Benjamin Lorr’s The Secret Life of Groceries: TheDark Miracle of the American Supermarket (Penguin Random House, 2020) is full of all of the Big Supermarket dirty laundry you could hope to see. But it is also full of something less expected, something American eaters need even more than behind-the-scenes gossip: compassion. Which isn’t to say that Lorr’s work isn’t a call to action—it very much is—only the action isn’t quite what you might immediately think it will be.
First, though, the dirt: The opening scene is set after hours at a Whole Foods fish counter in the Bowery in New York City. The crew, which includes the author, is excavating months of built-up ice. In said ice are seafood parts and fluids that have been decomposing and the odor is apocalyptic. The smell is “thick in the air like you are exhuming something dangerous, which perhaps you are.”
This kind of visceral you-are-there glimpse of what the average consumer doesn’t see is laced through the book, from the pay-to-play deals to get on the shelf to the very real human cost of cheap shrimp. No one and no part of the industry is spared. Lorr is indeed exhuming something dangerous.
Lorr digs deep into all of the systems that make our modern supermarkets work. He rides with a long haul truck driver who is the last step between an ALDI warehouse and the individual store. He attends the Fancy Food Show, which he describes as “yuppie Halloween,” and follows a condiment entrepreneur in the making. That Whole Foods in the opening scene? He worked there for a few months, just to see the industry from behind an apron. All along the way, Lorr lays out the grittiest details of how we buy groceries in a style that recalls David Foster Wallace without ever directly aping him. (Do read the footnotes and endnotes, however. They are worth the time.)
That alone would be enough. But Lorr adds another level when he starts to examine the whys of the big food mart. These stores have never been about the food itself; they are about the business of desire, of showing the customer who the customer wants to be as a person, then giving it to him or her or them. If you see yourself as thrifty, there will be a store for you, where low prices are the only motivating force. And if you see yourself as a conscious consumer, the grocery will find ways to reflect your goodness back to you, because that is what the grocery wants to do. The grocery is a mirror that shows us only our best qualities. And here’s the rub: Wanting to, say, only eat seafood that is “ethically sourced” leads to a series of choices that have unintended consequences at the very start of the chain of production.
Demanding outside certification that a product is fair trade is well-intentioned but the added costs squeeze the system in unpredictable ways—and nearly all consumers are unwilling to pay what it would truly cost to improve conditions for all. Those costs would include completely revamping the system from the ground up in order to build something that honored the worth and dignity of all people, not just the ones who can shop at Whole Foods.
Lorr’s call to action is not about instituting cosmetic changes to the great grocery system in order to make us all feel better. Instead, he’s calling for a deeper examination into our own natures as inconsistent humans with interdependent needs— and that all of those needs are nearly impossible to meet all the time. Which isn’t to say that we should stop working for change, mind, but that simply buying free trade coffee isn’t an end in and of itself.
Adrienne Martini writes about running, eating and local politics at martinimade.com.