A wounded Iraq veteran recuperating in Los Angeles, a Sudanese refugee receiving food rations in eastern Chad, U.S. and Russian astronauts sharing dinner in space and a Palestinian taxi driver living outside the Israeli security wall unite to expose the widening caloric gap between the rich and the poor in a new book What I Eat: Around the World in 80 Diets
, by journalists Peter Menzel and Faith D'Aluisio.
What I Eat, published by Random House and Ten Speed Press on August 10, 2010,is a trek by photojournalist Menzel and former television producer D'Aluisio across 30 countries and territories with a scale, a camera and a pen, exploring what 80 meticulously chosen individuals consume on a typical day. Their findings are, at best, astounding.
Maasai herders with large herds of cattle in Kenya struggle to meet the lowest possible caloric intake and eat much less than ordinary lower middle class individuals in the U.S., Germany and the U.K., some of whom are seen struggling to cope with obesity and paying thousands of dollars to control their weight.
Arranged by the number of calories each individual consumes from least to most, the book is a virtual food map that begins with the touching story of Noolkisaruni Tarakuai, a Masaai herder in Kenya who consumes a mere 800 calories on a January day, and ends with Jill McTighe, 'the snacker mom' in England who downs an epic 12,300 calories on a typical day of binge eating.
McTighe is a culinary legend in a class of her own, eating nearly the same number of calories as a Spanish bull fighter, a Kentucky coal miner, a Japanese sumo wrestler and a Chicago iron worker combined. At 12,300, her caloric intake, as D'Aluisio explains in her introduction, is more recreational than it is routine and only occurs on a few occasions of 'binge eating.'
Although it doesn't indicate what she eats on a daily basis, the number of calories McTighe eats on a single day of binge eating is equivalent to what Noolkisaruni, the Masaai herder in Kenya would eat in two weeks, except in the rare event that she or one of her neighbors slaughters a goat.
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Never mind that Kenya is a former British colony and a leading exporter of tea and beef to the U.K., the caloric intake of ordinary people in the two countries shows the disparities in access to food, and illustrates the hitherto untold story of what people do with food once they have it.
The book tells a story of two worlds, one waging war against the calorie and another reaching out to obtain an extra crumb of bread. Menzel and D'Aluisio do a good job of depicting the way food brings us together and at the same time separates us. One world struggles against famine and drought, while another struggles against the effects of excessive consumption and abundance.
While the book features images and stories about food, Menzel's inquisitive lens and D'Aluisio's pen are often caught by extra-culinary themes, exploring the issues of child labor and homelessness in Bangladesh, oppression in Tibet, the excesses of war in Sudan and the hardships faced by U.S. vets returning from Iraq.
Food is a central and convenient talking point for Menzel and D'Aluisio, but after reading the book, one is left with an impression that the authors had more than just food on their minds. The images are captivating, the stories touching, but beyond the calorie is a constant theme of human pursuit for self image and dignity, in whatever circumstances, and the indelible scars left by war.
Nomadic herders in Tibet, a territory still fighting for autonomy from China, tell the story of their calorie laden butter tea diet, as Menzel and D'Aluisio find them huddled in their handmade yak wool tent homes, furnished with solar panels and television sets 'donated' by the Chinese government as part of its 'patriotic education' campaign.
The names and location of the Tibetan herders and monks, some of whom still live in fear of retribution by the Chinese government, are withheld, in a manner consistent with the journalistic style in which What I Eat is presented.
What I Eat tells a story of more than just the food that the 80 people covered by Menzel and D'Aluisio eat. Behind the diet motif is a story of how people live in the 30 countries and territories covered.
A Palestinian taxi driver Abdul-Baset Razem living on the fringes of the Israeli security wall, a family in Quebec and a teenage Sudanese refugee in a makeshift refugee camp in eastern Chad fit in seamlessly with the rest of the 8o people covered in the book, but carry in their voices, subtle back stories of the political, economic and social conditions they live in.
The precocious Alamin Hassan, a runaway boy in Bangladesh who works as a train porter, eats a meagre 1,400 calories a day from his earnings at a chaotic train station in Dhaka, where he fends for himself against fellow train porters and smokes five cigarettes a day as he fast-tracks himself into adolescence. Hassan's plight is mirrored by his peers who work as brick hauliers in the brick factories of Sonargaon, outside Dakha.
Far from just being a book about food, What I Eat shows us what people around the world eat and goes on to provide the reader with a glimpse into their everyday lives and struggles. In what seems to be a deliberate comparison, the American war veteran in Vietnam Nguyen Van Thuan and injured Iraq veteran in Los Angeles Felipe Adams have the same caloric intake at 2,100. While Van Thuan speaks at length about the Vietnam war, Adams focuses more on the pain he has to deal with everyday.
Half of the world, as explored in What I Eat, struggles to suppress the rise of the calorie and toils away in gyms, weight loss homes and rehabilitation centers while the other half, mostly in the southern hemisphere, stands on its toes to reach the standard daily caloric intake of 2,000 for women and 2,500 for men.
What I Eat shows how environmental factors distort the relationship between wealth, access to food and actual standards of living. Entire herds of cattle in Kenya are wiped out by drought in a matter of weeks, leaving the Maasai on a hand to mouth existence, despite their well established wealth in livestock, while Tibetan nomadic herders and the Himba pastoralists in Namibia, have access to a lot more food.
Former milk delivery man Rick Baumgardener, who has had to scale down his weight by 100 pounds to qualify for gastric surgery, saw his weight climb to 500 in a few years, thanks to his consumption of milk, icecream and other processed dairy products. On the other end of the scale, Masaai herder Noolkisaruni owns a herd of cattle and hardly gets any milk.
D'Aluisio says in her introduction that the caloric values indicated in What I Eat are not carved-in-stone references to what the people eat every day, but just a snapshot of what they ate on a typical day at the time the book was made.
Behind the captivating images and incisive stories and essays that make up What I Eat is a salient theme of the sustained war against fat, fought in weight-loss camps in the Catskill Mountains in New York and rehabilitation centers of Tennessee. In the end, it seems to be a war lost in most of the U.S. and almost unheard of in Kenya, Chad, Botswana, Bangladesh and India.
One outlier in the southern hemisphere is Tersius "Terri" Berzuidenhout, a Namibian truck driver who consumes 8,400 calories on a typical day driving a haulage truck between South Africa and Angola. Terri downs four Red Bulls each day, along with processed meats and snacks at his demanding job on the highway.
Terri's diet is a typical example of the average workaholic's diet, swamped with calorie laden processed foods and energy drinks. While his caloric intake dwarfs that of his U.S. counterpart, Mississippi truck driver Conrad Tolby, Berzuidenhout's diet is just as tragic.
NASA astronaut Leland Melvin (2,700 calories), is captured while having dinner with fellow astronauts in space with a view of the earth in his background. Melvin appears with his food floating around him on the Space Shuttle Atlantis, demonstrating, rather effortlessly, that we probably dont need more food in a day than we can carry.
Other people who provide good eye candy are the athletic bull fighter, Oscar Higares, in Spain, Chinese gymnast Cao Xiaoli and Saleh Abdul Fadlallah, a camel broker who works at the scenic Birqash camel market in Cairo, Egypt.
A close look at the virtual food map that the book provides shows much of the developing world huddled in the lower 1,000 to upper 1,700 calorie category, barely rubbing shoulders with westerners on medically prescribed weight loss diets. Even then, those on medically prescribed diets still get to 'cheat' upwards on their caloric intakes, submitting to a sort of upward caloric magnetism that only ends in obesity.
What I Eat is a fitting follow up to Menzel and D'Aluisio's last book Hungry Planet: What the World Eats. It go es deeper into the story of individual diet, and the authors' choice of countries makes the book even more revealing.
A husband and wife team, Menzel always has his eye on the big picture, while D'Aluisio pays chilling attention to detail.
"No matter what our differing opinions are along the way,generally the internal battles that we fight each step of the way make the work better.," D'Aluisio said, when asked about the ethical considerations they had to deal with while producing the book.
D'Aluisio fights constantly to protect each and every one of the 101 people interviewed for the book from being portrayed out of context, defending McTighe's 12,300 calorie 'binge' diet as a phase in her life that she is working to put behind her.
The two authors bring together two dimensions of journalism that make for good story-telling, paying very close attention to detail while at the same time being as broad and accommodative as possible.
On every single page of What I Eat is a burst of captivating photojournalism, a trade under threat from widgetized media in what seems to be turning into an age of license free photography.
Menzel speaks passionately about the challenges photojournalists face in the new media age as the credits of photographers slowly fade out of images and big media increasingly compels photojournalists to settle for second place.
What I Eat is an example of what independent journalism can still do in an era dominated by big press and what Menzel calls "Walmartized content". Until a book of equal detail and scope is produced in plugin fashion from Flickr or Photobucket images, there will always be room for this brand of photojournalism.
Tawanda Kanhema is an investigative journalist studying Political Science at Truman State University. He provided insight for the project What I Eat in Namibia and Botswana.