The Secret Life of Groceries book review

This is an important book if you want to better understand how supermarkets work. There's a critical section on the trucking industry and how fragile it is.

The Secret Life of Groceries: The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket by Benjamin Lorr

4 and ½ stars: nonfiction, social history, food and eating, the industrial-agricultural food complex

This is an astonishing book and if you eat, you should read it. Unless you eat only what you grow, raise, and catch with your own hands, you are part of the industrial-agricultural grocery complex. As citizens of the United States, we enjoy a remarkable food system. We can easily eat top-quality food, independent of growing seasons, from around the world, and do it cheaply. Today (as per the USDA) Americans spend about 10% of their income on food and that includes restaurant meals. In the past, that percentage was much higher.

That higher percentage of income didn’t purchase as much variety as we have today. Have you ever considered what eating in season means? Today, that’s a trendy buzzword, right up there with eating food grown within 100 miles of your home.

In the past (not that long ago!) everyone ate fresh only what was in season. In the winter, you ate what was storable or preserved because there was no alternative. You got strawberries only in June. Winter was cabbage-heavy, with plenty of beans, grains, potatoes, and porridge. Everyone ate mostly food grown within 100 miles of home other than spices and tea. Spices and tea store extremely well, are lightweight, and repay expensive shipping costs. If you lived in Kansas and wanted fresh fish, you’d better be living alongside a stream. Otherwise, fish was dried or pickled. Foods from far away had to be shippable without spoiling en route and even so, the far away market often received dicey produce and gamy meat.

The only people who didn’t eat this way were rich. Extremely rich. That’s why historical novels (or novels that were contemporary when they were written such as Dickens) made a big deal about delicacies from far away. Even a more recent novel such as Agatha Christie’s The Secret Adversary (published in 1922) finishes up with a grand dinner featuring every kind of out-of-season delicacy grown in hothouses. If you were the duke, you had your own expensive hothouse and grew your own grapes and oranges to be eaten out of season. You proudly served your exotic fruit to exalted guests, and you gifted hampers of dainties demonstrating your wealth, status, and good taste.

Yet American supermarkets — packed with goodies — are so commonplace we no longer see them for the marvel that they are. It takes someone from overseas to point out their marvelousness. In 1989, Boris Yeltsin made an unplanned stop at a grocery store in Texas. He was stunned and disbelieving that ordinary Americans had such a wealth of choices available to them but he could not deny the evidence of his own eyes. At about the same time, a trio of Russian naval ships visited Norfolk, VA. I was stationed in Norfolk at the time and having Russian sailors mooring at the Naval base and traipsing around Norfolk was big news. They got a tour of the grocery store near my house and were overwhelmed by seeing — along with everything else including the Lynnhaven Mall and Busch Gardens — a 100-foot-long meat counter piled high. One of the officers at my command practiced his Russian on a Russian officer at the Navy Exchange. His report back to our office? The Russian officer didn’t know which was more jaw-dropping: the electronics department in all its glory or the fact that Americans could choose from among dozens of flavors of gourmet cat food in single-serving pop-top cans.

Gourmet cat food. In dozens of flavors. In single-serving pop-top cans so you don’t even need a can opener. That’s become passé. You can now purchase appetizers, soup, and mousse just for your cat, when Fancy Feast palls.

Benjamin Lorr doesn’t talk about the rise of gourmet cat food, but he covers plenty of other subjects. Among them is why it’s so darn hard to get your fabulous recipe for X out of the craft show circuit and into supermarkets. He introduces us to Julie Busha, the entrepreneur behind Slawsa, an all-purpose, flavorful, low-calorie cross between coleslaw and salsa. After you read about Ms. Busha’s years-long efforts, you’ll wonder how any individual succeeds in getting a new product into supermarkets. The big companies like General Foods have a hard enough time and they’ve got deep pockets and armies of sales people. About 85% of all new product introductions fail and that number includes what comes from Kraft, General Mills, Kellogg’s, and the like. Small fry like Ms. Busha swim against an even larger tide than the big boys do. Yet sometimes they make it — after slaving away for years — which is why you can find Slawsa in many stores today.

How does food get from factories to supermarkets? The trucking industry, naturally. Supposedly one-third of all trucks on the road are hauling groceries of some kind or another. I can believe it based on my own observations of my local grocer’s shelves just before a major storm or during the Covid-19 shutdowns. Entire sections of the store stripped bare. No, your grocery doesn’t keep much in the back room. A few cases of this, a few cases of that. Your grocery depends on deliveries six days a week. Bread gets delivered seven days a week (my husband delivered bread for nine months so I know).

I knew how much work truckers do to haul food to stores but I had no idea how badly paid they are or the risks of the job. It’s awful. I was horrified by Lynne Ryles’ story. She’s a long-haul trucker who let our author ride along and see how the high-stress, low-pay, utterly vital job is done

There’s a lengthy discussion of Joe Coulombe, founder of Trader Joe’s. In it, you’ll get a better understanding of the risks of the grocery business and how we ended up with a modern supermarket. It could have gone quite differently. Think of where the grocery business would be today without refrigeration and cardboard boxes. Without cheap cardboard boxes, you can’t easily ship finished foods, like crackers, across the country. Without refrigeration, perishables vanish.

Similarly, I didn’t know much about how a commodity, like say, shrimp, gets into supermarkets. Reading The Secret Life reminded me when shrimp cocktails were ultra-fancy, ultra-expensive appetizers at classy restaurants. If you’re old enough, you might remember the specially designed wineglass full of cocktail sauce with shrimp hanging off the rim all around, cradled in a bed of crushed ice. This was height of luxury, folks, back when shrimp were seasonal, caught in nets, and not factory-farmed.

Today, shrimp is cheap; cheap enough that you can buy it by the bag at any supermarket. However, after you read about how shrimp gets factory farmed (via modern chattel slavery), you may stop buying shrimp. Many other former luxury commodities have similar issues.

Why is this? Because it’s what we, as consumers, want.

We want rock-bottom prices, we want every possible choice, and we want them all available year-round. You didn’t really think that those cherries you’re buying in January are local, did you? They’re grown in South America and flown — flown in airplanes — to the U.S. Yet they’re still cheap, relatively speaking. All those cut flowers you see at the florist counter at the supermarket? Likewise, grown in South America and then flown to the United States. They do the same thing in Europe, by the way, except their flowers and out-of-season produce are grown in Africa and flown to Europe.

The race to the bottom hits the producers of those products hard because someone has to swallow the price cut to make it cheap and it is not the owners of the farms and factories. It’s the peasants in the fields or the crews in the factories.

By the way, all those fair-trade stickers you see? Certifications about this, that, and the other that are designed to make you feel better about buying chocolate or shrimp or coffee? A lot of money changes hands in fair trade but very little of it reaches the people at the bottom of the ladder actually doing all the work.

I was fascinated and you will be too. If you have any curiosity about how food gets from farms to your table, you should start here. Then look around your own kitchen and realize your supermarket is the best system in the world for delivering a huge variety of products for pennies, on-time and year-round.

If you don’t want to participate in the grocery trade, you’ll just have to start growing more of your own vegetables and fruit in your backyard. When you do, you’ll learn what seasonal means (no more strawberries other than in June), how much work is involved in preserving autumn’s bounty for the winter, and then eating that harvest for months on end until you’re sick of it. You’ll also learn all about insect damage, slugs, blights and wilts, and how much damage a cute little rabbit can do. Food garden, even a little, and you’ll get a real appreciation for how hard farmers and everyone else in the food chain work to fill your pantry.

The one thing this book was lacking was pictures, thus the missing half-star. I like to see a photograph of the people I’m reading about. The footnotes were strange too. Benjamin Lorr’s got two kinds: the amusing kind at the bottom of the page and the ones documenting where he got his information at the back of the book. The second set of footnotes are clumsy. They’re listed by the page number and it’s hard to tell exactly which footnote lines up with a given part of the text. Some pages get numerous footnotes and some pages get one. Good luck matching them up.

That quibble aside, this book is a must-read, if only because you’ll understand better why toilet paper vanished for weeks on end. It’s not your grocer’s fault. He can only sell what’s being manufactured and then actually delivered to his store. If he can’t get it, neither can you.

If you’d like to follow Benjamin Lorr’s adventures, here’s his website:

And his twitter feed:

As for the book, here’s the Amazon link (mind that race to the bottom that’s killing your local indie bookstore so you may want to rethink where you buy your copy):

My last corporate job was with Skaggs (a Utah company of grocery stores) that morphed into American Stores (a corporation run by a greedy, power hungry CEO that tried to gobble up many more local grocery chains in an attempt to rival Kroger) and while I worked in IT, I learned a lot about how the stores operated since I frequently installed their internet equipment and hooked it up to the registers, known as the "front end" and their controller.

Produce aside (all of what Tresea's recommended book says is true) I learned that those necessary front end controllers would spit out a report on demand that would tell the store manager how much prophit per hour the store was making and if it wasn't enough they would send employees home. None of the lower store employees were full time, so they could be sent home at will. I am sure that is part of why produce is so cheap as well and I imagine the this practice is pretty widespread and on going. Think Walmart, Kroger or any other large grocery chain. Not sure about Costco, but could be the same.

American Stores had a curious department of graphic artists who's sole job was to design the layout of products on the shelves. That arrangement of store shelves isn't accidental. American Stores got money from big corporate producers to place their products in a specific location on the selves that had been determined to get the greatest positive response from a consumer. This practice may be part of the reason that local producers of prepared foods have such a hard time getting their products on the grocery store shelves. It also makes a visit to the grocer store just a little bit creepy when you come face to face with a little less obvious of an advertising spell when you look along the selves for what you want. Is it what you want or what they want you to want? I know everyone here is a pretty savvy shopper, but keep that in mind on your next trip to the grocery store.