When I first heard Rush Limbaugh blast Tracie McMillan and her book, The American Way of Eating, last week, I knew he was sorely mistaken. He called Tracie, his latest “feminazi” obsession, an “authorette” and “wide-eyed” college grad, and then delivered this illustrious jab: “What is it with all of these young, single, white women? Over-educated—doesn't mean intelligent.”
Rush gravely misrepresented Tracie and her book, portraying her as another woman asking too much with too little intelligence. Having worked with Tracie as her research assistant for nearly a year, I know she’s neither. Rush should have done his homework.
What you wouldn’t have learned listening to Rush was that for Tracie, The American Way of Eating was a deeper look into food infrastructure, food distribution, and food access. While doing the research and reporting for her book, she spent two months in the farm fields of Central Valley, Calif., where heat stroke once forced her to vomit, standing up, in her tub. Even after being diagnosed with tennis elbow, she continued working as a gleaner at a garlic farm. While working as a stock clerk in a Walmart, she wrestled with old produce, throwing out “200 pounds of asparagus, the base of every bunch coated in a thick moldy layer.” In a Brooklyn Applebee’s, she worked the “hardest job” of an expediter, one who “coordinates the flow of food from line to floor.” After she befriended her coworkers, one of them drugged and molested her at her going-away party.
Although Rush didn't explicitly call her out as an elitist, there’s little else to infer when he says, “over-educated.” As SF Gate reviewer Michael Stern would have you believe, Tracie is a “privileged reformer,” which couldn’t be further from the truth.
My current boss, investigative reporter Wayne Barrett, calls her a “jewel,” reminiscing about the time he worked with her at the Village Voice in 1998. Tracie would stay in the office late into the night, writing lengthy memos for Wayne and their investigation of U.S. Senate candidate Geraldine Ferraro as a sweatshop landlord. On the days she wasn’t working with Wayne, she would rush to her other four part-time jobs and then take her remaining classes to finish her bachelor’s degree in political science at NYU. During that time, four days a week she tutored the children of Katherine McAuliffe and Jay Kriegel, former chief of staff/special counsel to New York Mayor John Lindsay. McAuliffe, also from Michigan, immediately took a liking to Tracie’s blend of Midwestern tenderness and no-nonsense attitude. “She’s not upper class by any stretch of the imagination,” McAuliffe said. “As a matter of fact, when she came here to my house in SoHo, she was dazzled. I think she was kind of amazed. It may have been her first feeling about the real other way that people might live.”
When Tracie was 16, her mother died from a chronic illness, and at 17, Tracie moved to New York to attend NYU on a partial scholarship. She lived off her own paycheck and paid for her schooling on her own dime.
When I first spoke with Tracie over the phone, she hinted at how demanding her life was and how passionate she was about her work. She was handling another assistant (bringing the total up to three) as well as additional research for herself, some freelancing, and copy-editing work. She did this all while writing her book. Sometimes the stress would leak into our weekly phone calls. "I need to reschedule, someone just stole my car," she told me one week. Dammit, Clarissa. Who would steal a 1994 Ford Escort? Thankfully, she was just looking in the wrong parking spot. Halfway through all our research, Tracie texted me to say her laptop died, and because of this, she wouldn’t be able to work with me for the next two weeks. Calls would usually end on a good note, as in she found awesome housing and although she hated this fact, she would constantly apologize for not being able to pay me. Because, as she writes, “I have lived well into the bottom third of America's income brackets the bulk of my adult life.”
Annia Ciezadlo, a former colleague of McMillan at City Limits magazine and author of Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love, and War, was “flummoxed” when she discovered what Rush had said. She knew Tracie as one of the hardest-working people she had ever met. Still, it wasn’t just what Rush said about Tracie but that he needed to say it at all.
“Rush Limbaugh has crystallized something that is bigger than just him,” Ciezadlo said. “What he’s sort of unwittingly articulated is this hatred of the idea that working-class women will have a voice in anything that they do, what they eat, who they sleep with, where they live, what their jobs might be. That’s why this whole Rush Limbaugh thing has touched such a nerve. It’s much bigger than just Rush.” She added, “They can’t comprehend the idea that a young working-class woman would have something to say. So their only response to that is, well, she must be elitist because it’s not possible that a working-class person could write a book."
Tracie says Rush must have based his analysis purely on the New York Times review he read on air, claiming the state of free enterprise was at stake—that this was a war on freedoms. Not necessarily. “I don’t think government will save us,” Tracie told me. “I just know that the two big tools that the American people have at their disposal to shape big social resources like food and air and water, are private enterprise and government. Right now, only private enterprise is dealing with food, and we are all paying the price of a really poor diet and really poor health.”
McMillan’s take on the Rush Limbaugh attack has been widely publicized, and with all the attention Tracie has even considered sending a thank-you note to Rush. She has now appeared on The Rachel Maddow Show and PoliticsNation with Al Sharpton, all the while bringing up questions of race, gender, and class to the agenda. Still, it’s frustrating we bring this to the agenda at all. Instead of focusing on The American Way of Eating, media attention has shifted to stop those like Rush, once again, and prove once again that women like Tracie are capable and intelligent.
Ultimately, when Rush derided the notion that Walmart wasn’t doing enough to provide “the best” to low-income families, he opened the door to another set of questions, such as, does Rush truly look out for the working class? Because if he truly cared, he might have known that The American Way of Eating discusses in detail how hard it is for working-class Americans to find ghigh-quality food. “Some of the text in the broadcast I thought was really insulting to working Americans,” Tracie said. “He says, it’s not enough that Walmart brings produce into low-income communities, it has to be high quality, too? I don’t know what Rush thinks of working Americans if he doesn’t think they deserve to have fresh food delivered to their neighborhood.”