Exhibit explores the world's dinner table

  • Medill News Service
  • November 07, 2006 @ 6:05 AM
Author Faith D'Aluisio likes to have dinner in every corner of the earth, even when she doesn't like the food.

"We genuinely enjoy sitting across a table from people we just met and having a conversation," D'Aluisio said. "It's absolutely the best way in the world to have a conversation, whether it's over deep-fried tarantulas, walrus or spaghetti."

During the past several years, she and her husband, photographer Peter Menzel, canvassed the globe to chronicle the meals that 30 families around the world prepared in an average week. The result is the book "Hungry Planet: What the World Eats," published last year, and now a photo exhibit at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry. The couple was in Chicago recently to discuss the exhibit, which runs through Jan. 2.

Inspiring the four-year project was their impression that Americans keep getting fatter. Menzel, 58, and D'Aluisio, 49, live in Napa, Calif., but they travel frequently doing freelance magazine stories and working on other books. They couldn't help comparing the physiques of people abroad with those they saw at home.

"Every time we came back home, it was so visible to us that we would comment to each other on people getting fatter," D'Aluisio said.

Menzel quipped that the issue is a "different kind of inflation." Too much of the world is either stuffed or starved, said D'Aluisio, but the amount people eat isn't always the problem.

"One of our concerns is that people are becoming over-nutritioned with things that are not serving their bodies well," she said.

While in Papua, New Guinea, D'Aluisio said she watched two boys share a package of Ramen noodles. One boy ate the seasoning packet and the other ate the crunchy noodles.

The couple ate only locally available foods while visiting the families, and D'Aluisio said it made them re-examine their own diet. Now they eat fewer processed items and more organic foods.

They wanted to put a human face on the nutritional famine they encountered, a situation that they believe is caused more by politics than geography or weather. They hope the book, published by Ten Speed Press, and the new exhibit will open people's eyes to the stark contrasts in food cultures around the world.

"We try not to point out what's wrong," D'Aluisio said. "We want to broaden people's horizons and let them make their own discoveries."

It took lots of e-mailing and several interpreters to find representative families in 24 countries ranging from Greenland to Australia, Kuwait to Guatemala. Some families appeared in their previous book, "Material World," about families' possessions. Others they met by chance, like their cab driver in Bosnia.

Years ago, Menzel and D'Aluisio had jobs in mainstream journalism, D'Aluisio as a television news producer, Menzel as a photojournalist covering Iraq. But they decided they couldn't accomplish their dreams that way.

"As a journalist I didn't think I would have much power," Menzel said. "We thought a book was something an individual or a couple could do to make a difference in the world, since we can't change American policy."

"Hungry Planet" is the pair's fifth book, and they are working on two more. Coming up are "Nutrition 101," survey of what various people eat in a single day, and "The End," about death rituals around the world.

"Hungry Planet, What the World Eats" Through Jan. 2 Museum of Science and Industry, 57th St. and Lake Shore Dr. 773-684-1414 Adults $11, Children $7