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A catalog of diets

(article, Deborah Madison)

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You may not think your own collection of daily edibles is especially interesting. But it’s bound to be compelling to someone else, for we humans seem to have a constant curiosity about the lives of others. What do people eat over the course of the day, be they our neighbors or strangers? How many calories do they consume? What does their food look like? 

What I Eat is the latest work from writer Faith D’Aluisio and photographer Peter Menzel, who also produced Hungry Planet, Man Eating Bugs, and Material World, among other works. 

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As with D'Aluisio and Menzel's earlier books, What I Eat offers a view we seldom see, or even think to see. In this case, the view is what a day’s worth of food looks like in myriad walks of life, from people dwelling in countries all over the world. Their foods and their lives are vividly described through both words and images. 

The photographs expose us to the nooks and crannies of the world, places we may long have been curious about — Sana´a, Yemen, was that place for me — and bring new places to light we had not yet imagined. They also provide a visual context for each person’s physical world, as do the profiles, which also reach into the larger lives of each subject. Together, words and images offer a rich, reflective, and sobering study of our fellow dwellers and eaters on this planet.

Recently, I spoke with Faith D’Aluisio about the book:

Hungry Planet portrayed families from around the world with a week’s worth of food. What I Eat, however, takes an individual and shows the food that he or she ate over the course of a day. You arranged the entries in an interesting way: by calories, starting with those who eat between 800 and 1900 calories and ending with a day's worth of food totaling 12,300 calories. How did you come to that decision?
Actually, the arrangement by calories came later. Peter thought all along that we’d do that, but I wasn’t sold on it in the beginning. But when we had to figure out with the designer about how the book was going to look, the calorie arrangement worked out well in terms of design.

Once again, design drives content! Looking at these piles and packets, bowls and plates of food, it struck me that it doesn’t take very much food at all to accumulate calories, which, I suppose, is one idea behind keeping food journals. How did you determine what conditions the interviewees’ meals would reflect?
I tried to emphasize to our interviewees that I was interested in what a regular weekday menu would look like, as opposed to weekend food, which is often more plentiful. I included things like alcohol if it was something that was taken regularly — like a glass of wine every night. But I didn’t include it if it was something taken only on the weekends or when going out to dinner.

Your profiles and Peter’s photographs place the subjects in their worlds, which is, in part, what makes What I Eat such a fascinating book. It’s far more than a caloric inventory, although you do include meticulous breakdowns.
What I want people to understand is that this is not a book about daily caloric averages — we weren’t taking an average. And for each individual, we really needed to include the story of the person to put it into the context of his or her life.

What I Eat invites us into the lives of many kinds of people — an extreme gamer in China, an Indian working in a call center for AOL, a sumo wrestler, a lifeguard. It also includes people who are often overlooked, like the Iraq War veteran confined to a wheelchair and the binge-eating mother.
It wasn’t just an accident. We were interested in questions like, if you are in a wheelchair, do you have to eat less? People don’t really know, and it was interesting that he could pretty much eat whatever he wanted to. 

And Jill, the binging mother, what a nice person! We had wanted to include somebody with a problem diet, and an agency gave us Jill to talk with. She was so fresh and open, so appealing and interesting. We had a really nice conversation. I feel protective of her. It’s very important that her day with her food is a snapshot in time, and we needed her story to contextualize her food list. Hers was not a diet that could be sustained. She got help and is on her way to recovery. 

We often think of indigenous peoples as having healthier, native diets, but here’s the Arctic hunter starting his day with rye bread and jam, margarine, chocolate-cream spread, and Nescafé. He has Knorr powdered soup for lunch. Finally he eats seal at the end of the day.
What globalization of food has done isn’t all horrible. It has made more foods available. But I really agree with Michael Pollan that “food-like substances” are not appropriate.

Did the process of creating this very complex book that involved a year of travel all over the world change you in any way?
When I started the book, I never counted calories, but we did before taking off, so as to understand the mechanism of weighing food, what we’re actually weighing, and the process of deconstructing a meal or a dish — what boils off, what are you left with. There are so many different elements to consider. When I cook, I don’t think about what things add up to. I like to make a summer-squash soup with cream, but as I became more aware, I changed to milk. It changed our diet to become more aware. 

What was a challenge for you?
The fieldwork was the easy part. It’s what comes later, when you get home. That’s when the work begins. Getting the recipes was sometimes very hard, because in the developing world, no one has a cookbook. Cooking is just part of life; it’s not written down. I thought of my grandmother a lot on this book because I remember her showing me how to do things. I wish I had written them down.

What do you think people are taking away from What I Eat?
Curiosity about how their own diet would fit in. Also curiosity about the world is what piques their interest and whets the appetite to know more. I really feel that readers get to know these people. 

In our world of constant self-exposure, it’s nice to be at rest with something for a moment or two and contemplate something specific without having it move around and change. It gives people pause. 

I like the idea of a small child sitting down with the book. When my visiting nine-year-old nephew came into the house from swimming, he’d pick the book up and sit down with it. I couldn’t see him doing it, but he was enthralled.

Any last thoughts?
Out of all the books I’ve done, this is the one that I keep looking at. I still find it exciting and inviting, because I was dealing with each person. And one of the more interesting things is how parents go out and buy a copy, but it’s the kids who take off with it.

p(bio). Deborah Madison is the author of numerous award-winning cookbooks, including Local Flavors. She lives in New Mexico.

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