are merely engaging in a modern kind of simony, paying extra prices to absolve themselves from perceived sins.
Lorr’s theme throughout Secret Life, inspired possibly by Trader Joe’s deliberate cultivation of itself — selling unique brands and experiences rather than doing a poor imitation of Walmart — is how people exercise their individuality and pursue meaning through what we buy, and the effect that has on the world around us. Our stories are all interconnected; the shrimper, the trucker, the woman spending her life pitching a combination of salsa and coleslaw (“It’s SLAWSOME!”). Some people try to consume ethically, and others are more interested in original experiences, in finding ‘authentic’ products that don’t seem so mass-produced. This took Secret Life into far more thoughtful territory than say, The American Way of Eating or Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America, two similar works. This is easily one of the most fascinating books on food market I’ve read, possibly the most fascinating — but it’s been a decade since I first read Fast Food Nation or The Omnivore’s Dilemma, so I don’t want to judge hastily.