There’s a growing shelf of books about everyday things that an enterprising author makes us see anew. To name a few personal favorites: Eric Schlosser’s seminal "Fast Food Nation" (2001), which pulled back the curtain on the true cost of a drive-through hamburger; Elizabeth Royte’s "Garbage Land" (2005), which introduced us to the ecological fate of our household trash; Emily Yellin’s "Your Call Is (Not That) Important to Us"(2009), which confirmed all our worst suspicions about customer service; and Kathryn Schulz’s "Being Wrong"(2010), which wittily explored human error.
I’ve added another book to that shelf of favorites: Michael Ruhlman’s idiosyncratic Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America. His book, part memoir, part cultural criticism, part history, part human interest profile, explores a place that the average American family shops at twice a week, and at which we collectively spend an estimated $650 billion a year: the supermarket. Ruhlman isn’t an investigative journalist à la Eric Schlosser, nor is he exactly a food philosopher like Michael Pollan, whose manifestoes he admires. He describes "Grocery" simply as “a reported reflection on the grocery store in America.”
Ruhlman is the author or co-author of some 20 books, most of them about cooking. These include "The French Laundry Cookbook," the sine qua non of food porn, in collaboration with Thomas Keller, the famous chef of the eponymous Napa Valley restaurant, and "The Soul of a Chef," a book that sought to filet the passion and exacting natures of three chefs. Despite his occasional rants (more about those in a moment), Ruhlman is a congenial guide and a friendly interviewer.
Using a family grocery chain based in his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, called Heinen’s, as the anchor store of his narrative, he explores how supermarkets have evolved since the introduction of the A&P in the late 1800s, how they influence what we eat, and how customers’ ever-changing lifestyles and food fads affect what grocers stock.
Once, shopkeepers served customers everything from pickles to flour from large unmarked barrels and canisters. Today, the typical grocery store carries more than 40,000 products, many of them aggressively branded and marketed. It’s a staggering testament to the bounty that surrounds us, but also, Ruhlman argues, the source of many of the country’s health woes, from obesity to diabetes to the destruction of the microbiome in our guts.
His gripes with the food industry and with grocers in general are plentiful. The processed foods on the shelves are full of stripped carbs, sugar, and empty promises. Many supermarkets seem indifferent to quality – willing to carry a mealy, tasteless peach in midwinter. And – seemingly most damning, in his eyes – grocers can appear impervious to the pleasures of the very food they’re selling.
Despite his frustrations, Ruhlman loves grocery stores, a devotion he inherited from his adman father, who always did the shopping when Ruhlman was a child. Grocery stores, Ruhlman proposes, represent a huge evolutionary leap, the surplus of food on which civilizations were built. “On Norwood Road in suburban Cleveland, Ohio,” he writes, “I watched my dad struggle not with spearing a wild hog in the brush, or cutting a slab of pork belly hanging in the kitchen, but rather writing a list of items to pull off a shelf or remove from a case in the grocery store, our community’s shared pantry.”
In search of grocery heroes, Ruhlman finds them in Tom and Jeff Heinen, the owners of a 22-store chain where his father shopped. Their grandfather, a butcher, founded Heinen’s in 1933. It’s a tough business – the profit margin on a dollar spent at the Heinen brothers’ stores is generally a little over a penny, and the diversity of what they stock is boggling. Think of the gazillion different kinds of ice cream in the frozen desserts section, then multiply that variety across the store.
Throughout "Grocery," Ruhlman makes the case that the Heinens are pioneers, as well as men in possession of discerning palates. The relatively small size of their chain gives them the flexibility to experiment, and the good wages and benefits they pay mean they retain employees for years, even decades. The philosophy of the store sends its buyers fanning out in search of local produce, grass-fed meat, health foods and dietary supplements, and nutritious alternatives to Cheerios and Oreos (though to remain competitive, the stores must continue to stock all the spectacularly unhealthy foods Americans know and love).
Ruhlman defends grocers against the tarring they often get in the media for product placement, store design, and even the music that comes through the speakers. For instance, milk is at the back of many stores because that’s the most logical place to put the giant coolers in which it is stored, he writes, not because grocers want to force customers to troop through aisles of products to get this kitchen staple. (He’s more critical of food manufacturers, who actually make all those products that are so bad for us.)
Anyhow, Ruhlman asks, why do we hold grocers to a higher standard than we do other retailers? As he points out, “we are unlikely to see, for instance, an article titled ‘The Sneaky Methods Nordstrom Uses to Get You to Buy That $200 Sweater You Don’t Really Need.’ ” Yet he concedes that grocery stores are in a different category, because we rely on them as our main food source, a primitive need that stirs us to scrutiny.
"Grocery" is so engaging that it’s easy to overlook its flaws. While the ruminative nature of the book is one of its charms, it can also create jarring contrasts, as when a discussion of the pernicious health dangers in the breakfast cereal aisle segues into an encomium to Ian Frazier’s book about flyover country, "Great Plains." Ruhlman is unapologetic about going where his interests and associations lead, but sometimes following him requires an act of faith. I generally found that I was rewarded.
It was harder to overlook occasional tonal lapses. He prefaces a useful discussion of our misguided attempts to avoid fat and salt by saying these issues “are the biggest of the boils on my ass and I won’t be able to think straight until I lance them.” In another chapter, he conveys the insights on nutrition that his doctor provides, including the end of their exchange: ” ‘All carbs aren’t bad – people need to understand there are nutritious carbohydrates,’ Dr. Sukol said. ‘Now, I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to lower your shorts.’ The kind of statement that kills a decent conversation.” There’s personal, and then there’s personal.
One of Ruhlman’s main laments is that Americans are cooking less and less. Increasingly, we turn to the supermarket to serve also as takeout deli, restaurant, and even bar. Ruhlman regards our underused kitchens as a major contributor to our poor diets. Yet he sees little chance that Americans will embrace their stoves, and so finds himself in the odd position of lauding the Heinens for seizing the prepared foods future and trying to figure out how to make a profit on it. (Currently, prepared foods are a money loser for many grocers.)
The book culminates with the opening in 2015 of a new Heinen’s in a historic bank building in downtown Cleveland. This monument to modern retail indulgence has a seating area in the building’s stained-glass rotunda and boasts a restaurant called the Global Grill that serves Korean BBQ wraps, as well as a bar where more than 40 wines and eight beers are available on tap. Ruhlman wanders the new store with the same sense of wonder that his father had as he shopped the grocery store aisles decades ago, astonished at the culinary pleasures that await us at the supermarket down the street.