It’s a McWorld after all

A writer and a photographer visit 30 families around the world to show us what the world eats -- and how industrial food is creeping into every corner of the globe.

Topics: Obesity, Books,

It's a McWorld after all

Twelve 2-liter bottles of Coca-Cola line the back of the table in the Casales family portrait that appears in “Hungry Planet: What the World Eats.” The Casaleses are a mother, father and three young sons living in Cuernavaca, Mexico, and the six gallons of Coke are part of their weekly diet. They drink it with nearly every meal. The oldest son, 7-year-old Emmanuel, is already overweight. Like his parents, he has come to resemble the squat, narrowed-at-the-neck bottles that are slowly killing him. And the Casales family is not alone; 65 percent of the Mexican population, the world leader in per-person consumption of Coca-Cola, is now obese or overweight.

But “Hungry Planet” is not a book about obesity or corporate villains; it’s something much grander. Its premise is simple to the point of obvious and powerful to the point of art. Peter Menzel has photographed 30 families in 24 countries along with the food they will consume in the course of a week, while his partner, Faith D’Aluisio, has written a brief profile of the eating habits of each. Menzel and D’Aluisio are the same pair that produced the 1995 bestseller “Material World,” a collection of portraits of “statistically average” families, and their worldly possessions, in 30 different countries. “Hungry Planet” follows the basic pattern of the earlier book. Each family’s food for the week is cataloged and priced, and each profile is accompanied by a statistical breakdown of their country and a family recipe. Alongside all this are hundreds of richly colored and quietly composed photographs and six short essays from food-writing luminaries. The cumulative effect is that of being welcomed into the homes of 30 working families around the world.

Meet the Browns of Riverview, Australia, a three-generation family of seven that eats 60 pounds of meat in a week; the Madsens of Cape Hope, Greenland, whose diet is built around hunted musk ox, walrus, geese and polar bear; the Manzos of Sicily, who are surprised to discover that, as a couple, they smoke 20 packs of cigarettes per week; the Natomos of Kouakourou in Mali, a Muslim family of 15 in which the two wives take turns cooking millet porridge each morning; the Melanders of Bargteheide, Germany, whose $500 worth of groceries — spread before the four of them in neat rows of cartons and bottles — includes $90 in vitamins and supplements; and the Aboubakars, six Sudanese refugees encamped in Chad who subsist primarily on a 40-pound ration of unmilled sorghum.



That the Melanders can spend 400 times more money on food than the Aboubakars are able to earn in a week suggests that the distribution of resources worldwide remains distressingly out of whack. In “Hungry Planet,” the difference between the half of the world’s population that still lives on less than $2 a day and the rest of us is made visible in the contrast between the families sitting, often on dirt floors, behind sacks of grain or root crops and those standing around tables piled with cellophane-wrapped meats and branded foods. Many readers, I’m guessing, will share in my uneasiness at the thought of the indictments to be found in a picture of one’s own family standing next to a week’s worth of food. In my case, there would be an alarming number of to-go containers and bottled beverages and too few fruits and vegetables.

The dominant sentiment evoked by “Hungry Planet,” however, is not one of shame but one of anxiety. Out of the 30 family portraits emerges a larger picture of a global civilization rushing headlong toward an economy in which food is a thing produced remotely by machine labor and a handful of experts and then sold (or given away) by multinational organizations — an economy in which we identify a piece of food by its logo rather than by its biology. This is an economy already familiar to many of us in what is called the developed world, and it is growing grab by grab on the international market.

This transition to industrial food is manifest on almost every page of “Hungry Planet,” from the Bhutanese monk swigging from a bottle of Pepsi at a celebration of the arrival of electricity in his village to the Polish family navigating the new “hypermarket” built on countryside once given over to collective farms.

The main marker of the jump to an oil-dependent, cash-crop economy is the same as that of the divide between rich and poor — a diet shift away from cereal grains and fruits toward animal fats and refined sugars. This shift brings increased rates of obesity, which is fast becoming epidemic. As Alfred W. Crosby writes in one of the book’s six essays, “The number of us who suffer from the diseases of overeating may be, for the first time in history, approaching that of those suffering from undereating.” The problem is particularly acute in the United States. In another of the essays, Francine Kaufman notes that “one in every three children born in the United States in the year 2000 will have diabetes some time in their life.” Clearly the main beneficiaries and victims of the new food economy are the generations that grow up within it.

Over and over again in “Hungry Planet,” these massive economic changes are played out in the fears of grandparents, the aspirations of parents and, most of all, in the appetites of children. Kids everywhere, it appears, crave McDonald’s. In Riverview, Australia, 5-year-old Sinead Brown charms her grandfather, who grew up rustling porcupine in the bush, into buying Happy Meals for her five or six times a week: “Pop, do you think we could do something about Mackas?” she asks, using the Aussie slang for McDonald’s. Her mother repeatedly tries and fails to cook fries to match that unmistakable Macka’s taste. In Beijing, a father beams with pride at his teenage son’s twice-a-week McDonald’s habit, “He’s growing up differently than I did.” The Cui family in rural China has yet to encounter Western fast food, but attitudes toward it are already divided along generational lines. Six-year-old Cui Yuqi looks forward to trying some. His mother “apprehensively” says she would try it. His grandparents “want no part of it.”

Centuries-old traditions and deep reserves of local knowledge are, of course, lost in the transition to a McDonald’s economy — as, often enough, is even a rudimentary knowledge of kitchen work. The 52-year-old grandmother in Riverview, Australia, tells of the time her children and grandchildren were confused at the sight of her boiling tea from loose leaves. “Haven’t you been educated in anything?” she asks them. But since the traditions lost usually involved long hours of stooped labor for a meager existence — such as the reconstruction of earthen watering troughs performed daily by 12-year-old Amna Mustapha and the other daughters of Dar Es Salaam Village in Chad — the changeover to a cash economy is usually counted as progress. Homegrown is just too much work when you can have store-bought.

Or so the choice is frequently presented. We can lead sedentary lives and grow comfortably fat on uniformly bland food or we can go back to laboring dawn to dusk at the edges of hunger. The mothers in Turkey, Bhutan, Mongolia and the Philippines who do this kind of work — and it is women who carry the heaviest burdens throughout the book — are united in a desire to see their children escape it. “I want them to make a good living using their minds, not their bodies,” says 33-year-old Melahat Celik of Istanbul of her three children. Melahat, who cooks and cleans for six different families in the city, is expert in the preparation of Turkish pastry and baffled by her children’s attraction to fast food. But on the rare occasions when she can spare the money, she takes them to the McDonald’s at the local mall.

Perhaps we are simply destined to live in a world where local cultures exist only as residue preserved for the sake of tourists. If our children’s children want to know about hand-grinding barley on a stone or spreading manure on fallow fields, they can read about it in “Hungry Planet.” A review of the book, really, should be written 50 or 100 years from now. What will they say then about a time when half of China’s workers were still agricultural and Kuwaitis ate their pick of the world’s bounty in the middle of a barren desert? Will the women of Todos Santos in Guatemala still cook their own tortillas? And on All Saint’s Day will a mob of men on horseback still “race back and forth down the main road into town  stopping at each end of the course to take a pull of hard liquor” until the last rider gives up or passes out, as Menzel describes in one of his field notes?

The softly voiced hope of “Hungry Planet” is that the other half of the population can join us in having enough to eat without all of us living in a McWorld. Corby Kummer of the Atlantic Monthly argues in his essay that the best way to fight fast food may be to subvert it: “Those who wish to return to regionalism, to a more equitable farming system, and to a safer environment need to be more inventive than simply deciding to declare war on fast food.” Kummer suggests we invent a compromised version of the chain restaurant — one that treats workers better and that buys a meaningful percentage of its food from local growers. “A serious rival should start,” he writes, “with streamlined, bland recipes that make spurious claims of Mexican and Wild West connections. Aim for anonymity and consistency. Spend a fortune promoting an image of young people having fun.” This third way may be the best we can hope for until the day when “fast food will be a distant memory.”

For the Casales family back in Cuernavaca, a change can’t come soon enough. Between the time that Menzel took their portrait and D’Aluisio wrote their profile, Marco Antonio closed the family’s convenience store (which he had opened after losing his job at a brewery) and crossed illegally into the U.S. in search of better wages. So far he has only been able to find 20 to 30 hours of work a week, at $5 an hour. The money he sends home is not enough to support the family’s old Coke habit so they are down to four quarts a week. The indignities suffered by the Casales family in the churning of the global economy — the all too common story of a father separated from his family and working for inadequate wages without legal protection — make the hard of life of the Aymes family in the mountains of Ecuador seem almost ideal. Ermelinda and Orlando Aymes have to work ceaselessly to secure the $35 worth of potatoes, rice, flour and bananas that sustain them and their seven children for the week, but they work together and they own the sources of their livelihood.

It is no accident that Orlando is a voice of reason when it comes to fast food. He tried it once while studying in the nearby city of Ambato. “It was meat on bread,” he says. “It was okay, but a bit strange. And I wasn’t able to see how it was made.”

Ira Boudway is a freelance writer in Brooklyn and frequent contributor to Salon.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>