11 February 2006
I'm currently reading Hungry Planet. It's a coffee table book. Really interesting. It's got pictures of dozens of different families from all over the world in front of a week's worth of food. The most interesting to me so far has been the Inuit family supported by the hunting father, living above the Arctic circle. Musk ox stew and Coke, anyone? Some of the numbers didn't scan, though. He apparently brought home 175 seals a year. There's only four people in the family. That means one eighth of a seal per day per person. He's probably trading for other stuff, because you can't just live off the fat of the land (or ice, as it were) .
Some of the numbers are amazing. They specifically point out that the 175 Tetley tea bags they report an Australian family of four consuming on a weekly basis is not a typo. Scary, huh? Six teabags each a day. Equally amazing is the sheer volume of food that people still existing on staples eat. The poor indigenous Ecuadorian family of ten goes through 100 pounds of potatoes a week. Makes you realize just how much starch we as a species need to live on. Many of these people are using vegetable oil as a staple, too, adding it just for calories (and presumably to make wolfing down the massive amounts of bland goo a bit less grim).
You can see the progression as cultures start getting ahead of subsistence farming and starting to add more variety to their diets. This seems to be the sweet spot of human dietary health. Rich enough to afford a varied diet, but not rich enough to afford things that have to come from long distances away or to afford to buy a lot of meat. Also not rich enough for their time to be worth so much that they need to start eating convenience foods. Once that happens, they start shopping at the supermarket, buying processed food, eating fast food, getting fat, getting diabetes. The book is remarkable in its journalistic evenhandedness. There is no subtext telling you that one way to eat is better than another. They lambaste the American factory farm for its cruelty, but realize that the poorer parts of the world are still happy to get a mouthful of meat every month or so. What really comes through is that we as a species are able to live anywhere on anything from deep-fried scorpions to dried okra to Pop Tarts.