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Food for the Soul
By Margaret Black

Hungry Planet: What the World Eats

By Peter Menzel and Faith D’Aluisio

Material World Books & Ten Speed Press, 287 pages, $40

Years after I could no longer instruct, advise, or offer my grown children much comfort in the face of life crises, I found I could give them food. I could communicate many of my warmest, most supportive feelings through food, and this gift was accepted in exactly the spirit in which it was given. So when I read in Hungry Planet that “cooking is even more uniquely characteristic of our species than language,” and that sharing this food together defined family more distinctly than mere DNA relationships, I felt a direct resonance.

But Hungry Planet is a seductive book by many other measures as well, including its sumptuous photography by Peter Menzel. He gloriously illustrates a series of essays by writer Faith D’Aluisio, who examines the food consumed in a week by 30 families from around the globe—from suburbs in Australia to refugee camps in Chad, from China’s teeming Beijing to a tiny farming community, from the icecap of Arctic Greenland to the plains of India and the mountains of Bhutan, from Palermo to Paris to bullet-pocked Sarajevo. Interspersed among D’Aluisio’s family stories are short, more general essays by experts on food and nutrition in the modern world, and the book also includes truly scary but informative comparative statistics about population density, life expectancy, family income, income spent on food, access to safe water, obesity, health care, and so on.

This bald list doesn’t begin to convey the book’s richness. Each chapter opens with a full-page color photo of the family, surrounded by the food that they expect to use that week. Even these photos show more than dietary information. We see, for example, just who constitutes a “family.” Each story provides details particular to that family’s world or environment. With the Dudos of Sarajevo we learn how they survived during the recent civil war, and a panoramic photograph of the city shows obvious scars from the four-year siege. The Browns, an Aboriginal family outside Brisbane, Australia, grew up in the outback, working on sheep stations before they entered their teens. Many relatives float through their suburban home periodically, all intrigued with life in the city. But the grandfather won’t come a second time. He refused to even attempt an escalator, and so many people make his ears start ringing. International aid spends $1.23 per week supporting widowed D’jimia and her five children, formerly of the Darfur province in Sudan, now living in a refugee camp in Chad. Although D’jimia sadly misses raising okra and peppers to enliven the eternal aiysh (congealed porridge) they eat, the camp has one bright spot, a school. She must pay, but “education will help the children find work and be secure.” The Le Moines of Montreuil enjoy the variety of foods that immigrants have brought to France but fear that French cuisine will disappear. They also both long for and dread the advent of supermarkets with the concomitant death of small neighborhood groceries, boulangeries, butcher shops, and patisseries.

D’Aluisio talks about food gathering or purchase, its storage, and its preparation, and she includes favorite family recipes (seal stew, aiysh, pork in sour soup, apricot tarts), some of which are easier to replicate than others, and she usually gets family members to identify their favorite foods. Of course they first have to live under circumstances where “favorite food” is not a silly concept. Dotted throughout her tales are “field notes” by photographer Menzel that deal with his own, highly personal takes on such culinary adventures as deep-fried starfish on a stick. One of the funniest describes a miserable childhood experience he is forced to relive of struggling to swallow German rouladen. The offending food is beautifully portrayed on the opposite page.

This book has a mission—to startle us with the beauty (and sometimes less than beauty) of food, its amazing variety, and its centrality to family life. But the book also seeks to raise our awareness that regional food is fast disappearing and that the diet of everyone worldwide—rich and poor—is fast becoming corrupted into a health hazard. Although hundreds of millions still do not have enough to eat, it is also increasingly the case that people leap from not having enough food to overeating or eating inappropriately. Called “the nutrition transition,” this problem means, among other things, that a poverty-stricken country whose population is just emerging from malnutrition can suddenly find itself having to deal with severe and expensive health problems related to obesity.

Other essays touch on street food, “food with a face,” and “launching a sea ethic.” Although these essays are brief and lack nuance, the book lists an extensive collection of “further reading” for those who wish to pursue a subject in greater depth. And for the general sections too, photographer Menzel has startling photographs—kitchens worldwide, roadside food stalls, Mongolian cows free-ranging in a dumpster, an amazing rainbow of Okinawan parrotfish. Yes, Hungry Planet is a coffee-table book of sorts—its large, 12” x 9” format suggests just that—but it’s a feast for the mind as well as the eyes and calls attention to issues of compelling importance to all of us.

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