When your family sits down to eat a meal, do you look like a Norman Rockwell painting? Or are you eating on the fly in the car, seated in front of the living room TV, or maybe skipping the family meal altogether to grab something from the fridge after school or work?
Ever wonder how other families eat a meal? Not just down the block, but across the globe? Photographer Peter Menzel and writer Faith D’Aluisio did more than just wonder.
“We decided to show people here what other people in other places around the world were eating,” said Menzel.
A married couple with kids, Menzel and D’Aluisio set out on a globe-trotting expedition to 24 countries to document exactly what it takes to get a family to gather ‘round the table. From communal outdoor cookpots in Africa to all-too-familiar take-out food in North Carolina, the couple gathered photographic and anecdotal data on exactly what 30 families ate over the course of a single week.
An exhibit of the photos, family profiles and grocery lists from 10 of the families is now on display at the Burke Museum at the University of Washington. It offers an eye-opening look at the family dining traditions of cultures around the world, as well as a thought-provoking commentary on the way American families come together — or stay apart — when it’s time to eat.
The traditional family meal
The couple’s method for finding out what people are really eating for dinner was simple: They invited themselves into the homes of local families for a week, during which Menzel snapped photos of them gathering food, preparing meals and eating. Meanwhile, D’Aluisio worked to generate a list of exactly what they were eating, down to the salt they sprinkled on the meat and the tea they sipped after the meal. Then Menzel and D’Aluisio went to the grocery store — or garden — with the family and collected all the ingredients for a photo of the entire household seated at their table, surrounded by a week’s worth of food.
One of the dining habits that surprised Menzel the most was in Mali. “In some really poor places in Africa, you just have one big pot and everyone dipping their hands in,” he said.
While it may seem to take a herculean effort for a busy American family to put together a home-cooked meal, in Mali simply making the typical breakfast of thin rice porridge cooked with sour milk involved hours of gathering sticks for the cooking fire, hauling water from the river, grinding the grains of rice, and finally dragging the dishes down to the river to wash them. It was a two-person job just to make breakfast each day, and “the two wives told Faith they wouldn’t mind a third wife, because it would make all the work easier,” Menzel recalled.
Preparing a meal is one thing, but the task of finding food to put on the table is monumental in some parts of the world.
When Menzel and D’Aluisio traveled to Greenland and invited themselves to dinner, they discovered that getting food on the table wasn’t as simple as a drive to the grocery store. Instead, they journeyed with the family to a night fishing camp located five hours away by sled. After fishing for Arctic char, dinner was served. This was just one of many ingredients on their weekly grocery list that was not bought but hunted.
Like many households in the U.S., families around the world are reducing their food costs by growing, gathering or even hunting their own food. While the family in Greenland spent $277.12 in U.S. dollars each week on food, a family of vegetarians living in India only spent $39.27. By contrast, a Japanese family spent $317.25 on food in a week, a remarkable percentage of which was prepackaged — even the fruits, fish and vegetables.
And then there was the family in North Carolina who spent $341.98 on food in a week, of which $71.61 went to fast food alone.
The impact of fast food
Those who haven’t grown up eating McDonalds or microwavable mac ‘n’ cheese are rapidly embracing these globally pervasive comestibles. Today convenience foods are threatening to change not just what families eat, but the way they interact with each other at the dinner table.
“They’ve been seduced by overly processed food,” said Menzel. Even in highly remote areas, he found familiar packaged foods. Not novelty or a treat, “I think it’s pretty integrated with their regular diet,” he said.
The most ironic example he encountered was in Sicily. “The father’s a fishmonger in Palermo and the wife and kids prefer to eat fish sticks,” he said.
Changes in traditional ways of eating have a two-fold impact. Putting processed foods on the dinner table tends to increase the fat, salt and sugar in each meal. On the flipside, those who follow some truly traditional diets while adapting to a Westernized lifestyle — marked by sedentary work and limited exercise during off hours — are starting to struggle with obesity, since the old way of eating is often a calorie-laden regimen designed for farm workers, manual laborers or hunter-gatherers. So either way, families around the world are getting fat, Menzel explained.
The traditional shopping list
Some scientists are urging families to take another look at the way they are adapting their traditional foods to the modern world.
“When you hear that word, ‘tradition,’ you think unchanging or old fashioned,” said Dr. Peter Lape of the Burke Museum. In today’s global economy, many national dishes are being adapted in healthy ways by the addition of international ingredients. Though it’s not strictly traditional, “It’s soul food. There’s a feeling that goes into it when you’re cooking it and eating it,” he said.
One ethnic group that has been particularly impacted by changes in both their traditional diet and lifestyle can be found close to home: the Native American cultures of the Puget Sound region.
Lape recently generated a list of foods that were traditionally eaten in the area. “We’ve got about 300 ingredients listed,” he said. “The typical American has about 12 ingredients in their annual diet. You’ve got corn, corn, corn, wheat, sugar.”
Though the list is comprehensive, representing 5,000 years of historic data, there’s a lot that scientists don’t know about how Native Americans ate.
“The archeological record doesn’t give you a cookbook,” Lape said.
What is known is that the arrival of European-Americans had a significant impact on Native American eating habits, particularly during the 19th and 20th centuries when pervasive poverty and government regulations of food available on Indian reservations became the norm.
With the government providing a limited range of nonperishable food, Lape discovered, “it was not 12 ingredients, but four” that Native Americans were able to bring to the dinner table. These included such highly processed foods as lard, artificial cheese and milk power. At the same time, it was against the law for Native Americans to fish for salmon or dig for clams, so access to nutritious food dropped precipitously.
In losing their access to traditional foods, many local tribes also lost cultural information encoded in eating habits, such as cooking skills, the words for certain edible plants, and even crucial social behaviors related to food gathering, preparation and eating.
For Lape, the real story of Native American eating habits is the revitalization of traditional foods. Though repressed, the core of native cuisine has survived.
“Almost every tribe in the area has a traditional food program, with cooking classes and hunting and gathering programs,” he said. “It combines all these needs for eating well, for health and for culture.”
Families once used to get food by sharing among their social networks, rather than from grocery stores. Today, they are returning to this traditional way of getting food, but with a 21st-century twist. “People are now using Facebook and Twitter to keep those social networks alive. To say, ‘Hey, the salmon are running — get on up here,” said Lape.
And many local tribes are recognizing that adapting a traditional diet to today’s lifestyle can have significant health benefits, such as reducing the rate of type 2 diabetes — a disease that Native Americans have at two to three times the rate of the rest of the country’s population, according to Lape.
The future of the family meal
Looking at the photos and food lists that Menzel and D’Aluisio have gathered, “You can’t help but put yourself in the stories and think, ‘This is what I’m like,’ or ‘This is not what I’m like,’” said Erin Younger, associate director and head of exhibits at the Burke Museum.
She first saw the exhibit in Minneapolis and was struck by the conversations and interactions it inspired. To Younger, a meal is more than food. “It’s almost a canvas upon which we can paint ourselves,” she said.
Not only has the exhibit had an impact on those who have seen it, it’s had an impact on the families featured in it.
“A lot of them had epiphanies, as in, ‘Jeez, do I eat that much at one time?’” said Menzel. Several of the families changed how they eat as a result. Especially the family in North Carolina. “They looked at how much fast food they were eating and said, ‘I can’t believe this!’” he said.
Others have been inspired to preserve their family meals. The busy German family that struggled to gather at the table during the week can be seen in one photo eating a relaxed Sunday brunch of rolls, pastries, jam, coffee and tea. The smiles on their faces are a testament to the power of the family table.