Journalist Shane Mitchell has toured the globe, filing reports for magazines like Saveur and Travel and Leisure. Her food stories from remote places inspired her to take a closer look not just at what people eat around the world but how they are sharing it with each other. Shane’s latest book Far Afield is the result of more than ten years of stories and is a stunning look at the meaning of hospitality around the world. Shane Mitchell talked with The Splendid Table contributor Shauna Sever. Mitchell also shared a recipe for mullah robe, a Sundanese yogurt and lamb stew featured in her book.
Shauna Sever: I have to say that the book is stunning; the look of it, the scope and the depth is really impressive. The focus is food, but also hospitality. What is it about that connection or what you had seen in these different parts of the world that made you feel like there was a book there to be written?
Shane Mitchell: Hospitality is a universal construct. It plays out in different ways through multiple cultures, but it's something that we all have a respect for. In fact, the definition of hospitality is ‘the kind and generous reception of guests or strangers.’ In my case, a lot of people welcomed me to the table. The book is an expression of that welcome in many communities.
SS: In the introduction, you describe yourself – and the audience for the book – as having an appetite for the “map’s void spaces,” which I love; it perfectly describes just how far-flung the locations in this book are. You visit 10 very remote, very different parts of the world, on nearly every continent. Was there any driving thought that propelled you through the process of making this book?
SM: Yes, actually. There's an African proverb that is one of my favorites, and I think it's poignant. It is, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
SS: That is beautiful. How did you set about the journey and deciding where to go?
SM: What I was looking at is places that still have a connection to their culture and their landscape, and how that plays out in some of the more remote parts of the world. I personally am drawn to remote places; I live in a remote place. These are places where I feel comfortable. It’s just a question of finding places like that in the world that still have that relationship with the land and being connected to it. The places I found like that were Iceland, Australia, Africa, South America. That's where I decided to go.
SS: And you didn't go alone. You traveled with photographer James Fisher. He filled this book with so many gorgeous, arresting images. I'd love to hear about your process for working together, especially in so many unusual locations and dealing with language barriers.
SM: I met James on an assignment. This is going back about nine or ten years ago in Australia, which is where he's from. He's a well-known stills photographer; he works for Hollywood. But James also has a love of adventure. When I met him, we were in the Outback in the Northern Territories of Australia. We were with a group of Aborigine foragers. I was trying to do a story on dream time painting, and he drove me all over the roughest parts of the Outback. We immediately realized we loved the same kind of places. I told him, “Listen, any time you're interested in bumping around in the back of a jeep, puking your brains out, going down dark alleys, and risking your life to find good food – would you come with me?” He said, “Absolutely.” That's how we got started.
SS: That spirit drives the book the whole way through. Food is the star here. It's the strongest bridge between every human being; we know that it's the ultimate inclusive conversation. I was curious that if having that as your motivation – this conversation about food – helped to conquer any fears or resistance that you may have encountered along the way?
SM: I think food is a gateway into culture. Everyone eats, and most people are generous about sharing, especially when it comes to food. I have found over the years that I can walk in to almost any community and ask people along the way, “What are you having for dinner?” By and large, it's a very soft entry point. They will say, “My grandmother is cooking this stew that's only in this village. Please come and sit with us and enjoy it, and we'll tell you the story of it.” And that's your entry into how a community sustains itself, both literally and spiritually.
SS: Let's talk about the chapter when you visited Calais in northern France and your time you spent in this area you called The Jungle.
SM: We’re all aware right now of the refugee crisis. It was starting to reach critical mass over a year ago in Europe. It wasn't being reported much here in the United States. But James Fisher, the photographer, is based in London now. He and I were originally going to do a chapter on an elderly couple in the mountains north of Sarajevo; they're Bosnian. During the Bosnian war, they were sheltering Muslims on their farm who were being persecuted. It seemed like a lovely story; it was a love letter to this couple. James and I were going to go film them for the book. And he disappeared on me.
I didn't know where he was for months. He wasn't answering his phone, texts or emails. I was like, “Where are you?” He surfaced one day and said, “Look, I'm really sorry. I know we were supposed to go to Bosnia, but I'm here in northern France with this group of refugees, and it's a terrible situation. Get on a plane. You've got to come here.” That’s how I wound up in Calais, which is where the Chunnel between England and France exits on the French side. There was a huge camp that had developed on a toxic landfill, with refugees from all over the crisis area who had wound up here. They were desperately trying to get to the UK for asylum. [Ed. Note: Mitchell tells us that most of the refugees included in Far Afield did make it into the UK.]
SS: Your guide in this chapter – if I can call him that – his name is Hamada. I loved the story of you going to the supermarket with him. Can you tell us about that?
SM: Hamada is Sudanese; he is a young man from a region that's been in great conflict. He left, made his way through Libya, got to Italy, then ultimately wound up in Calais where we met him. The Sudanese community is interesting because they are accustomed to working together and sharing meals; communal sharing is an important aspect of Sudanese culture. The second day I was there they said, “Why don't we cook for you and celebrate you being here?” I said, “Okay, I'll tell you what. I'll go to the grocery store and get the food. Just let me know what you need.”
Hamada and I drove to what they call a hypermarché, which is the French equivalent of a Costco. Hamada and I are wandering through this huge supermarket. My French is mediocre. His French is nonexistent. He speaks pretty good English. I speak no Arabic, except for “please” and “thank you.” But we're wandering through, looking for the ingredients for a particular dish that they want to cook called mullah robe, which is a type of yogurt and lamb stew. Hamada says we need this type of bean. We can't find what he wants. He's just like, “I know it when I'll see it.” And he said, “If we don't get it, it's okay;” he was just so accommodating. We didn't find the beans. We're pushing our cart towards the checkout, and we just randomly go through the aisle where all the jams and jellies are kept. He stops dead in the aisle and he points. He says, “That's it, that's the bean!” I'm looking at where he's pointing, and it’s a jar of Skippy peanut butter. [laughing] So we bought it.
SS: I love that. We all know the recipe that works with that one particular thing. And it’s such an iconic product – especially for us in America – for the two of you to have that moment of connection over something so simple. For me that defined what this whole book is about. Given everything that's happening in our world right now, in your choice to connect with refugees on this level, it was very powerful. I wanted you to talk about their commitment to keeping their food traditions and sense of hospitality alive despite their circumstances.
SM: This chapter was very poignant. It was a very difficult place. It was traumatic to see people living in this condition, in this heightened anxiety and desperation. And yet their sense of hospitality was so poignant to say, even though they had the smallest amounts of food, they were still so welcoming, and they still wanted to offer a cup of tea. What was important for me was to emphasize that these are the people who were far afield at that point, not me. These were people who had fled their homes, left war and persecution and terror behind, with nothing but the clothes on their back and their children in their arms. Yet they wound up here and were so open and generous to me. That's the personification of hospitality.
What I asked them was, “What is it that you remember from home? What is it that you can take from home that makes you feel better on this journey?” What most people replied was memories of their food from home. This is why the Sudanese were cooking me the dishes that they remember from home that they used to celebrate guests. That’s what was important to me about that chapter, what it says about people who are displaced who have had all sorts of difficulties and yet can still welcome you into their hearts and open doors to you.
Shane Mitchell is the author of Far Afield. Shauna Sever’s latest book is Real Sweet. They both gave us a recipe to put that peanut butter to work. Shane provided us with Mullah Robe, the Sudanese lamb and yogurt stew recipe. Finish the meal with something sweet – Chewy Honeyed Peanut Butter Cookies from Shauna.
Each week, The Splendid Table brings you stories that expand your world view, inspire you to try something new and show how food brings us together. We rely on you to do this. And, when you donate, you'll become a member of The Splendid Table Co-op. It's a community of like-minded individuals who love good food, good conversation and kitchen companionship. Splendid Table Co-op members will get exclusive content each month and have special opportunities for connecting with The Splendid Table team.
Donate today for as little as $5.00 a month. Your gift only takes a few minutes and has a lasting impact on The Splendid Table and you'll be welcomed into The Splendid Table Co-op.