Reading: Hungry Planet

Hungry Planet

I stumbled on a chapter excerpt of Hungry Planet in Delta Airline's Sky Magazine, and knew I had to get it. It's probably my favorite food-related book purchase of the year. The premise of the book is simple: have a family buy a week's worth of food, photograph them with the food, listing exactly what was purchased and the prices for them (or, in some cases, procured for free or home-grown, with equivalent local prices for these items), and add an essay about how the family cooks and eats. It profiles 30 familes from around the world, from Africa to Europe to Asia to the United States.

The photographer and co-author of this book, Peter Menzel, produced a similar book called Material World: A Global Family Portrait in the early '90s. That book photographed families around the world with all of their worldly possessions piled around them. I got that book along with Hungry Planet, and it too is quite interesting. I much prefer Hungry Planet though, simply because food is universal. The food-and-family photos are simply fascinating - I almost pulled out a magnifying glass so I could see all of the details. The essays accompanying each family profile are equally interesting, and there are also some guest-written essays on various topics related to food such as fast food, fish, the meat processing industry, and so on. There are also some absorbing national statistics such as average calorie intake per person (Italy: 3,671; Japan: 2,761; Mali: 2,174; India: 2,459; United States: 3,774), annual meat consumption per person (United Kingdom: 175 pounds; Cuba: 71 pounds; Bhutan: 6.6 pounds; Kuwait: 132 pounds), McDonald's restaurants (Mexico: 261; Poland: 200; Turkey: 81; Ecuador: 10; Greenland: 0; United States: 13,491) and so on. Some more tidbits from the book that I found particularly interesting:

  • Highest expenditure for a week's worth of food, in US$: the Melander family of 4 (mother, father, two young boys) in Hamburg, Germany spent $500.07 (and none of them are overweight, for what it's worth!)
  • Lowest expenditure: the Aboubakar family of 7 (mother and 6 children ranging from 2 to 16) in a refugee camp in Chad $1.23, plus about $24 worth of homegrown foods (no, none of them are overweight either...neither are they starved.)
  • The Kuwait family have an in-house elevator, which everyone takes just to go up one flight of stairs.(Having an elevator in ones house seems to be quite normal.)
  • Most families in the 'developed' countries spend a big chunk of their food budget on prepared foods, fast food and beverages. For example, the Bainton family in England spent $38.61 of their $253.15 total on drinkables: the Casalese family in Mexico spent $39.07 out of $189.09 total - including 12 1-liter bottle of Coca-Cola.
  • The percentage of obese people in Japan is 1.5% of the population for both males and females; in Mongolia only 5% of the male population is obese yet 25% of the female population is. The most uniformly obese country seems to be the U.S. (male/female 32.0%/37.8%), but Egyptian (39.3%) and Kuwaiti (49.2%) women are up there too. (Could have something to do with those least in Kuwait.)

I don't want to give the impression that this book is just a bunch of dry statistics. It also has a recipe per family (the one I'm least likely to try: seal stew from Greenland), pictures of various local foods (intriguing in a scary sort of way: roasted guinea pig from Ecuador), and much more. Most of all, the photographs are terrific. What is striking is both how pervasive the spread of international, mostly American origin, fast-food and snack/sugary beverage items are, and how there are still a lot of uniquely local foods and eating habits.

I'd recommend this book either as a gift for someone or just for yourself if you are a foodie, a cook, fascinated by statistics, or just love beautiful photography books. I am "all of the above", so I give Hungry Planet 5 stars out of 5.

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