Grocery: The Buying And Selling Of Food In America, by Michael Ruhlman
This book is badly mistitled. The job of a title of the book is to set the expectations that the reader has for its materials. While this book is about grocery stores–specifically one brand of grocery stores in the Cleveland area I am unfamiliar with–it is not really about the broad scale logistics of the buying and selling of food but rather a case study of one particular company and their efforts to profit from selling food and other items while also proving themselves to be more than mere profiteers, a delicate balance. This is especially the case given that the grocery chain in question, Heinen’s, is a small player among some very large grocery chains in the fragmented supermarket business. The author also indulges in some discussions about his father and the way that the foods (and other products) available for shoppers has dramatically changed in the last few decades, so that expectations about various offerings far outstrip the limited knowledge that the American consumer has about the actual logistics of food, something the author doesn’t spend a lot of time talking about. Oh, and the author can get preachy as well, so there’s that.
This book of about 300 pages is divided into five parts and 22 chapters. The first part of the book looks at how we got the sort of supermarkets we have now (I), with chapters on the experiences of the author’s father as a frequent shopper (1), how the A&P changed the Western world (2), the way that grocery chains grew up by developing new innovations like the cardboard box and the private label (3), Cleveland’s own efforts at having a one-stop shop for grocery purchases (4), the experience of someone who wanted to work for Heinen’s (5), and the author’s discussion of how to save something that has jumped the rails (6). The next part of the book contains the author’s pontification on how to think about food (II), with chapters on fat-free foods (7), the dangers of breakfast (8), the fact that no food is healthy but that food can be nutritious (9), the author’s discussion of food with his doctor (10), and the nefarious practices of the contemporary grocer (10). After this comes an interlude, which is followed by a discussion of the center aisles (III), which includes chapters on the new products that stores are on the lookout for (11), boutique products (12), and medicines (13). The fourth part of the book discusses the perimeter aisles (IV), with discussions about the procurement of meat (14), produce (15), pre-cooked meals (16), mankind as a cooking animal (17), and frozen foods (18). Finally, the book ends with some chapters that contain the author’s discussion of the future of groceries (V), including America’s culinary heritage (19), the Cleveland trust (20), and a cathedral of food (21), along with a bibliography, acknowledgments, index, and information about the author.
If you enjoy the author’s opinions, there is probably a great deal of enjoyment that can be found from the book. There are some people who are likely to be triggered by this book–namely vegans who don’t want to be told about the need to find alternative sources of protein. There are other people who are likely to be disappointed by this book because it focuses on the marketing of food and on the behavior of grocery stores in their schmoozing and threatening of suppliers and not on the ways that small groceries manage their supply chain to compete with the large companies, although the author does not at least that there are some suppliers that are the right size for a small grocery that would be unable to provide enough items for a larger chain. For the most part, I thought that this book was alright, but there was far too much that was focused on the author’s own personal experiences and the location of Cleveland rather than on the buying and selling of food in America. This book is a bit of a missed opportunity, as it would have been more enjoyable had I realized it was a labor of love to the author’s father and hometown and hometown grocery chain rather than being a more comprehensive guide to supermarket behavior.