Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America
By Michael Ruhlman
Review by David Wineberg
Like grocery stores themselves, Michael Ruhlman’s Grocery is all over the place, stuffed to the rafters, with numerous departments and unexpected items. It is a lot of memoir, a smattering of rants, endless lists, and a bunch of behind the scenes negotiating. Like a grocery, there’s something for everyone.
Because he doesn’t have a horse in this race, Ruhlman can be neutral or critical as needed. He slams the food desert of the center aisles of supermarkets, yet admits he buys some of this poison himself because he likes it. He is critical of agriculture, but finds much to praise in a new generation of farmers who prize quality over quantity. And he digs at medicine and nutritionists in a front al attack: “Fat isn’t bad, stupid is bad.”
We learn the economics of the business, how size matters, how grocers find products, and how they run their stores. The business has changed dramatically in our lifetimes. We might not have noticed because we’re in those stores every week. It’s a trillion dollar business in the USA. From the hot take-out meals (and even restaurants and bars) to the organics and the gluten-free, the mix is anything but stagnant. And it’s up to 40,000 items now, from the 5000 when he was a child. Beef sales are way down, fish is way up. Fruit is no longer seasonal. Frozen food is still blah, and there are still hundreds of sugary breakfast cereals and snack foods to wade through. Sadly, grocers are forced to stock them all because customers will go elsewhere if their particular variety is AWOL.
There are aspects he has missed, like what grocers do with stale-dated foods. There’s nothing about community involvement, how the stores weave themselves into the fabric of the neighborhood. There’s no mention of all the games grocers have played, like specials and Green Stamps and loyalty programs. Or home and online shopping. And he never addresses customer complaints, like why there are 24 checkout lanes when only four are ever open at once. And it really could use some photos.
Grocery is a kind of love letter to Cleveland, Ruhlman’s hometown. He goes back to the grocers of his youth, and makes them the focal point of the book. On the one hand it is cloying, but on the other he had to make some grocer his example, so why not the chain he grew up loving? The people are dedicated, passionate and talented, and the stores are institutions. Overall, Grocery is a rare insight into the state of the business and the state of our food.
Editor's note: This review was has been reposted with permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.