Tuesday, February 26

Director's Cut: The American Way of Eating and Applebee's "Special Salt"


"Director's Cut" is a new weekly series on our blog, chronicling the travels and musings of our director, John T. Edge. 

I got a text message from a friend halfway through Tracie McMillan’s talk last night: “So that stuff at Applebee's I thought was salt, turns out to be plastic. Just shoot me now.”

McMillan, author of The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields, and the Dinner Table, was in town the last couple of days to meet with University of Mississippi classes and give a lecture. About 400 people came last night to hear her speak.

And at least 395 of us recoiled when she revealed, in an offhand way, that the food she served when working undercover at Applebee’s, was sometimes sprinkled with white stuff that looked like salt. But it wasn’t salt. It was plastic that crumbled from the bags that Applebee’s cooks pop in microwaves and plop on plates. 

Yikes.

The American Way of Eating has earned critical acclaim. The Wall Street Journal called it a “moving first-person narrative.” The New York Times called McMillan “a voice the food world needs.” (Her book also earned a spot on that newspaper’s best-seller list.) Rush Limbaugh had a different opinion. He called her an “overeducated” “authorette” and a “threat to liberty.”

Though her book is set in California, Michigan, and New York, McMillan’s work—especially the first section of her book that details the plight of agricultural laborers—has great resonance in the South.

From the era of enslavement, through sharecropping, to the present day, the South has long undervalued agricultural labor. At the same time, we live in a place that valorizes the land, paints stewards of the land as noble folk, and portrays foods cooked from crops and animals raised on that land as somehow ennobled.

McMillan’s book asks readers to rethink the algebra of labor that puts food—good food, bad food, not enough food, or too much food—on our plates. She offers a new way to glimpse our food system. A way to go incognito in the farm fields. A way to explore the grocery. A way to think about how restaurants disperse our calories—and our daily recommended allotment of plastic.