When I was a kid, my grandpa insisted on chewing each bite nine times. He told my sisters and me to do it, too, claiming the practice aids digestion. Now in his 80s, my grandfather probably still counts each bite, but I no longer do. In fact, I hadn't thought of this morsel of family advice for years, destining it to die with a previous generation. Recently, as I wandered the Burke Museum's featured exhibit "Hungry World: What the World Eats," family sayings and memories of the dinner table came back to me.
The exhibit chronicles Peter Menzel and Faith D'Aluisio's dinners with families around the world. In 2004 and 2005, the couple visited 30 families in 24 countries, learning about not just what they ate but the role food played in their lives, including days spent on food preparation, such as in Egypt, or a German father's tradition of biking to a local pastry shop to fetch rolls for Saturday morning breakfasts. At the end of their stay with each family, Menzel and D'Aluisio snapped a picture of each family with a week's worth of food. The project became their 2007 book "Hungry Planet," with an offshoot exhibit curated by the University of Minnesota's Bell Museum shortly afterward. In addition to a small caption describing their day-to-day life and the place of food within it, there is a breakdown of the foods featured, and how much each bounty cost the family. For instance, in Mali, a family of 15 ate for a mere $26.39 a week, while a Japanese family of four lived on $317.25 a week.
In their introduction, Menzel and D'Aluisio say that diets are changing rapidly worldwide. They attribute this to globalization and changes in agriculture, among other things, but leave it to the viewer to decide what to make of these changes and their effects, both immediate and long term.
Like food itself, the exhibit embodies many controversies: the tensions between poverty and excess, ethical and unethical choices, whether made on a governmental or personal level. However, the exhibit makes no direct criticisms and offers no calls to action or unsolicited advice.
"We wanted it to spark questions. We wanted to create a place for discussion," said Andrea Godinez, Public Relations and Marketing Coordinator for the Burke Museum. Indeed, as I meandered through the exhibit, everyone had a reaction, whether that was to ogle at a pig head smiling from a Mexican butcher stand or to compare their own diets to the ones chronicled in the photos before them. While many items were foreign to the average American, signs of globalization were everywhere: In Greenland, among whole birds and hunks of meat, sat a box of Ritz Crackers; in Egypt, a bottle of Coca-Cola peaked out from among Arabic packages, its red and white packaging immediately recognizable, initially comforting and then a bit disconcerting.
The apparent tension between poverty and excess weighed particularly heavily on me throughout the exhibit, stunned by how little -- and how much -- sustains so many people. The picture of the American family showing two teenager boys holding whole pizzas next to a table stuffed with prepared and processed food was a catalyst for change, inspiring the family to make food preparation and exercise more of a priority.
"Salish Bounty: Traditional Native American Foods of Puget Sound," an original Burke Museum exhibit, is much quicker to point out the modern age's negative effects on local native peoples' relationship to food. While the last 150 years have presented many barriers, including loss of access to local lands and damaged shellfish beds, there is a recent push in Coastal Salish communities to reeducate, revitalize and renew their values on food, the core of which is this: Food is a blessing.
"Food is universal -- it represents nature, environment and culture, which is what the Burke Museum encompasses," said Godinez. Because of this uniquely far-reaching appeal, the museum knew it wanted to do a lot of supplemental programming, which has included an evening of short talks on northwestern food and partnering with PCC Natural Markets. On select Saturdays and Sundays throughout the exhibit's five-month run, PCC is hosting tastings and demonstrations of cuisines from around the world, as well as a series of talks, such as "What is Organic Food?" and "The Diabesity Epidemic." On April 15, PCC and the Burke will host Healthy Kids Day, helping kids make their own trail mix.