Many years ago, the Saveur contributing editor Shane Mitchell found herself on assignment in Oslo, and reluctant to leave her hotel. “I was frozen—at the time, it felt like I was in such a strange place,” she says. But she was desperately hungry, and the need for a meal pulled her from her room and into the city.
“Food is a universal; we all have to eat,” Mitchell says. For the past decade, Mitchell and the photographer James Fisher have traversed the globe, seeking out and documenting food traditions. As she writes in the introduction to her new book, Far Afield, each of its ten chapters chronicles her interactions with “people who are firmly rooted in their culture and landscape, in some of our most isolated or marginal communities, where keeping the food chain vital remains a daily chore.”
In Iceland, Mitchell bunked with shepherds in the midst of the leitir, the sheep roundup that takes place each year around the autumnal equinox in the country’s western highlands. Venturing out into the gusty air and returning to a cabin heated with a faulty stove, Mitchell immersed herself in a centuries-old tradition that lies at the core of Icelandic culture. At night, they shared food and drink; Mitchell describes sipping from a bottle of caraway-infused Brennivín “Black Death” schnapps, which tasted like “75-proof rye bread,” and sampling svið—meat scraped off a cured sheep skull.
In Hawai’i, she trailed one of the last remaining taro farmers as he harvested and prepared the root that forms the base of a lilac-colored mash called poi. At the refugee camp in Calais, she accompanied a Sudanese man to a nearby supermarket to buy ingredients for a meal of lamb and yogurt stew. On the border of Kenya and Tanazania, Mitchell bought a sheep for a band of Maasai warriors. Though they normally don’t welcome outsiders when they eat, the warriors made an exception for Mitchell, who watched as they skinned and cooked the animal over a fire, portioning out the parts according to an old code that divides the meat by gender.
“In every region, food and the rituals that surround it are so different,” Mitchell says. “But I’ve never had a door slammed in my face when all I want to know is what people are eating.”
In Far Afield, Mitchell collects and transcribes recipes for some of the dishes she experienced throughout her travels. The Sudanese stew is in there, as is a Hawaiian recipe for chocolate haupia pudding pie, a complicated dessert that Mitchell says took her nearly a full day to prepare. But one of the most memorable foods she tried was also one of the simplest: coconut rice from Kenya, which features in some of the country’s more complicated dishes. “Recipes are a way of replicating an experience for people who aren’t going to go and climb a 16,000-foot mountain in the Andes, or ford a river in a Hawaiian valley,” Mitchell says.
At the beginning of Far Afield, Mitchell describes a variant DNA sequence, specifically identified as DRD4-7r, that predicts a fundamental restlessness and curiosity in people. Mitchell has it. “It’s as likely a rationale as any for why some of us wind up in fringe places, happily poking into kitchens that are not our own,” she writes. While international travel is inaccessible to many people, Mitchell hopes that the recipes and stories in her book can act as a guide to being open and curious about other cultures. “One of my favorite Buddhist sayings follows the idea that the journey outward is the journey inwards,” Mitchell says. “Experiencing other cultures and other places helps you grow as a person,” she adds, “and it doesn’t hurt if there’s a tasty meal along the way.”
Far Afield, $40, from Amazon.