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The Secret Life of Groceries: The Dark…

The Secret Life of Groceries: The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket (original: 2020; edição: 2020)

de Benjamin Lorr (Autor)

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1307161,785 (3.88)1
Título:The Secret Life of Groceries: The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket
Autores:Benjamin Lorr (Autor)
Informação:Avery (2020), 336 pages
Coleções:Sua biblioteca

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The Secret Life of Groceries: The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket de Benjamin Lorr (2020)


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Started out as really interesting with history of how stores evolved. Although i have never been to a Trader Joe's, (I will have to one day), the history of that chain was fascinating as was the story of Joe himself - a remarkable man. But then it lost me. It was sad hearing about the trucker's lives etc. What annoyed me though about it, was that you had to have a dictionary within reach. Kind of over the top. took me a long while to get through it, definitely not a page turner. ( )
  clamato | Apr 23, 2021 |
Not what I was expecting, exactly. Little story arc; more of a series of discrete journalistic investigations. Some of them were very difficult to read - the perpetually debt-ridden life of a trucker; the horror story of being an enslaved, maimed captive on a Thai fishing boat; even the ostensibly benign story of the woman furiously driven to make "Slawsa" a success (and climb out of debt) was a little sad.

But Benjamin Lorr's style is really captivating. He's just trying to make sense - doesn't have an ax to grind; doesn't constantly make himself the center of the story; ultimately doesn't come out with much in the way of answers. For those who want reform, he wants us to "consider that any solution will come from outside our food system, so far outside that thinking about food is only a distraction from the real work to be done."

As a temporary sidetrack, Lorr mentions a prior book about the world of yoga, where he wondered what it was all FOR, all this yoga - it all seemed to be just be able to do more yoga. I feel that way when I wonder about why we care so much about being healthy. Why lose weight? To be healthy. Why be healthy? To live longer in better health. For what though? What's all this health ultimately for? Anyway - he finds an eerie analogy in the world of groceries and our god of convenience. What are we making everything so convenient FOR, ultimately?

Anyway I do love those philosophical questions. Like he said - thinking about food itself is just a distraction. ( )
1 vote Tytania | Apr 9, 2021 |
How far removed we are from our food! A remarkable tale well told. Quite a morass we've gotten ourselves in. No clues on how to fix it. This book does open my consciousness to what is going on. I hope it reminds me to pay closer attention and to better appreciate the hidden folks that make it possible for me to enjoy such delicious meals everyday. ( )
  njcur | Mar 24, 2021 |
Say it with me: no ethical consumption under capitalism! It’s a truism but, like all truisms, no less accurate for it. The neatly packed, fluorescent-lit, generally sterile facade of the modern grocery store conceals a universe of pain and suffering that the consumer is all too happy to ignore. Benjamin Lorr isn’t, and his guided tour of the other side of the facade both stands on its own as a damning portrait of a crucial American industry, and provides a useful entry-point for thinking about the unsavory (sorry) aspects of contemporary capitalism. After a primer on the historical origins of the modern grocery store, five lengthy chapters examine various parts of the supply chain that undergirds it. We meet truckers, buyers, marketers, food inspectors, factory owners, PR flacks, trainers, consultants, academics, scientists, and others. Without fail, one of these people is extorting one of the others, or being extorted in turn, or, most often, both. This great unseen whirlpool of conning and trickery is as important to the functioning of the grocery store as shopping carts and Oreos.

The book begins with a chapter on the rise of the modern American grocery store, with a particular focus on Trader Joe’s, which, contra every other major chain of stores, focused less on building massive economies of scale than developing better products than their competitors, at lower prices, focusing on high-margin items. They also targeted highly-educated, underpaid people, using a mixture of clever marketing and solid products designed to make people feel smart for shopping there. Joe himself emerges as a wacky guru-genius, inspiring complete fealty in his long-time employees and awed admiration from competitors. The reason we begin with Joe is that Lorr identifies his key insight--that people express themselves and find fulfillment through consumption--as central to understanding the dynamics of the grocery industry at large. Though I agree that consumer psychology is essential for understanding the modern economy, I want to take a moment to question the relative importance Lorr accords this factor (as opposed to, say, the rapacious pursuit of profit above all else). Disclaimer: this is an incredible book, and though the following few paragraphs go on at length about some disagreements I have with the way it is written, by and large I found it to be utterly engrossing and informative. I read it in a few large gulps and feel totally enriched for having done so.

Now, a bone to pick.

Lorr frames the trade-off between the moral outrages of our food system and the extreme convenience which it provides in return as a devil’s bargain, in which all ethical concerns are sacrificed at the altar of efficiency, abundance, and low prices, only to be considered inasmuch as consumer worries about ethical food production put pressure on stores to take action. It’s a pretty grim picture. The parties in this trade are on the one hand the American consumer (a “we” that presumably contains the reader) and on the other the industry itself, sometimes personified but mostly seen in the book as a nebulous corporate blob operating seemingly independent of any human control. Though I think this trade-off is real, it mostly describes a psychological or symbolic phenomenon, rather than a power dynamic. Are “we” really responsible for the massive injustice of the food system? Obviously, consumers play a vital structural role as the final receptor of those miraculously conjured food-commodities, and more importantly, a source of the money that lines the pockets of owners all the way down the supply chain. As such, consumers are implicated in the state of the food system at large. But it seems that the more important players here, as throughout the economy, are the owners themselves. I tend to think that the imperatives of capital drive the horrific practices the book describes, from labor exploitation to animal cruelty, to extortion of all kinds. At every step of the way, it is the entrepreneur’s unceasing need to cut costs that causes misery in people’s lives. The tendency of the rate of profit to fall manifests as broken bodies and spirits. Yet Lorr still insists that consumer desires are the prime mover of the whole system, and moreover that our revulsion at learning about the injustice of it is actually driven by self-loathing and guilt. I quote:

“The real object of our scorn might not be in our food safety standards, in the revolving-door regulators, in the rise of the industry, or even in the abuse and commodification of men, but in ourselves as agents of this world: for knowing what we want and what we are willing to give up to get it…”

Speak for yourself! He goes on, “The great lesson of my time with groceries is that we have got the food system we deserve.” (If you ever want evidence of the propagandistic power of language, consider the work being done in that sentence by the word “we.”) Such self-loathing is the inevitable endpoint of an analysis that assigns consumer choice so much power. If indeed we have chosen this path, then we should either choose a different one or feel bad about not doing so.

The elision of responsibility between producers and consumers here is a subtle one, but one that seems to be common among books like this, which are so good at describing the horrors of capitalism but don’t, say, like to use the word “capitalism,” presumably in fear of scaring off too many well-heeled readers (I’m pretty sure the word “capitalism” is used only once in this book, though I can’t verify this easily with my physical copy. In my view, this is akin to using the word “ball” once in a book about baseball.) This diminishes the analytical power of his argument. I realize that Lorr probably didn’t set out to write a comprehensive critique of capitalism, using the grocery industry as a way in, but the absence of such an explicit critique, tying the specific depravities of the grocery supply chain to the general characteristics of a capitalist economy, is nevertheless felt acutely. A doctor with access to the most high-resolution images of a patient’s tumor needs to employ the concept of “cancer” to make sense of them. Without it, they could neither diagnose the problem nor come up with treatment. They’d be left with some terrifying pictures of a tumor. So have we here terrifying pictures of life under capitalism. Lorr could have taken the extra step of using political economy to connect the dots between the exploitation of workers across the supply chain (though I admit this would have made the book much drier). To his credit, he doesn’t leave as much room for doubt about the ultimate cause of the problem as some other books I have read. But you get no credit for things unsaid. There are universes of incomprehension between the stated and the merely implied.

Still, for all of that, the book’s heart is in exactly the right place, and the issues it raises are the most pressing we face as a species (with the exception of climate change’s relation to the food system, which definitely could have been included here outside of the small mention it gets in the trucking chapter, though the absence is warranted as the topic is definitely covered in other books.) I can imagine this book starting lots of open-minded, perhaps apolitical readers down a path to anti-capitalist beliefs. This is the advantage of writing about supermarkets: every American has been in one. The subtitle of this book refers to the “Dark Miracle” of the American Supermarket. Lots of pop-nonfiction books make similar claims about revealing “the hidden side” of this, or “the untold story” of that. It’s a good hook, but the promise is rarely fulfilled in the text itself. This is an exception. “Dark miracle” is exactly the phrase for the way the global supply chain works, which is to say, something so complex shouldn’t, but does, thanks to an unconscionable human cost.

It is one of the many virtues of the book that Lorr writes with great compassion about the people who make the system run. There is Lynne, the homeless truck driver working long, dangerous, strenuous hours for starvation wages so that food can get to the shelves on time. She lives the life of a feudal peasant, but instead of a plot of land to work, she has a truck. There is Julie, the indefatigable marketing consultant turned food producer working tirelessly to place her homespun product on the shelves of major grocery chains, going deeper and deeper into debt, finally beating long odds to get into stores. Then there is Tun-Lin, the Burmese man pressed into years of slave labor on Thai fishing boats. His story is both uniquely horrifying and horrifyingly representative of labor conditions at the extractive end of the global supply chain. These human portraits are welcome anchor-points in an otherwise staggeringly complex story. Lorr masterfully interweaves the specific and the general, never losing sight of the (often poignant) details of a person’s life, but also using these to give some sense of the general picture of things.

Probably because of the abstruse nature of the subject, Lorr’s writing is aggressively informal, often employing fourth wall-breaking asides and conversational tics to ease the way for the reader. Usually, this tone would drive me nuts, as what the writer intends to be relatable is actually cloying and alienating in practice. But here it really works, and is part of the reason why I finished the book so quickly. I don’t know exactly how he managed this, but it seems to be the product of genuine earnestness and compassion combined with years of fieldwork and research. The result is a sort of softer-edged gonzo journalism. It’s very effective.

In addition there is tons of interesting information about stuff I never would have given a thought to before. For example, did you know that the founder of the Piggly Wiggly grocery chain named it after what he perceived as the porcine behavior of his customers, who were newly empowered to run through the store like pigs in shit choosing items without the help of a clerk? I didn’t. There’s lots more like this, anecdotes which serve both as interesting color and support for the general argument.

Some college professor of mine once said that if you want to understand a society, find out how they eat. This is Lorr’s mission, and he completes it successfully.

Of course, far more important than all that, his book has fortified my belief that Trader Joe’s customers are a bunch of suckers in a weird cult who have no good reason to get on the subway just to wait on that enormous line when there’s a perfectly good supermarket down the block.
  trotta | Mar 4, 2021 |
I just loved this book! Different parts of the book examine "food" and "groceries" from a number of very different perspectives (what it's like to try and get a new food product launched, the life of a trucker, the history of Trader Joe's, slave labor in the fishing industry, and more). But each is brought to you with Lorr's sizzling linguistic approach. Anything that can be described in an evocative way is described in at least two evocative ways. And while the loop-the-loop of description very very occasionally grows tiresome, mostly it entertains and challenges (I made good use of the define-a-word Kindle feature).

Lorr's perspective - cynical, knowing, bemused, compassionate, excited, reflective, outraged - is what makes these different journeys entirely worthwhile.

So glad I read this! ( )
  steveportigal | Dec 31, 2020 |
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