What the World Eats by Peter Menzel

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What do you eat in one week? What does a typical American eat? What does a typical Brit eat? What does a family in the Darfur Refugee Camp in Chad eat? What do the people of the world eat?

These are the questions that photographer Peter Menzel seeks to answer through his coffee table book of pictures and information: What the World Eats (published 2008).

The pictures of families from around the world with their week’s worth of food and the short accounts of their eating habits were interesting. In the end, however, I felt Menzel’s book was forcing a social problem on the reader, and it seemed to further contribute to stereotypes of eating habits around the world.

My main frustration with Menzel’s book is that he set out to prove that a lifestyle of fast food and processed food, the stereotypical lifestyle of Americans, is bad. Does any one argue with that? Yet, he had a point he wanted to make (as explained in his introduction) and every statistic and story he shared seemed to support his argument, rather than allowing the readers to make our own determinations about world eating habits.

Further, he reinforced the stereotypes we have of various countries in the world by sharing the eating stories of just one or two families in each country. We read of a bacon and eggs breakfast in England, a beef-heavy diet in the Australian bush, a pizza dinner in the U.S., tortillas and Coca-Cola in Mexico (for a family in which the father had illegally immigrated to the U.S. to find work), fish in Japan, and unhealthful rice three meals a day in the Darfur refugee camp. Because Menzel represented each country with just one family (with a few exceptions), it seemed to reinforce stereotype rather than build any understanding of the world’s eating habits.

Between the stories, Menzel did provide statistics for the represented countries relating to average caloric intake, average sugar consumption per person per year, and other food-related statistics. This was a nice touch, and I may have appreciated it better if I hadn’t felt Menzel was trying to force his message through the accompanying stories. Menzel’s stereotypes may be rather accurate in general. However, I felt his book generated the wrong message overall because it only built on the stereotypes rather than showing that each country has many varying ways of eating. For example, there are many American families (like mine) who rarely eat out or eat processed food. Believe it or not, I cook with vegetables!

Further, this book is horribly edited: typos abound. This is a problem that could have been ignored had I not been so annoyed by Menzel’s stereotypes.

In the end, however, I was touched by the account of the refugee camp because that is a stereotype I am unfamiliar with. Having read about a diet that lacks so many essential nutrients, I want to learn more about the situation in Darfur.

I initially selected Menzel’s book as a “World Issues” book for a reading challenge. What the World Eats was an interesting look at eating habits around the globe, but because it was so stereotypical (and ultimately geared toward telling Americans how poorly we eat), I probably will find something else related to world poverty or hunger (specifically Darfur) because I am very interested in the issue.

What do you eat in a week? Do you fit the stereotype? Do you think highlighting stereotypical families is a good representation of the countries of the world? Maybe that is the best way to illustrate the statistics. What do you think?

Reviewed on January 6, 2009

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I have not read this book but I’ve seen many of the images and had many of the same thoughts that you’ve expressed.  From what I saw the book focused on stereotypes and that bothered me because I don’t think that is accurate or fair to lump a whole nation together based on one family’s eating habits.  I know the foods I eat look nothing like that food pictured for the family from the United States.  $341 for one week? That is about how much I spend in one month!
    Makes me question how accurate the portrayals of other nations are.

  • Jeanette, those are the exact things I thought. I wonder, though, if it’s OK for him to take the stats (which he provides) and try to illustrate them? That seems to be what he’s done. But I hate to be categorized in to any of those family pictures….a bit too much stereotype, I agree.

  • That book sound interesting.  I don’t think we fit into the stereotypes because we rarely eat fast food.  I think he might have been better served showing a cross section of families.

  • That’s to bad, the premise sounds really great and even something that I would love to buy for my mother-in-law.  We eat tons and tons of different foods at our house.  Perhaps there is something else better out there then this one.

  • It’s too bad the execution wasn’t as good as the idea!  There is a real problem with nutrition in refugee camps; the vast majority of the camps are in the developing world (right now, Pakistan has the most due to the war in Afghanistan) and there are so many issues facing them. 🙁

  • Natasha, you may enjoy it more than I did. LibraryThing reviewers gave it an average 4.66 out of 5, which is pretty unheard of. So maybe part of my problem was expecting too much. To me, it was just a rehash of a familiar stereotype, and I was hoping for something deeper.

    Eva, I am very interesting in reading more; that’s why I’ll probably do so, as part of your challenge…I am not sure I would have picked up this book to begin with, and now the issue is fresh in my mind.

  • Kathy, I think he was looking at the stats of how many people do eat out regularly in the USA, so he probably felt he was being fair. I wonder though, how many people really do so. Because I don’t know people like those he spotlighted. Interesting all the same!

  • I eat a variety of things, some fresh, some canned, and some frozen so I guess I do kind of fit the stereotype of the United States but I agree with you that it doesn’t seem like a good representation of “the world’s eating habits”

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