For readers of Peter Menzel and Faith D'Aluisio's Hungry Planet: What The World Eats, there aren't any surprises in the Burke Museum's new exhibit of the same name, featuring large-scale images from the popular book documenting dietary practices around the globe. Here are the Melanders of northern Germany, posed with piles of rosy red cold cuts and dark beer; the Ukitas of Japan, kneeling around an array of handsomely-labeled boxes, bottles and foil packages and the Casaleses of Cuernavaca, sharing their kitchen with stacks of tortillas and bushels of fruit.
The husband-and-wife team of Menzel and D'Alusio, a photographer and travel writer, traveled to 24 countries to document families surrounded by what they consumed over the course of the week. The pair has since reapplied its approach to individuals, recently issuing What I Eat: Around the World in 80 Diets, but the family portraits from the 2005 book are the ones edging toward iconic status.
Relentless press coverage has sapped the images of novelty, but they remain provocative - especially when printed in an oversized format. Exhibition dimensions allow for unprecedented dissection of detail and conversation. Many schoolchildren will no doubt tromp through this gallery before the exhibit closes in June, tasked with finding recognizable foods in a portrait from Mali, but the images raise more interesting questions than "Where's the Coke?"
The knee-jerk conclusion to draw from the portraits is that Americans are wildly irresponsible eaters: The boys in the Revis family of Raleigh, N.C. are depicted with pizzas on their laps. "For the Revises, this family portrait became a catalyst for change," the label intones. Granted, most nutritionists would probably recommend the Revises ditch the Pop-Tarts and Ruffles ranch dip. But what struck me about the Revises was the tremendous diversity of their diet, unmatched by any other featured family.
There is evidence of culinary borrowing throughout the exhibit: In addition to the omnipresent Coke, other processed sugars and starches from the U.S. have infiltrated pantries worldwide: A Greenland family likes Pringles. The Revises, though, haven't just swiped snacks. In a single week, the family eats sushi; ramen noodles; lavash; pizza; bean burritos and shrimp fried rice. That kind of culinary cosmopolitanism would have been unthinkable in an inland southern household a century ago.
Diversity is the recurrent theme of a small, adjunct exhibit about traditional Pacific Northwest foodways, organized by the Burke. Built around artifacts including clam baskets and herring rakes, the exhibit tells the story of how development devastated Native diets. In 1920, "within sight of (downtown Seattle), there were Native people starving to death," according to the exhibit text. But before white settlers polluted the air and straightened waterways, local tribes ate 280 different animals and plants: An exhibit panel lists them all.