Friday, October 20, 2017

Booknote: Grocery

Michael Ruhlman, Grocery: the Buying and Selling of Food in America. New York, NY: Abrams Press, 2017.  ISBN: 978-1-4197-2386-5.

Genre: nonfiction
Subgenre: memoir, food, business, history
Format: hardcover
Source: Berea branch of the Madison County (KY) Public Library

This book features some history of grocery stores in the United States, but that is not the main focus. The book looks more at American food buying and how those habits have changed over time, especially since the time of Ruhlman's father, who enjoyed grocery shopping. In addition, in order to look more closely at grocery operations, the author focuses on Heinen's, an Ohio-based Midwestern midsize grocery  chain.

For the most part, it is an interesting book. I found the historical passages interesting, and I wished there were some more of those. The book is more a bit of memoir, social study, and a look at Heinen's. In fact, the author may have spent a bit too much time at Heinen's. After a while, the book feels more like an extended infomercial for the grocery chain, and that takes away from the book's overall narrative and content.

Another interesting element is discussion of some of the "tricks" grocers may do. For instance, having the milk all the way in the back. Folks, including grocery experts, claim it is to make you go through the grocery store, hoping you buy other things you may not need. Grocers like Heinen's claim that the refrigerators and freezers are along the back wall where they can be plugged in and stocked easier. OK, but do note how some stores recently do put some milk in smaller units in the front for customer convenience. Given that grocers like Heinen's claim they are highly responsive to customer desire (that can be debated some other time), it seems enough annoyed people got other stores to stock some milk where you can get it, pay and leave.

Staying with the theme, when grocers like Heinen's and others are asked about why they sell food that may or not be as good for you, they say it is because the customer wants it. It may be their honest answer, but I find it a bit flippant and easy. If customers started asking for arsenic-laced cookies, I am sure they would refuse to sell them (although that is more likely due to a fear of lawsuits than any morals). The point is when an author asks why food retailers get so much more scrutiny than other retailers, the answer is clear: they sell food, something essential that is not really optional. So yes, scrutinizing our food supply is crucial. In fact, we do not do enough of that.

Overall, I liked the book, but I felt it could have been more than what it was. If you are looking for a straight up history of groceries and grocery stores, this is not it. It does work well as a memoir and a look at groceries in the later part of the 20th century into today.

3 out of 5 stars.

* * * * * 
Additional reading notes:

Why grocery stores and supermarkets are significant:

"Because they are a reflection, even symbol, of our culture, and thus a gauge of who we are, supermarkets illuminate what we care about, what we fear, what we desire. They offer a view of our demographic makeup, including how  much money we have and how big the country is, not to mention how much it is changing" (2). 

A big event from 1988 mentioned in the book and that I recall: Walmart gets into the food business, and it opens its first Walmart Supercenter.

The book does feature footnotes throughout and a selected bibliography at the end of the book. From that bibliography, the following books are ones I may consider reading down the road. Book links go to WorldCat:

* * * * * 

This book qualifies for the following 2017 Reading Challenges:


heather said...

I'm interested in reading this one.

Wendy Klik said...

This wasn't on my radar but I appreciate your review.