for the Soul
Planet: What the World Eats
Peter Menzel and Faith D’Aluisio
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.