Sunday, July 12, 2015

On the Coffee Table: Hungry Planet

Title: Hungry Planet: What the World Eats
Authors: Peter Menzel and Faith D'Aluisio
via Peter Menzel Photography
Menzel and D'Alusio, a husband-photographer/wife-writer team, have created a number of globe-trotting coffee table books.  They seek to document the everyday lives of ordinary people around the world.  The concept for Hungry Planet is simple in theory, no doubt arduous in execution: family portraits, all members gathered around the week's groceries.   The journey covers 36 families in 24 countries over six continents.  Profiles range from Darfur refugees in Chad to middle class families in the United States.  Family challenges range from healthy dietary balance to basic survival.

Hungry Planet inspires a number of emotional reactions for me.  I envy the authors' adventure.  I have harbored world travel fantasies from a young age.  In what wanderings I have managed, I have learned that the most meaningful discoveries are to be found not at major sights but in family homes.  I realize such a book requires far more money, time and energy than I am either able or willing to commit at this point in my life so I am grateful for the armchair perspective.

I am also grateful for the lifestyle which accidents of birth have afforded me.  Obviously, the differences between life in the Ecuadoran Andes and the Tokyo suburbs go far beyond what's on the dinner table but I would argue there is no more meaningful starting point.   As much is to be learned from the procurement and storage of food as from its preparation and consumption.  A sharp line is seen between the cultures of abundance and those of scarcity.  Anyone who has spent their life in more of the former than the latter as I have should consider themselves lucky indeed.  Occasional similarities are noteworthy.  Coca-Cola bottles are seen the world over, of course, but we are also treated to preparations for All Saints Day festivities in both Guatemala and Poland.

Each family profile includes photos, a recipe and demographic statistics for the country in question.  Interspersed with these chapters are essays by various food writers on global gastronomic issues: fast food, responsibilities towards the animals we eat, ocean stewardship, the health consequences of over-abundance, etc.  If any place is presented as the ideal, it is Okinawa, Japan.  As a result of healthy lifestyle choices and a reverence for the aged, the small island boasts the world's highest longevity rates.  But even there, the global reach of fast food culture has had a major impact on the health statistics of younger generations.  Fewer Okinawans are likely to reach age 100 in decades to come. 

The photography is excellent.  The text is good, too, though the editing is a bit funky.  Most of the writing is D'Aluisio's but Menzel adds his own notes and, of course, there are photo captions.  As such, the same story often gets told three times.  The captions themselves sometimes suffer form awkward placement on the page.  Overall, though, the book is very good and a wonderful exploration of daily life around the world.

In other exciting news, my wife recently blogged about our summer book swap.  See her post here.

22 comments:

  1. That sounds like an interesting book that I would likely never shell out the money for. If I see it, though, I'll make sure to take a look at it.

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    1. Yeah, not exactly a cheap book, even in paperback. But I enjoyed it.

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  2. This book does sound interesting because I love to see what other countries do in a variety of things including food. I wonder what they showed for Germany? Usually it is sausage and sauerkraut. It depends on the region. I know, in the upper parts of Germany, they eat a lot of fish. I grew up with pickled herring in sour cream-hahahaaa-did you cringe? I love it but you will never get me to eat bacon fat on rye bread

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    1. The focus was on food purchases rather than finished dishes. My main take away from Germany was the high cost of groceries: $500/week for a family of four - definitely on the high end for the book. There was, however, one intriguing German dish featured: rouladen, pickles and onions wrapped in mustard and bacon. Yum. Oh, and bacon fat on rye? I'd totally try that.

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    2. Rouladen is my favourite and I know hoe to make it! It is pretty easy actually, you just have to find the thin beef which you probably can in a German Delicatessen. It is thin, lean beef, you place salt, pepper, mustard on it then chopped onion, thin pieces of pickle and bacon and wrap it like you would a cabbage roll and "pin" it with a toothpick. Place it in the roastin pan and put it in the over at 350 for 3hrs or so, obviously there is water in the pan so you can make gravy with it. I love it-

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    3. Yes, I think I would enjoy that. Menzel was not a fan of the dish but my mouth waters just thinking about it.

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  3. This sounds like an interesting read. I remember being a bit shell shocked in Paris because I had no idea what the food items were. It was all just perplexing to me!

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    1. It's all part of the adventure, Stephanie! In Japan, I had to learn to read menus in a hurry.

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  4. Sounds interesting! I'm off on some travel right now...so thinking about reading different language menus is making me scared!

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    1. Look around at what other people are having. When you see something you like, point for the waiter.

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  5. My whole life, I've been fascinated by other cultures and far away places. I've not traveled overseas since 2007, but when I'm done with homeschooling children (last one graduates next year) I'm setting some goals...and they'll involve mileage, buddy.

    Great book - I may have to pick it up.

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    1. That begs the question, where would you like to go, my friend?

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  6. I do think we all need this book...to read about different cultures and food.

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    1. It's a great way to learn about the world.

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  7. What a fascinating book because I love watching those travel eating shows like "Bizarre foods". I'm adventurous when it comes to eating but food allergies and aversions to blood keep me in check.

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    1. I understand. I have a few of those issues, too.

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  8. I don't like that sort of repetition, but this looks like a worthwhile, educational read.

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    1. The material is definitely high enough in quality to get past the editing issues.

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  9. I have been blessed to have traveled a lot around the world and have eaten in homes in Honduras, Mexico, Japan, Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam, Russia, Scotland, to name a few--the book idea is excellent

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    1. You have done well! My list is not quite so impressive: Japan, UK, Germany and New Zealand.

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  10. Please don't throw rotten eggs at me, but this seems like it would make for a great documentary. As much as I love to read and enjoy seeing photography of travel and places, I just don't know if I could read through such a real and emotional look as this. I'd have to have this spoon fed to me in visual form to really take it in. Still, it sounds fascinating.

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    1. I think you're right, it could make an interesting documentary, though perhaps more true to its own format as a TV series. However, I also feel that ground has been covered, particularly by Anthony Bourdain. What I appreciated about Hungry Planet, in particular, was the focus on individual families, rather than trying to take in an entire food culture. Especially interesting were the more remote corners of the Earth: Bhutan, Ecuador and Greenland. Also, in a book, as opposed to a film, I found it easier to compare the various countries side-by-side.

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