Book Review: What I Eat: Around The World In 80 Diets (Hardly That Kind of Diet Book)

What I Eat: Around The World In 80 Diets is the sort of coffee table book you have to remove before the guests come over -- at least if you want them to leave after that final bottle of Pinot has been polished off. The latest photo-journalism book from husband-wife authors Peter Menzel and Faith D'Aluisio (he's the photographer, she's the storyteller) is as addictive as their equally engaging Hungry Planet: What The World Eats. What I Eat is a follow-up to that title, only here the focus is (obviously) on individuals rather than families. And yet it hardly reads like yet another box office sequel (thankfully).

As D'Aluisio points out in the Introduction, looking closely at singular diets is particularly resonant today. Shortly after the couple finished researching Hungry Planet five years ago, nutrition and obesity became the new buzzwords, and as D'Aluisio says, "for the first time in the history of the planet, overfed people outnumbered the underfed." Marion Nestle, not surprisingly, wrote the foreward.

D'Aluisio continues by saying that What I Eat was envisioned as a way to "take our original concept -- the food portrait -- and applying it to individual people." And yet the book is not yet another catalog or long-term study of individuals' diets, but instead a snapshot of human consumption in a single day, be it a particularly harsh 800-calorie drought-ridden day for a Maasai cattle herder or a typical 4,300 calorie workday for a welder in China.

Nor are the photographs simply matter-of-fact documentations of the 1400 calories a 12-year-old runaway-turned-train porter in Bangladesh ate on the day of D'Aluisio and Menzel's visit (a white roll and black tea with sweetened condensed milk for breakfast, vegetable curry and white rice for lunch and dinner, sweetened black tea and cigarettes throughout the day). The multi-page spread on each individual is a snapshot into their life -- the child being slapped by an older porter at the train station in a territory spat, sleeping on a platform in the train station, and carrying loads half his size through the train station. D'Aluisio fills in the gaps with several paragraphs of illuminating text -- the runaway, Alamin Hasan, rode on the roof of a train from his home to Dhaka looking for work, but he never left the train station (at the time of the photos, he'd been on the self-trained porter job for two weeks).

Or there's the acrobat in China, the petite Cao Xiaoli, who eats 1700 calories on the day she meets the authors. She says nothing at the Shanghai Circus World cafeteria is terribly interesting, and she rarely eats dinner due to the nightly performances, so she saves her calories for when she is home with her parents (her mother is a former acrobat). Her favorite home cooked dish is tangyuan, sticky glutinous rice flour balls stuffed with red bean paste or other sweet fillings and served in boiling water.

That the couple shopped, cooked and sat down to share a meal with each of these people in the thirty countries and dozen U.S. states they covered is clear by the depth and quality of the journalism. There's that day spent eating with that Maine lobster fisherman and team of Sumo wrestlers, or the one drinking beer and wine with the bachelor shepherding brothers from Spain who drink no water (they believe beer and wine keep them warm as they work outdoors in the cold; they also subsist almost exclusively on fresh sheep meat and fruit). It's all told so vividly, both visually and verbally, that for a moment, we completely forgot we were trying politely to usher our lingering dinner guests out the door.


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