Writer-adventurer Shane Mitchell discusses experiential food travel, how to eat as an outsider, and her experiences with hospitality in unlikely places.
Do you suffer from chronic wanderlust? Good news! There’s a book for that. Far Afield: Rare Food Encounters from Around the World, is out now with Ten Speed Press, and it's packed with stunning photographs, vibrant recipes, and remarkable stories of food and humanity. In the book, journalist Shane Mitchell paints vivid portraits of her travels, whether visiting a gaucho barbecue in Uruguay or observing a Viking sheep roundup in Iceland. The book will make you want to eat with her at the ends of the earth.
Food & Wine sat down with Shane to discuss the best meals and biggest discoveries along her journey.
FOOD & WINE: Tell us how this project came about.
SHANE MITCHELL: To be honest, I don’t call myself a food writer—I’m just a journalist. But I have always been interested in trying to deconstruct culture and interpret cultures through food. The stories in the book are, in many cases, about people I’ve met along the way through the course of my career. They’re the people who were truly rooted in their traditions.
F&W: What were you able to uncover about the role of food in culture?
SM: Well, if we don’t eat it, we die! [laughs] Food has so much texture—for instance, there’s an aspect of hospitality to food that is central to people’s lives. And there’s a sacred aspect to food, which is emphasized in the book. So many of our traditions are attached to food. It’s not just what we put on the table to get through the day—food represents so much more.
F&W: Some of the communities you cover seem very isolated—what was the most challenging place you went, where you felt the most conspicuous? Did you ever encounter any resistance?
SM: Yeah, absolutely. And I should emphasize: some of the chapters look like I was there for a day, but really, the experience is based on years of working my way into a community. You don’t just get invited to a taro farm in Waipi’o—it takes knowing somebody who knows somebody who trusts you, and who knows you respect the culture and appreciate the place.
For me, food is the doorway into a culture. So I try very hard to be an ambassador—to go wherever I go with an understanding that I am the outsider. That has really helped me get into a lot of insular communities, as long as I come with respect and a sense of humility.
Now, if you really want to talk tough, the most difficult experience I’ve had was in the French refugee camp I write about in the book. It was a dire place, and incredibly sad. But despite all that, I was still welcomed by people who had nothing—and that probably was the most extraordinary experience I’ve had lately.
F&W: Which comes back to that idea of hospitality.
SM: Yes. True hospitality doesn’t have anything to do with training. It’s more elevating when the hospitality comes from someone’s heart. Often, it’s just about spirit. Understanding hospitality is a way of understanding people.
F&W: One thing we’ve noticed at Food & Wine is that, more than ever, people prioritize food when traveling. But obviously people probably shouldn’t try to just drop in and invite themselves to dinner.
SM: Well, my form of culinary travel is different than an experiential traveler who is going on a holiday. What I do is an entirely different thing. But that doesn’t mean that culinary travel doesn’t have value—I think it’s one of the best ways to expand your culinary vocabulary and your interest in the world. If that’s your reason for traveling, it’s a great one!
F&W: By looking at world through the lens of food, you’re also documenting traditional—and sometimes endangered—foodways. How are people preserving their ways of cooking and eating in the face of globalization?
SM: I’m writing about people who are living their daily lives. They’re not necessarily cooking and eating this way because they think it’s endangered; they don’t have a mission statement. It’s just the way things are done.
But a lot of these traditions have evolved with time—take the Icelandic sheep herders [who Shane shadows during their leitir, or yearly sheep roundup]. Basically, the practice is the same as in the Middle Ages, when the Vikings settled Iceland. These guys are on horses. But they also have GPS, and they’re wearing rubber boots and dayglo jackets so everyone can see them. It used to be much more arduous before the advent of modern technology. But it's still exhilarating to trek through the highlands, despite rough weather, looking for a flock. That's why so many Icelanders love joining the search.
But in the case of, for instance, the Maasai [whose enkang e-kule, or coming-of-age milk ceremony, is featured in the book]—that tradition is very endangered because of sociopolitical pressures in that region. So their food culture is going to change. During the British colonial era, semi-nomadic tribes like the Maasai and Samburu were pushed off their lands to make way for settler ranches. Despite this, the Maasai continued to practice sustainable pastoral traditions, without regard for modern borders, and demanded grazing rights in the national parks. The governments of Kenya and Tanzania have been urging them to settle, give up their precious livestock, and adopt an agrarian lifestyle. The problem is, that leads to over-cultivation, which is further exacerbated by periods of severe drought, like the present. Even the traditional dietary staples of raw milk, blood and meat is changing due to this same pressure. They've been encouraged to adopt a grain and vegetable based diet.
F&W: The book really shows how these food traditions aren’t static or frozen in time—they are sometimes preserved by embracing change.
SM: Who was it that said, “The only constant is change?” Heraclitus. I’m really excited to see who the up-and-coming standard-bearers are across various food traditions. There’s this great guy emerging in the Native American food scene right now, a chef in Minnesota: Sean Sherman, “The Sioux Chef.” He just used Kickstarter to start a restaurant that’s going to be focused on Native American culinary tradition—how cool is that?
F&W: What should people take away from your essays?
SM: I hope the book inspires people to get a little farther out in the world. You may not necessarily be sitting down with a family of refugees or Maasai warriors, but if the book inspires you to even walk into a corner bodega and buy a bag of chilis, that’s exploring. And that’s just as exciting for me.
I tend to live by my favorite Buddhist saying: “The journey out is the journey in.” For me, the farther out in the world I am, the more it makes me grow. Exploration is a very inward-thinking process. I don’t need to go back to Paris—been there, done that.
Far Afield: Rare Food Encounters from Around the World is available at your favorite bookstore.
Hardcover $40; E-Book $19.99
All photos reprinted from FAR AFIELD Copyright © 2016 by Shane Mitchell. Photography copyright © 2016 by James Fisher. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.