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First published September 8, 2020
The modern shopper wants groceries that are ethical, sustainable, humane, affordable, fresh, and convenient. But as Lorr discovers, the costs of our demands are recouped from the bottom of the food chain: debt-ruined truckers, foreign slave labor, and Whole Foods workers in our own communities — the people whose lives Lorr shared (and sometimes lived) for weeks or months. Does it sound grim? It’s not! The Secret Life of Groceries is a terrific read. The stories flow, and the hard truths are seasoned with wit and hope.
"Our society is awash with founders, all listening to the same leadership podcasts, doing the same kettlebell lunges to improve grip and leg strength at the same time, then dissolving identical Tim Ferriss–approved muscle-building complexes into their post-workout shakes to transform their previously similar mesomorph bodies into something even more metabolically equivalent. All while making parallel grandiose-style projections about their own app, disruption, or innovation whereby their personal self-interest miraculously aligns with the interest of society writ large and places them as CEO/founder/servant-leader on the very prow of the vessel of civilization. It is lunacy."
One of the first things you realize working retail grocery is that people, in general, are hideous and insane, but their depravity almost miraculously balances out the ledge of the day so that aside from bruised feelings and egos, which never really balance, the store itself makes out just fine. You’ll have a tiny little man who can barely see above the counter berating you to cut a slab of the $32.99 per pound King Salmon into progressively smaller and smaller pieces as if to prove some volumetric version of Achimedes’s paradox until you are left with reams of unsalable King Salmon that he promptly walks away from because you fucked it all up and that isn’t what he asked for at all. And then minutes later an old woman with a blue beret and a lakeshore lockjaw accent will eye that very mincemeat and declare she’ll take it. When you double-check to make sure she realizes she is almost about to buy a pound of wild King Salmon ribbons at $32.99 per pound, she’ll note curtly that while she does have children there is nothing she adores more than her pet turtles and no food is too dear for them. This actually happened, by the way, but do not let its veracity get in the way of the lesson: a grocery store is a finely tuned instrument to serve human whim, and the diversity of human whim often allows it to do double duty, serving one through the act of serving another. pg. 167
Sadly for management, humans tend to react different than automobile parts when ripped from one place to another according to algorithmic whim; happily for management, norms are such that low-wage workers can be replaced almost as easily as automobile parts if they company much more than the metal. pg. 179
At the grocery store we not only buy food to taste but also to demonstrate taste. Which is to say, our discernment. And in this way, it is like all-American consumption, deeply attached to our sense of self. We buy things to stake claims, to demonstrate autonomy, and to assert our unique experience. Sociologist Colin Campbell traces this ethic back to the Romantic poets who glorified self-discovery, instructing the writer to “express what he thinks and feels” and to “reveal the depths of the human soul.” And our tastes do just that. We express them; they reveal us.
Back in the grocery store, this gets delightfully complicated because taste also exits in a third dimension: the socially determined one. That is to say, in addition to the buds in our mouth and our outwardly exhibited discernment, we can speak about what makes someone have good taste versus bad taste. Which has nothing to do with an individual “expression of their depths” but exists insofar as their expression matches social judgement... And thus taste—and consumption itself—is bound up in a paradox of sorts: freedom to express the unique self, but requiring approval from the greater conforming community. pgs. 202-203