Book Review

Hungry Planet: What the World Eats. Peter Menzel and Faith D’Aluisio. Berkeley, California: Ten Speed Press, 2005, 286 pp., ISBN 58008-681-3.

Reviewed by Sam Plotkin
Michigan State University
February, 2010

Faith D’Aluisio and Peter Menzel’s Hungry Planet offers readers, “a feast – for the eye, the heart, and the mind”(9). Menzel and D’Aluisio document their world food odyssey in the pages of this glossy international “culinary atlas.” With pictures accompanying prose the authors document their experiences with twenty-four families from thirty countries around the world as they farmed, shopped, hunted, cooked, and ate. Hungry Planet offers unique insight into the “food lifestyles” of these families, from the poorest to the most affluent, living in the hillsides of Ecuador and in the projects of Herzegovina. The book devotes several pages to each family. In these sections the authors provide an array of pictures accompanied by text offering observations of the families’ food lifestyles. Spaced intermittently between these familial examinations are essays authored by a melting pot of “food system authorities,” ranging from Michael Pollan to Carl Safina.

Each family introspective includes a glossy photograph of the family somewhere in or around their place of living, surrounded by a week’s worth of foodstuffs. Turning the pages the reader finds additional photos of the families, or members of the families, “in action” – they are interacting with their community, preparing, cooking, hunting, harvesting, shopping, and eating. The families vary of socioeconomic status, as the Melanders (p. 132) of Germany spend $500.07 on their week’s worth of food, while the Aboubakars (p. 56) living in a refugee camp in Chad spend $1.23 on food each week – the majority of Aboubakars sustenance coming from government food rations. Complimenting the photos are tables detailing the costs of the foodstuffs, and lists of statistics regarding various aspects of the families’ respective countries pertaining to all things social, economic, health, food, and nutrition related (i.e. GDP, per-capita income, cigarette consumption, number of McDonald’s restaurants, pounds of meat and fish consumed). The “Field Notes” in each family-section are “more personal” observations than those noted in the central text. These “Field Notes” are included as sidebars to the central text and detail specific interactions, observations, or simply “thoughts” that were not included in the main prose. Additionally, it is important to note the “Family Recipe” included in each section – an engaging facet of Hungry Planet that begs for the audience to engage with the text, the authors, and, most notably, with the families. These recipes are authentic representations of the family, the culture from which the family hails, and range from Greenlandic Seal Stew (p. 153) to Ecuadorian Potato Soup (Locro de Pappas) (p. 110) and Okinawan Rice cooked with Brown Seaweed (Hijiki Jyushi) (p. 193).

While the book’s primary text detailing the family examinations is principally journalistic and apolitical, forgoing anthropological analyses of the families and their food lifestyles, the essays found throughout the book address issues and raise questions pertaining to various aspects of national and international food systems. Michael Pollan authors an essay titled “Food With a Face” (p. 162) where he offers discomforting insight into, and a cutting critique of, modern meat production. He writes of CAFOS (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) and details the perils of industrial meat production. Pollan offers a description of an alternative food system, and makes a case for the ethical treatment of animals, noting the mechanized system of meat production in the U.S. is particularly “brutal,” and much unlike most meat production endeavors around the world. Looking to the water, Carl Safina’s essay “Launching a Sea Ethic” details the devastated condition of many of the world’s fisheries – over fished and polluted. While a significant portion of the world’s population obtains their principle sustenance from the oceans, he contends that the majority of people do not consider what they do to the oceans in the same light as what they do to their communities(p. 202). In the vein of Aldo Leopold’s lionized “land ethic” conception, Safina asserts that we ought develop a “sea ethic,” the extension of our sense of community “below high tide” – he suggests we concern ourselves with the integrity, stability, and beauty of the oceans(p. 202). Other essays address topics like diabetes and obesity – medical conditions most common in westernized societies but growing globally – as well as the aesthetic, economic, and cultural value of street food. These essays jolt the reader from the tour of world foodways and usher them into a focused concern pertaining to assorted pathologies of modern food systems.

The tremendous variations in how food is marketed, shopped for, hunted, gathered, dressed, prepared, and cooked is most apparent in turning the pages of Hungry Planet. The reader visits the westernized, processed food laden kitchen of the Baintons of Great Britain (p. 141) – with potato chips, Capri-Sun juice boxes, and frozen pizzas purchased at the hypermarket chain Waitrose – and sits in on a family birthday party. With the turn of a page the reader travels to Cape Hope, Greenland (p. 144) where the Madsen’s, living 275 miles north of the Arctic Circle, take D’Aluisio and Menzel hunting for seal – a meal commonly had by the Madsens – in an unforgiving icy world. The page-turning cultural variability characteristic of Hungry Planet is sufficiently accentuated by the magnificent photography of Menzel and the gentle diction of D’Aluisio. With this combination of descriptive faculties – the photographs and accompanying text – the reader is also acutely aware of the tremendous socioeconomic disparities with dietary implications made evident through the global traversing. Consider the aforementioned Melanders and Aboubakars. As the Aboubakars family of six subsists on weekly food expenditures of $1.23, their diet consists primarily of grains, few vegetables, and meat for special occasions or when it is available. In great contrast is the diet of the Melanders, a family of four with weekly food expenditures of $500.07. The Melanders have more food variety in their diet, notably consisting of more processed foods and an emphasis on meats. This elucidates an additional trend evident in the pages of Hungry Planet, this being the principle consumption of grains and whole foods in un-developed or under-developed areas, while those families in developed nations like Germany often consume many more processed foods and a considerably greater amount of meat. It is also important to note an indelible taste for McDonald’s in children of many un-developed and under-developed nations.

The book benefits greatly from the subjective analyses of the interspersed essays. Primary textual sections provide information, a humanities worldview, and detailed observational capital. Objective observations and diction of these individual family examinations position the reader to make their own deductions pertaining to cultural worldviews and food system issues. The essays supplement the objective perceptions of the individual family examinations and offer useful subjective, politicized, and polarized assertions and critiques pertaining to various aspects of the food system, consequently with the potential to conjure assorted questions and provide the reader with novel worldviews.

While Hungry Planet did well to address several important food system issues in the interspersed essays, its principle shortcoming exists as it failed to analytically address the impact of socioeconomic status and poverty on families’ food security. The socioeconomic disparities were embedded in the images and text of the book – notably with the families of Chad, Bhutan, and Ecuador whom subsist on minimal financial capital and foodstuffs. These families were documented in photographs living in dirt floor huts and cooking over open fires for lack of stove. In text, the authors note these families’ minimal spending on foodstuffs, occupations if they were employed, and general daily struggles to make ends meet. D’Aluisio and Menzel would have done well to devote an essay – like those authored by Pollan and Safina – to a discussion of poverty, food insecurity, and those factors contributing to these socioeconomic ills. An essay, like those authored by Pollan and Safina, might offer a focused analysis of the apparent socioeconomic related issues, and concentrate on the pathologies that contribute to, and result from, these disparities. This essay could consider the political climates of countries as well as particular social justice labor issues, job security concerns, and natural resource conflicts in a comprehensive discussion of devastating impact of poverty and food insecurity on families. Moreover, this essay would provide the audience insight into the causes of, and explanations for, the disparities and, much like the other essays, suggest remedies to the myriad causes.

Visually stimulating photographs supplemented with engaging prose makes Hungry Planet pleasant but intellectually challenging. The large, glossy photographs initially beg for the book to reside on a convenient coffee table, however, its text and messages are far too important to be pushed aside. This book is suitable for individuals of all levels of food system understanding, though may be of particular use for those interested in, and academic courses pertaining to, globalization and international food systems. Menzel and D’Aluisio make the daily lives of families around the world intriguing and engaging, and Hungry Planet tells an important story pertaining to the way the world eats, interacts with food, and the challenges we all face, or stand to face, regarding our relationship with food.