I’m the kind of person who loves maps. The last time my mother visited, she and I stayed up until 2 am examining a National Geographic map of Europe, saying things like, “So that’s where Kiev is!” Something about them just draws me in, makes me lose track of time in the minutia of mountains, rivers, and boundaries.
When I picked up Peter Menzel and Faith D’Alusio’s latest book, Hungry Planet: What the World Eats, I felt the same draw into the minutia of the world. Except, instead of mountains and rivers, this book drew me in with meat, fruits, grains, and McDonalds’s. Indeed, even though it isn’t something a cartographer would use, Hungry Planet is in a sense a map of the world.
Menzel and D’Alusio (the California-based pair behind Material World and Man Eating Bugs) traveled to 24 countries—ranging from Chad, to China to Germany to Greenland—talking with 30 different families and recording what they ate for a week. Menzel photographed each family in their kitchen with the week’s worth of groceries, while D’Alusio interviewed them about their food habits and family structure. Accompanying the portraits and narratives are detailed breakdowns of each family’s grocery list, more photographs of the family and home country, and statistics for each country visited.
What quickly becomes obvious is the incredible diversity wound up in the everyday task of cooking dinner. In one week, a family of six in a refugee camp in Chad survive on largely on their ration of 39.3 pounds of unmilled sorghum and a corn-soy blend (cooking a soup that includes dried goat meat “pounded on a rock”), while an Italian couple smokes 20 packs of cigarettes. A family of eight in Ecuador eats 100 pounds of potatoes and 13 pounds of plantains—but no meat, fish, or eggs. Although the book expands beyond each family’s story to discuss trends in the country as a whole, the interviewees are presented as individuals and not just as a prototypical example of the country.
This personalization is partly accomplished through Metzel’s excellent photography. Although all of his photos are intimate and well-framed, it is the grocery portraits that are most fascinating. Actually seeing that “grocery store” can be defined alternatively as Safeway, a village market, or an ocean is an amazingly efficient way to show how differently people around the world live. Even more than the narratives, it is these portraits of the things we consume that describe our place in the world.
Part coffee table book, part cookbook, part atlas, part National Geographic, part travel narrative, part political commentary, Hungry Planet is unexpectedly compelling. I read it straight through in one weekend, but found myself frequently coming back to it to compare photos and check statistics.
In D’Alusio’s introduction she explains that the book is a response to the global influx of packaged and processed food. She claims that we are in a moment of transition; affluent countries are decidedly overfed, and even developing countries must address problems of obesity in one segment of society while battling malnutrition in others. This theme is continued throughout the book with brief essays on food and nutrition by such luminaries as science writer Michael Pollan and childhood diabetes expert Francine Kaufman. It is to the book’s credit that it can address issues of globalization and nutrition without condemning any family or offering easy solutions.
In the end, as with any good atlas, Hungry Planet comes back to look at our own country showing us where we fit in. After reading about the Mendozas of Todos Santos, Guatamala and their beautifully colored spread of vegetables and the Celiks of Istanbul with their pyramids of eggs, tomatoes, and 32 loaves of bread, I reached the final three families living in the United States. As I scrutinized these three families’ kitchens laid bare, I wonder what my week’s food supply would look like. And even though I’m quite clearly a citizen of the U.S., I still asked myself, On this map of the world, where do I belong?
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