The American Way of Eating: an excerpt from a fascinating book

The following is an excerpt from The American Way of Eating: Undercover at WalMart, Applebee'sFarmFields, and the Dinner Table. This excellent book, written by Michigan native Tracie McMillan, recounts the author's encounters with the otherwise invisible people who grow, cook, and serve food to Americans. McMillan, a freelance investigative reporter who has written for Salon.com and other outlets, is on a national book tour and will soon return to Holly MI from which she left at the age of 17 to study at New York University. McMillan gained the attention of radio talkshow host Rush Limbaugh, who dubbed her an "authorette" and a "young, single white woman" who was "overeducated," which, according to Limbaugh, "doesn't mean intelligent." 

The ensuing controversy has focused even more attention on a book that deserves wide reading as the stuttering American economy still appears resistant to government jumpstarts and enflamed rhetoric on the part of Democrats and Republicans. "Downsizing" has meant for many Americans a slip down the class ladder, and McMillan's book offers a look at the lives of people who would otherwise be voiceless and invisible without McMillan's considerable journalistic and writing skills. Excerpt starts here:         

Dolores and José have fed me nearly every day since I moved in. I handle my own breakfasts (coffee and bread), and pack my own lunches (PB&J and cheese sandwiches), but when the sun begins to drop behind the Coast Range and the evening breeze picks up, there’s a loosely communal meal on offer, and I am always invited. Sometimes the other boarders eat with us, but rarely. There has been sufficient time since my inaugural bowl of soup for a little guilt to seep in about this state of affairs. Here I am, a single person, eating the food of a seven-person family with funds so limited that they fill their cupboards from an informal food pantry twice a week.

My own funds are limited, too, and my cash reserves are dropping steadily. By my calculations I’m spending about one-fifth of my money on food, and more than one-third on rent, but work doesn’t seem steady enough to justify spending down what little of my reserves remain on groceries for dinner, particularly when the only barrier between me and the good, home-cooked meal in the next room is my pride.

Still, I want to feel like I’m contributing, so I’m focusing on helping Inez, Dolores’s fourteen-year-old daughter, with her English. She has been in the States for about five months, and she spends her days cooking most of the family meals, watching the smaller children, and cleaning house.

Teaching anyone English is no small task, but I find it particularly difficult with Inez because even her Spanish is weak; her English is nonexistent. Though she went to school in Mexico, Inez isn’t going to classes here; we had to start with the alphabet. She’s so self-conscious that teaching her anything requires an almost endless stream of encouragement. To help even our footing, I have asked her to teach me something in which she is fluent and I am not: tortillas.

Traditionally, Triqui girls learn how to make tortillas at the age of ten, in preparation for the marriage that’s expected to come during their early teenage years.* Rosalinda, my young friend in the field, has told me that her mom got married when she was fourteen, though Rosalinda is adamant that she won’t be getting married anytime soon; Diego and Claudia seem comfortable with that. But Dolores tells me she was fifteen when she married José, and Inez seems to be on a similar path.

Night after night,Inez emerges from the kitchen with a thick stack of steaming rounds the size of dinner plates, crisp at the edges and soft, nearly doughy, in the center. They will go stale by morning, so we eat them until they are gone, the pile disappearing under a flutter of hungry fingers. Inez makes a lot of the other things that parade out of the Martinez kitchen: pickled jalapeños and carrots biting with vinegar; burning green and red salsas; rice tarted up with flecks of tomato and onion; tender carne and pollo asada for tacos; salty greens that emerge from a foil packet on the stovetop; even simplified moles, Oaxaca’s most famous culinary export, with pan-toasted spices ground into liquid velvet. But, for now, I want to learn tortillas.“

Inez emerges from the kitchen with a thick stack of steaming rounds the size of dinner plates, crisp at the edges and soft, nearly doughy, in the center. ”

Inez is just finishing mixing the dough when I get into the kitchen, but she explains that she uses an instant mix, pointing at a large paper sack not dissimilar to those used to pack concrete. It’s just the mix and water, she says, displaying a pallid mound of dough in a large plastic bowl. She mixes it by hand until it’s right, adding the water bit by bit.

How do you know when it’s ready?

Inez smiles uncertainly and says, It’s just ready.

She pulls a handful of dough, slightly larger than a golf ball, off the mound and slaps it into a rough sphere, then splat, throws it down into the center of a pink plastic circle the thickness of tissue paper. She pats it down with her hand, then brandishes the rolling pin, a narrow tapered length of plastic, and begins rolling out the dough. A minute later, there’s a thin, flat circle with smooth edges. She tugs the pink plastic in one smooth motion, lifts it, peels the tortilla off and onto the palm of her hand, turns, and flips it onto the hot comal, a griddle, behind her. She does it again, flips the first tortilla over on the stove, and then hands the pin to me. My turn. The dough for flour tortillas isn’t like the dough I’m used to. It’s not elastic, but soft, like a looser version of Play-Doh. When I press down on the pin, dough bunches up in front of it in waves, and spreads thin in its wake. Fail. I scrape the dough back into a ball with my fingers, splat it down and try again. This time my fingernail catches the dough, digging a channel deep enough to tear it.
Again: scrape into a ball, splat, flatten, roll. I have a thick square. I can smell the tortillas on the stove cooking. I’m falling behind.

Inez, I don’t know what I am did, er, what I am doing. I’m already so frustrated that I’m losing my Spanish.

She smiles at me kindly but does not take the pin from my hands. She’s going to make me sweat it out.

I frown at the dough, which has come to resemble a Rorschach blot. I try rolling it out some more. The Rorschach blot expands but does not change shape. I attempt to mimic one of Inez’s signature moves, peeling up the plastic liner just enough to separate the jagged edges of the dough from it and then folding them back in, smoothing the border. The consistency of the dough, I realize, is crucial here because it allows the folded edges to melt in seamlessly; make the dough too thick and the edges won’t meld. Make it too thin, and it’ll fall apart as you roll it.

In the meantime, Inez has been tending the tortillas on the stove, both of which have been neatly stacked and wrapped in a clean towel. The comal is nearly smoking with heat, the scent of hot metal wafting up from its empty plain—something that never happens when Inez makes the tortillas. I look at her resignedly, then hold out the pin.

Can you fix it?

She takes the pin from me, and with a calm efficiency of movement I associate with chefs, repairs the damage, flips it onto the comal, and makes two more. Then she splats another ball of dough down, unceremoniously hands me the pin, and says, You need to practice.
 

I nod and try locking the pin in place with one hand while spinning it out like a radius with the other. Bingo: smooth, round edges. I look at Inez for approval and she nods encouragingly. Better. She takes the pin and neatens my work, but it’s a final once-over, not a redo. We continue like this, with me rolling out the basic tortilla, Inez coming in to clean up the worst transgressions. Then Sal comes in.

Making tortillas, eh?

Sal is a good neighbor to the Martinez family. Most afternoons, he collects Maricia from the day-care school bus; later during my stay, he builds them a table from plywood and two-by-fours so they can eat in the living room. But, to my embarrassment, he has developed an obvious crush on me. To make matters worse, he speaks to me mostly in English, which means that, other than the two oldest boys, who speak English, the rest of the family can’t understand what we’re saying.
I keep my eyes on the tortilla and mumble, pointedly, Estoy aprendiendo. I’m learning.

It’s good, you will learn. Espero que . I hope so.

Good for when you get married, you can make them for your husband.

That’s exactly what I want: to be locked up in a kitchen making tortillas, I say icily in English. Sal doesn’t say anything back, just looks at me with surprised eyes.
My hostility recedes by the time the boarders start making their daily pilgrimage from the garage to the shower. When they see me with the tortilla pin in hand, they ask, You’re making tortillas? And I reply with a wink to Inez, I’m learning, but she’s a professional.

My tortillas never match Inez’s, but she becomes more comfortable with me. That night, we get through the alphabet without her putting her head down in embarrassment. I am so encouraged by our progress that I figure we should start on words, and I ask what kind of vocabulary she might want to learn: What would be most useful? What does she need to know? But her face goes blank.

I try a different tack.

What do you want to do when you grow up? I ask her.

She smiles shyly and thinks for a minute. I just want to help my mom.
 

Excerpted from The American Way of EatingUndercover at Walmart, Applebee’sFarm Fields, and the Dinner Table.  Copyright © 2012 by Tracie McMillan. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. 

 
* Triqui immigrants, one of the most recent ethnic groups to enter California, still maintain many of their indigenous traditions, which sometimes lead to problems in the United States. In 2009, a Triqui man in Greenfield was jailed for arranging a marriage between his fourteen- year-old daughter and an eighteen-year-old man, and accepting a dowry in return. In Triqui culture, no formal marriage ceremony is performed; it is customary for a dowry to be exchanged and then the couple lives together. (Wozniacka 2011; Hollenbach 1998)

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, not of Spero News.

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