Michael Ruhlman – Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America

Michael Ruhlman – Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America

This one belongs in the small pile of Most Interesting Books of the Year. It is a fun and informative look at an underappreciated institution of modern life: the grocery store.

Ruhlman combines Deirdre McCloskey’s appreciation of progress and seeming inanities that aren’t, with an appreciation of the entrepreneurial spirit and risk-taking that go into a seemingly hum-drum industry.

Ruhlman spent a great deal of time with the brothers who run Heinen’s, a mid-size grocery chain based in Cleveland, and shares their insights on a changing business. His late father, who was fascinated by grocery stores and changed with them over time, also looms large.

Along the way Ruhlman dives into the surprisingly interesting history of grocery stores, and speculates how they might be changing in the future. Maybe staples and non-perishables will soon be mostly delivery-based from companies like Amazon or Peapod, while traditional grocery stores will shift to hosting specialized fresh food departments–a little like the separate butchers’ and bakers’ shops of the old days.

Ruhlman also talks to farmers, livestock producers, and hopeful purveyors of new niche products such as energy bars and salads, along with a few natural-food and nutrition quacks. Refreshingly, Ruhlman mostly calls them what they are.

While Ruhlman rightfully decries the faddishness of many diet and nutrition trends, he is not entirely immune to food ideology himself. At one point he unironically compares breakfast cereals to nuclear weapons–don’t tell north Korea! A genuinely enjoyable read on a surprisingly important subject, despite its occasional faults. Steve Horwitz reviewed the book in more detail here.

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