February 23, 2006

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Hungry Planet: What the World Eats, by Peter Menzel and Faith D’Aluisio (Ten Speed Press, 2005, 288 pages)

Things I learned from Hungry Planet: What the World Eats:

Egypt imports camels for food.

At the All Saints Day festival in Guatemala, everyone gets drunk, even the kids.

India has the world’s only vegetarian Pizza Hut.

Italy’s Agriculture Ministry officially frowns on pineapple as a pizza topping.

People are really old in Okinawa.

Mexico ranks number one in the world for Coca-Cola consumption per person.

In Australia, Rice Krispies are called Rice Bubbles; same package, different word.

But most of what I learned isn’t factoids, it’s pictures: of a market in Mexico, a dump in Mongolia, a happy family in Australia.

Acclaimed photographer Peter Menzel (formerly a beef rancher) and writer Faith D’Aluisio visited 30 families in 24 countries and photographed each family together with the food it would eat in one week. For each country they give a profile of data like population density, literacy rate and number of McDonald’s restaurants (Australia has 726; France, 973; Ecuador, 10; Japan has 3,891, presumably stacked on top of one another). A few family recipes are included next to photos of home chefs; they include a cheese and potato pie from England and seal stew from Greenland, steamed dumplings from Mongolia and crab soup from Mexico.

The Fernandezes of Texas spend $242.48 on one week’s food in March. The Le Moines of Montreuil in France spend $419.95 for one week, and the Costas of Havana, Cuba, $56.76.

Of course one of the big things about this book is the obvious contrast between countries. Compare the family of four at the supermarket in Brisbane to the extended family of 13 that walks two hours to the village market in Bhutan.

But it is also valuable to simply immerse yourself in any one of the photographs. The book is large, maybe 12 inches wide by 10 inches high, and Menzel’s photographs are impressive. Together with D’Aluisio’s words, each one really does tell a good story, a story very much worth knowing.

Hungry Planet reminds us that some food comes packaged and tidy, while some food comes bloody and with body parts, like the sheep at an Ecuadorian slaughterhouse and the beef viscera laid out on tables at market in Chad. Hungry Planet makes apparent the fact that boxes with unfamiliar labels in foreign languages are slightly scary – who knows what’s in there, or if it’s even edible, never mind palatable? – whereas a bowl of walnuts or an orange is a recognizable friend no matter where you go. An apple looks the same in every country; junk food doesn’t.

Hungry Planet is a hybrid of coffee-table book (which is what it looks and feels like) and journalistic nonfiction. It’s worth your time. A+

—Lisa Parsons

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