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 Ali Manion
Michigan State University
February, 2010

Hungry Planet is the most recent visually stunning book from husband-wife team Peter Menzel and Faith D’Aluisio, photojournalist and writer, respectively. This book is the compelling result of their extensive travels around the globe, visiting thirty families in twenty-four countries, on a quest to gain an understanding of the wildly different ways that food is eaten, prepared, and regarded across the planet.

The book is divided into thirty different sections, each focused on family; the focal point of each segment is a poignant photograph of a family gathered together around their table, countertop or hut-floor, where they display a collection of all the foods they eat in an entire week. Several brief essays from outside authors are also featured, including pieces from Alfred W. Crosby, Corby Kummer, Charles C. Mann, Michael Pollan, Carl Safina and Francine R. Kaufman; Hungry Planet also features a foreword by What to Eat author Marion Nestle.

The bulk of the text and photos, however, are centered on the experiences Menzel and D’Aluisio shared with each of the families in relation to what D’Aluisio describes as “humankind’s oldest social activity: eating” (p. 11). Statistics about each family’s weekly food expenditure, including a breakdown of what major food groups their money goes to, as well as a tally of what food is prepared or grown, accompany each family portrait. All family members are introduced by name and age, and many share the dish or food they enjoy most. Interesting background about the specific countries is also provided, from basic information like population and literacy race to unexpected details, including the national number of McDonald’s restaurants or the cigarette consumption per person per year. Many families provide a recipe that is typical of their average or favorite meal, and Menzel often includes his own notes from the field about the conditions he encountered while working in the country.

Immediately, the vast differences in how food is cooked, consumed, gathered, bought and eaten become apparent—the relative affluence of Australia, wildly juxtaposed to the poverty of Bhutan. The surprising Chinese love of Kentucky Fried Chicken, followed by the rice and beans basics of Cuba; each story and photographs are continually and immensely different from the previous. Menzel and D’Aluisio chose families that are generally representative of the nation as a whole, but also managed to provide a personal glimpse into the lives of the individual people. D’Aluisio’s vivid retelling of street vendors, sled dogs, breezy balconies and curious children makes Hungry Planet into something more than a journalistic or opinionated book about food, poverty, or obesity, and instead into a story that makes each family relatable, approachable and understandable.

Several of the families stood out to me personally. The Aboubakars, refugees from Darfur currently residing in Chad, had perhaps the most shocking statistics; the single-mother led family of six sits smiling in the harsh Saharan sand before their rationed rice, dried meat, handfuls of fruits and Oxfam-provided water portion, a week’s worth of food that amounts to $1.23 USD. D’Aluisio creates an intense narrative of the monotonous, exhausting life at the refugee camp, accompanying Menzel’s always-gripping photographs, the most memorable of which depicts a refugee woman sifting through sand to save any bits of grain that may have fallen after a day’s ration distribution. Contrast this lifestyle to the Madsens of Cap Hope, Greenland, whose week’s worth of food include ox, walrus, geese and polar bear, all hunted by the family’s father, Emil. Their existence relies entirely on sled dogs, in a strange icy world where the sun never sets. The family children watch MTV and snack on Pringles. Then, imagine the healthy habits of the Matisudas of Okinawa, Japan, where life expectancy is ranked highest in the world. Their week’s worth of food is rich in fruits, vegetables and fish, and 88-year-old Takeo looks sprightly, grinning behind his 100-year-old mother. These three families are only a glimpse into the incredibly different lifestyles and eating habits that are represented across the nations and families of Hungry Planet, and all are equally fascinating and intriguing in their own right.

Menzel’s superb photography makes Hungry Planet accessible to a wide range of audiences; in a sense, many of the photographs can speak for themselves, and the powerful image of a family beside a week’s worth of food can say volumes about a country, a culture, and an appreciation of understanding of the way food is consumed. The visual nature of this book gives it the ability to transcend ages, and these are the type of photographs that can be properly interpreted despite language barriers. The range of data, including the many statistics related to fertility, literacy, weight, and food consumption, make Hungry Planet more than just a photojournalism piece; this technical information gives this book a sort of academic clout, and the option to be used in class work or as a reliable, scholarly source. D’Aluisio’s text also goes beyond the notion of simply reporting the facts or the events as they unfold; she gives us a glimpse into the lives of these families, providing creative details about their homes, their expressions, their typical daily routine.

Hungry Planet is truly a masterpiece, not only for its visual beauty but for the complex messages it conveys about the way the world eats, the issues we currently face as planet in regards to food consumption, and the controversial problems that different countries face in terms of food, especially regarding obesity, starvation, and the globalization of certain foodstuffs or restaurant chains. Menzel and D’Aluisio seem to have worked out a perfect formula, striking a balance between image and text, and selecting countries and families that present an honest representation of the culture as a whole. Hungry Planet could hit a chord with just about anyone, anywhere, who was aiming to discover the many different ways we, as humans, eat.