Husband-wife team Faith D'Aluisio and Peter Menzel's latest book, What I Eat, is a revealing and fascinating glimpse into the lives of 80 people from all walks of life and around the world. As always food is the vehicle through which readers can discover an entirely different way of life and culture. Snapshots illustrating what each subject might eat in a "typical" a day (and its caloric value) indicate the extent to which processed food is a global phenomenon and traditional ways of eating are on the way out. Recently I spoke to the two of them about this project—including its highlights and limitations—and what they have planned next.
Louise McCready: From a microloan fish fryer in Kenya to a sumo wrestler in Japan, you've covered the globe—and outer space—in search of candidates for your book. Can you tell me a little bit more about how you choose the locations you visited and the specific subjects?
Peter Menzel: We've worked in close to 75 countries, so for this book we chose interesting places that we hadn't been before like Bangladesh, Yeman, Iran, Vietnam, Tibet, Namibia, Latvia, and part of the Amazon. We wanted to strike out into new territories and then find interesting, "typical" types of people in these places like a call center worker in India, , a priest in Italy, or a yak herder in Tibet.
Faith D'Aluisio: For the places we'd already been, we wanted to find a new angle. We've been to India before, but Peter always wanted to see what a call center was like.
PM: Half the time I'm on the phone I'm speaking to someone in India, so why not go and see what these call centers look like and how these people live who are working on the other side of the world?
FD: And what does their food constitute? Shashi was interesting because he literally has one foot in two different cultures. At home his mother cooks for him and he eats traditionally, but he eats western-style fast food at work when he's speaking like an American to Americans.
LM: Once you decided where you wanted to visit, how did you find the subjects?
FD: You're a journalist, so you know that when you want to do a story, you start talking to one person and that leads you to someone else, and then, someone else. We do a lot of research before we ever go to a country, but we keep it loose. We work with a good association of journalists that we've met through the years that have helped us in different counties. We knew we wanted to take a look into different parts of society. In China, for example, we knew we wanted to find somebody in an internet café because they're packed with hundreds of people who don't have a computer at home. Lo and behold we found someone literally living in an internet café.
LM: Your book is divided by subject and arranged in the order of calories consumed in a "typical day" with seven short essays by food experts. I personally related to Ellen Ruppel Shell's essay on food taboos because I, too, am an equine lover who ate horse for the first—and only—time in Italy. I'm sure in your travels you've eaten a wide variety of meals; what is the most unusual thing you've ever eaten?
PM: We're veterans of eating unusual things because for our book, Man Eating Bugs: The Art and Science of Eating Insects, we visited people who normally eat insects in 13 countries. We ate over 90 species of insects, so after that no one can really put anything in front of us.
FD: I would rather eat horse, although I've never eaten horse. How was it?
LM: The horse I ate was dried and shredded meat.
FD: Did you know that horse was what you were eating?
LM: No. I had become friends with the owner of the Oil Shoppe, a sort of a deli in Florence. I would let him create sandwiches based on one ingredient, such as truffle oil or mozzarella, and he would then choose a type of meat, a cheese, and toppings. One day he said, "I have a surprise for you." I learned my lesson.
FD: I ate dog once, and it was not one of my finer moments. We were in Jayapura, in Indonesia, and dog was served with amazing sticky rice. The sticky rice was great, but I made Peter eat all of my dog. It was more the fact that it was dog rather than the taste—although it was full of shards of bone.
PM: Back to this book, we ate everything that everyone else ate or offered us.
LM: Were there any favorite meals?
FD: In Tibet, there's butter tea. It's not one of Peter's favorites, but I really like it. It's ubiquitous there because it's really cold in Tibet for so much of the year, at high altitude. It's a salty, buttery roux that also moistens everything that they eat. They put it in their tsampa, or toasted barley flour, and then mix in more butter—if you threw chocolate chips in, it would taste exactly like chocolate chip cookie dough.
PM: The diet of Father Riccardo in Rome, the Mediterranean diet, appeals to me. He had a small, good breakfast with coffee, vegetables at lunch washed down with 12 oz of white wine, and for dinner, pasta with some vegetables and 12 oz of hearty red wine. I wouldn't turn down that diet.
FD: In Germany, we had amazing bread.
PM: In Yemen, we had amazing bread.
FD: Egypt. Everywhere you go, you become a bread aficionado because it takes different forms, but it's recognizable and a nice starting point.
PM: And bread straight out of the oven is hard to resist. Did you read the story of Millie who drinks 12 ounces of her own urine every morning at 3am every day? That was probably the only thing in the book we weren't eager to try.
FD: Millie practices Shivambu. There are no proven therapeutic benefits for it, but it's referred to in ancient Sanskrit texts. She's been practicing Shivambu for about 17 years, and off and on, her family has also followed it.
LM: Other than that, was there any other of the snapshot that you found especially surprising? Maybe because of how few or how many calories were consumed?
FD: I'm always surprised when I look at a table full of boxed food and then start calculating to try to find out literally how many hidden calories there are. There's really no way to tell without reading the label what the calorie content is because you don't understand half the ingredient—not to mention what it consists of. The only way I could tell how many calories was to believe whatever's on the box. That to me is surprising. Jeff Devine, our ironworker, eats an almost completely packaged diet. He might have a steak on the weekend, but generally during the week, even his meat is packaged with a nutritional label.
LM: But back to Bijal P. Trivedi's essay on the miscalculated calorie--even with packaged food that you think you know the exact nutritional breakdown, you don't know for sure because you don't know how your body digests it. You chose to include the caloric intake of your subjects' meals (which was undoubtedly a herculean feat), but did you consider including comparing the fat, saturated fat, protein, carbohydrate, sugar, and fiber of your subjects' average day? I am sure the difference between an entirely processed diet as opposed to an entirely homemade one would be enormous.
FD: When we first started, we asked ourselves, do we only count calories or do we also look at nutritional elements and breakdowns? Marion Nestle, the nutritionist and NYU professor who wrote the introduction for this book and for Hungry Planet, told us early on to just go with the calories. She was right. If you saw the amount of work it took just to find the calories for our food list, it would appall you. It took months of going back and forth with our subjects and translators who thought that when we took the picture and left, that was it--but that was only the beginning of their involvement as we had further discussion about the foods in the photos.
Food changes regionally. For example, in India, there's curry in the North, South, East, and West, but the calorie counts are different because of different ingredients, and some are sweeter than others. We needed to have a complete list of the recipe ingredients to determine the caloric breakdown. We hope readers can compare the lists of food to the calories and see that this person is this shape and eating this number of calories, but would probably weigh a lot more if they weren't exercising. I guarantee our Tibetan yak herder would weigh much more if he weren't hiking up mountains and living at 10,000 feet.
PM: If you put too many statistics out there, people don't pay attention—much like the confusing nutritional labels. We tried to keep it simple.
FD: It was Peter's idea to do this particular book. While we were working on Hungry Planet, he thought it would be interesting for readers to be able to see where they fit in.
PM: We're trying to have people learn something—and have a good time doing it—by putting a face and body on statistics so people understand the numbers and what they mean.
LM: I admit that I started to think, how much of my food is processed in a day? Would I be happy with the snapshot of what I eat in a day?
FD: This book is just a starting point. Peter's pictures are beautiful and the stories are compelling, but we worked very hard to just let the material stand and not be polemical or provocative. In terms of food, we think eat what you want, but be moderate. If people embrace the work first, they'll come to some of those same conclusions.
LM: Back to the difference in physical activity between the yak herder and someone who is sitting in an internet café all day, I found Mary Collins' essay on the value of physical activity especially compelling. She notes that both industrialized civilizations and captive animals in zoos suffer from the same illnesses—diabetes, heart attack, cancer, and mental illness—as a result of a sedentary lifestyle. In your introduction, you said that you found trying to measure physical activity "too ambiguous and arbitrary to employ." Would you want to tackle that as the subject for a future book?
FD: It's a good point but I think the only way you could ever do that is if someone much smarter than we came up with some kind of metric to be able to compare physical activity across cultures. If you use a metric that used in the United States, it's difficult to have that also work in various parts of Africa or rural China. We really wanted to include it and started out with the basic terms sedentary, moderate, strenuous, and vigorous. But how are we tabulating that? We were keeping a list for almost the entire book—
PM: —but it was too subjective.
FD: It wasn't doing the job we wanted it to do, so we included Mary Collins' essay. As we get these books out to our subjects, we're starting to hear back from them. So far, everyone is enjoying the book and their own chapters. I spoke to Jill from the UK this morning who said that she hopes readers will take the work in context and understand that she is trying [to change her lifestyle]. She used the book and the process of working with us as her own personal catalyst for change. She threw out the deep fryer and did her own mini Jamie Oliver on the family.
We specifically chose not to cover "daily caloric averages" for this book as we wanted to include some extreme examples of eating, like Jill's diet on a bingeing day or what Noolkisaruni, our Maasai herder in Kenya, ate during drought. If she had eaten goat the week we had covered her, and not just corn meal porridge, a bit of milk, and a piece of fruit, her calorie count would have been higher than the very low 800 calories she ate. I used the story to provide the context of each person's diet.
Some of the diets of the people we covered could indeed be construed as an average as they didn't vary much in kind or amount from day to day. The day's worth of food for our ironworker in Chicago, for example, or our rice farmer in Vietnam were very typically average for a workday, but we showed our Tennessean Rick Bumgardener's dieting day's worth of food on a non-cheating day, as he struggles to lose weight to qualify for obesity surgery. Had we done a "daily caloric average," his calorie count would be much higher.
PM: Rick just called us. He loves the book and reached his goal of 400 pounds. He's going to have gastric surgery next month, and he invited me to come down and photograph it.
LM: Wow. That's amazing. What is your next project?
PM: We always have several projects in development, but as we are freelancers and fund all of our own very expensive work we have to make every moment count to recoup our investment. Right now we're working with foreign publishers and magazines on translations and excerpts. Next year we'll be back on the road.