(Story contributed by Emma Davis ’17. The full interview appears in the Feb. 21 issue of The Wesleyan Argus)
Tracie McMillan is Wesleyan’s Koeppel Journalism Fellow and author of The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields, and the Dinner Table, a New York Times Bestseller. Her recent work appears in Best Food Writing 2013 and she has received a James Beard Award, the Sidney Hillman Prize, the James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism and other national awards for her writing about food, consumers’s choices and other social issues.
Q: How did you become a reporter?
A: I became a reporter after interning at the Village Voice under Wayne Barrett. Wayne was the City Politics investigative reporter at the Voice for around 40 years; he left the Voice a couple of years ago. Every semester, he had a cadre of interns who would come in and help him do his work, and that was one of the internships I had as an undergraduate. I did well there, and got on well with Wayne, and that led me into doing reporting work.
When I took that internship, I wasn’t really sure that I wanted to be a journalist. I knew that I wanted to do something with writing, and I had a vague idea that I would work at a magazine, but I hadn’t really thought through the specifics of that. And certainly at the time, I think I was more interested in national politics, and Wayne’s work was very local. But I lucked into getting paired with him at the Voice, and that put me on that path.
Q: What brought you to Wesleyan?
A: [Director of Writing Programs] Anne Greene brought me to Wesleyan. I have a little bit of a relationship with Wesleyan. In 2006, I got a Davidoff scholarship to attend the Wesleyan Writers Conference. That was when I had just gone freelance. I had taken some time off, and I had taken basically half my life savings and gone traveling for six months. Because I had been working since I was 14, and I had this epiphany—I was about 29 at the time—that I had always been working, and I had never stopped to figure out where I wanted to go; I just went where it seemed like I could go… I didn’t really know if the work I was doing as a journalist was what I really wanted to dedicate myself to, or if maybe there was something else I wanted to be doing. And I didn’t really know myself well enough to make that call, and I realized that I was at a point in my life where I didn’t have anything tying me to any one place.
And once I had enough time to really clear my head, I kept coming back to writing. I didn’t just want to write about me, myself, and I; I wanted to write about the world. Writing about myself wasn’t something I was super comfortable with as my main way forward. I had figured out that I wanted to do journalism, and I was coming back to New York—and this was a trip where I [had been] around the world. I went to seven or eight different countries, and so I came back to New York, and I was looking for a way to ground my footing a little bit. I saw an announcement about the [Wesleyan Writers Conference] on one of the journalism websites, and I thought, “Oh, well, maybe if I go to that, it’ll help me get grounded.” I went, and it was very interesting, because I had never really engaged with writing as an art or a craft before. I’d always been a journalist and was trained first as a reporter. And part of me really felt like, “Oh, writing’s just this fancy thing that fancy people do, and I don’t really care about writing as this beautiful thing.” And the Writers Conference, it’s really a celebration in many ways of beautiful, good, and effective writing. So there was a bit of a culture clash for me, where I was just sort of like, “Why are people taking this so seriously?” in this very grumpy, naïve way.
But it was interesting, because I met a few journalists that I really admired. I got acquainted with William Finnegan from The New Yorker, whose work in the ’90s was really influential for me.
So I went to the Writers Conference, met a few folks, met Anne Greene… My career evolved, and I ended up doing this book project, The American Way of Eating, and as that was coming to the point where I needed to work on my acknowledgements, I was trying to think about places where I had gotten support, where people had helped me, and Wesleyan was one of them, because even though I was angsty at the time, I was meeting professional journalists at the Writers Conference I otherwise wouldn’t have met. I was introduced to the idea of taking my writing seriously, along with my reporting; that was really important.
I think the flip side of that is that I’ve been fortunate enough that my book was a New York Times bestseller and is being taught in universities all over the country. It’s been a pretty big success, so I think that gives me a lot more credibility to teach journalism than if I had just done a book that disappeared. Which happens with a lot of books.
Q: What was the process of reporting for and writing your book, The American Way of Eating, like?
A: I had come up with one idea for a book, and I met with an agent. I had proposed an investigative history of supermarkets, which I still think would be an interesting book. And the agent said, “Let’s say we’re not going to do the history of supermarkets. Why are you passionate about that? Why would do you do something like that?” I ended up having some very grumpy, angsty, and probably fairly incoherent rants about how I thought foodies were screwing everything up because they made it seem like food was only for rich people, and actually, I knew a lot of poor people who cared about their diets. They didn’t need to be told to eat healthy food; what they needed was better jobs and better access to food.
And [my agent] came up with this idea. She said, “You should do Nickel and Dimed, but with food.” So I got a very small advance from my publisher, Scribner, and then I went to Guatemala and learned Spanish for five weeks so that I could converse. And then I went to Los Angeles, and I spent a few weeks talking to people and then psyching myself up to be like, “Okay, well, I’ve got to just go and get a job on a farm somewhere, in a field.” I did some calling up people and talking to them, and [they] were like, ‘Most farm work is really informal, and you just sort of show up at a work site or transit hub for farm work buses. And you get on, and you get someone to pick you.’
I went south of Bakersfield and spent two weeks looking for work, found a little bit of work, and used that as a way into some fields in the Central Valley. I worked for two weeks there, and then I got heat sick and spent an afternoon projectile vomiting. All the advocates I had spoken with were really clear with me. They were like, “You could get really hurt. You could get sick. People die because of the heat.” So I was working for a week in 105-degree temperatures, and by the fourth day, my body wasn’t doing so well. Part of me wanted to stick it out, because I was like, “Migrant farmworkers don’t get to choose not to do this!” But the other part of me was like, “But if they could choose to do this, they would leave, because it’s not worth dying.”…So I went to Salinas Valley, which is much more temperate. And there I got work in the garlic fields and lasted about six weeks, until I got tendonitis so bad that I couldn’t use my arm. At each place I was living with migrant farm workers; I did not tell them that I was a reporter. I told them basically that I was a poor white girl that had a lot of problems, and I didn’t want to talk about it.
Then I went and worked at a Walmart in Michigan… I left there for New York and worked in the kitchen of a New York City Applebee’s for nine weeks. When that finished, I went back to Michigan, and this time, lived in Detroit and worked in a Walmart about half an hour outside of the city in the produce section, as a way to talk about food deserts and food access.
All of that reporting there, that took about just over a year. I went to Guatemala in April of 2009, and I was done with the reporting in late May, early June of 2010. And from there, I went to New Mexico and wrote for four months.
I moved to Detroit for most of 2011 and did all of the heavy reporting. First I had the narrative, then I had a list of all the facts I wanted to figure out, and then I went and made a little money. I went and spent eight or nine months reporting out all those questions; that was the period where I was working usually seven days a week. I had three unpaid research assistants whom I was directing, who served as my interns. Just as I finished up, we were six months out from publication, so I had to start doing networking, and marketing, and developing contacts to promote the book.
Q: Besides William Finnegan, who along the way inspired you to become a journalist or helped you to figure out what you were going to write about?
A: Katherine Boo’s work around poverty and welfare reform [has been] really instrumental for me. So is the work of Jason DeParle. Jason was The New York Times reporter covering welfare reform during the Clinton administration, and he did a beautiful book called American Dream that’s really amazing. The narrative he does with the families is really impressive, [and] what’s equally amazing is that he really tells the political story of that reform. It’s like a thriller; it’s really well done. So that was important to me.
A good friend of mine, Annia Ciezadlo, writes really beautifully about poverty and food in the Middle East, or politics and war and food… She’s been something of a mentor for me, too. Also Joan Didion, whom we’ve read in my seminar, “Topics in Journalism: Writing and Arguing About Inequality.” She’s been really important to me. (Also) Jennifer Gonnerman and Barbara Ehrenreich, definitely.
Q: What are you working on at the moment?
A: I’m doing a feature right now for National Geographic on hunger in America. That’s been interesting mostly because they’re a well-funded magazine; they sent me on a trip and they paid for it… I got to go to rural Iowa and suburban Houston and spend some time talking to working poor families, which meant that it was a different context from where I usually report. Most of my training has been as an urban reporter.
I’ve also just been doing a lot of speaking; almost every month, I have a public event I’m doing somewhere, so that keeps me pretty busy. I’m doing a piece on food infrastructure for Next City, which is an online magazine, about urban planning issues. I have a contract with The New York Times Magazine right now to do a piece on food and inequality.