Who has the cajones to review a book she hasn’t read even half of?
An English Ph.D. That’s who. That’s what we do: speak with authority about books we haven’t finished. I’m a licensed reader, people! It’s got to be good for something.
I recently sped through the first third of Tracie McMillan’s The American Way of Eating, the section about her experiences looking for and doing farm work in California’s Central Valley.
I wouldn’t call it schtick lit, though it has some similarities: Creative-class white woman tries to get bottom-rung food industry jobs to make some point about class and food in the U.S. But I wouldn’t compare it to My Year of Vegan Righteousness or 100 Days in a Row of Sex with my Middle-Aged Spouse. It’s too good. It’s too not-fun.
I was curious about whether McMillan as writer (or me as reader) would fall prey to the white liberal slumming disease: longing for a semi-prurient window into how the poor live. In this case, how all the immigrants who pick our produce live, work, and play.
But I was happily disproven. McMillan works hard both to gain her farm jobs legitimately and to report the myriad ways her skin color and English fluency (and car, and citizenship, and gender) get her breaks that most of her coworkers don’t get.
She also is honest about how bad she is at the job, compared to those who have done it longer. When an arm sprain (tennis elbow, contracted after her most triumphant day of garlic picking) sends her packing, she is honest about how most farmworkers cannot afford to just leave the job—they would need money, as well as documentation, not to mention a car.
She tells her coworkers, on her way out, that she is a journalist. And they respond with glee. They never really believed that she wanted to be a farmworker, and her seemingly legit story didn’t hold up. They suspected she was a government investigator. But her being a journalist thrills them. They can’t wait for her to document how unfairly they are treated.
And they are.
As most reviews of the book mention, garlic workers are paid “by piece,” by the buckets of garlic they harvest. Their time cards document this very clearly. But paychecks from The Garlic Company and Christopher Ranch, via their contracted growers, pay them by the hour. When they work 9 hours to pick, say, 20 buckets, their paychecks pay them for 20 buckets. But the check calls it 2 hours of work, so the company can look like it is paying minimum wage.
Even the very best pickers on the field couldn’t pick enough in an hour to make minimum wage. It would be physically impossible.
Because McMillan is doing this farm work, and trying to live off her wages, her reporting is remarkably detailed and thorough. The human story of picking peaches or garlic is more convincing than a more conventional investigative report of farmworker exploitation.
And she does a remarkable job blending this compelling personal narrative with the relevant facts, figures, court cases, and worker-protection laws.
However, she usually puts the broader context in footnotes to preserve the power of her narrative. Most books like this put the technical info into the narrative body, alternating with high-drama personal narrative. Here, putting valuable context in footnotes implies that the footnoted information is more tangential than it really is.
Also her, emphasis on narrative can sacrifice a little more of the beef (ha) we expect from hard-core investigative journalism. For example, the paper trail above: the documented discrepancy between time cards and paychecks. I imagine there are millions of documents providing evidence of worker exploitation. I would have liked to see McMillan do some follow-up work besides looking at the Christopher Ranch website or looking up the California laws protecting workers. What happens to those time cards? Who is in charge of keeping them or destroying them? What would following them tell us about the relationship between Christopher Ranch and its farmworkers?
What would happen if these documents are all collected? How many people would have been so underpaid? How many dollars would it amount to?
McMillan discusses this a teeny bit. She notes that if she had been payed hourly, she would have received $454 more than she got. As an educated citizen, she would have had the wherewithal to sue. But even if she’d won, the average fine for this kind of malfeasance is $342. As a labor lawyer notes, in a later interview, “It’s cheaper to violate the law than to follow the law. It’s the exploding Pinto theory of labor management.”
This kind of exploitation is no surprise. But the book does what no other trade nonfiction book that I know of does: it shows us what it is like to do this work and live off its wages.
It describes the working life of undocumented immigrant laborers. With honesty and sensitivity.
And without romanticization—which she could have slipped into so easily. For example, the families that rent her cheap rooms routinely share their meals with her. She tries to pay them back with English lessons, childcare, and car rides. She still feels that the balance is uneven. It probably is.
And while in other writers this may have spurred a “generosity of the poor” rhapsody, she takes the more practical—and respectful—approach. The very poor depend on sharing extra food and communal meals. Everyone gets more that way. Their working conditions spur them to share their extras.
Imagine that: Donating your extras to the community, so that you can depend on them if you need it next week.
McMillan cites a biblical injunction to do this kind of thing (from Leviticus, about leaving some gleanings for the needy,) but it’s about the grower paying an hourly rate for people to glean the fields. It’s not about sharing extra food with neighbors. And she stops short, at least in the first section, of drawing larger connections between this local economic practice and our national debates about taxation and social programs. At least a nod to this parallel would have been welcome.
Still, I’m looking forward to the next sections, where she stocks produce at Walmart and does kitchen work at Applebee’s, respectively the world’s largest grocery and restaurant chains.