The Bookmongers Book Review: Far Afield

cover of the book far afield

I know we adore the local food scene here in San Francisco. The past decade has focused on foods that are local, sustainable, organic; restaurants champion foodsheds within a hundred-mile radius. Farmers markets proudly host farmers from nearby counties. Tomales eggs sold at my store were my best-selling item—and it’s a bookshop. I feel proud of the Bay Area for supporting all the food produced and made in California.

However, the recent presidential election has made me start thinking about food and people from far away. The anti-immigrant sentiment creeping across the U.S. and Europe has pushed me to support as many immigrant-owned local businesses as I can, and the foods they often import from their home countries have given me a taste for foreign flavors. So while I usually review books by local authors here, in this issue I thought I would take us on a journey to the far reaches of the Earth, and see what we can bring back home with us.

Shane Mitchell, a longtime journalist for Saveur magazine (as well as several others), has produced, with photographer James Fisher, a stunningly gorgeous book called Far Afield: Rare Food Encounters from Around the World. Their travels take us to Uruguay, Kenya, India, Peru, Iceland and Japan. In addition, they take a deep dive into the interior of Hawaii to stay with a taro farmer, and also wander into the “Jungle,” the refugee camp in Calais, France, that was recently dismantled. The duo didn’t just stay a couple days in each place; they dug in and stayed for weeks at a time, getting to know the people and their food. Their passion for their subjects comes through on every page, through colorful photographs of people at work and play, and through Mitchell’s informal writing style. I felt like I was along for the trip at each juncture. And each recipe gives us insight into the lives of people centered in their places.

The photographs in the chapter on the Jungle in Calais are stark and beautiful: a portrait of a way station of migrants with nowhere to call home. Tents, mud, tin cans and trash litter the field where thousands of people live in limbo—but their faces are warm and hopeful, and the food they cook for each other reminds them of where they came from and of how to build a community. One refugee named Ali provided his recipe for Fried Chicken á la Jungle: chickpea flour, garam masala and chile powder proved a spicy crust with influences from the Punjab region of India. But it can be cooked outside on a makeshift fire with friends drinking beer and huddled against an oncoming winter.

The profile of a potato farmer in Peru actually made me hungry for the recipes for beef stir-fry and fried potatoes, as if I, too, had spent a wind swept day herding guinea pigs across a cold hillside. And the formula for making the potent pisco cocktail called a chilcano is worth every cent paid for the book. It’s a summertime drink to enjoy on the porch, staring off into the world.

A foray into the Great Rift Valley of Kenya turned into an in-depth exploration of Maasai culture for the author, who got close to the tribesmen as she learned about rituals, food, hunting and social relationships. There are no recipes in this chapter—just an appreciation for the lives lived in a place rarely visited by outsiders.

One of the most important ways we learn about ourselves is by looking into other cultures, other rituals, other places, and seeing how we fit in. Appreciating differences we find helps us to appreciate our own place in the world, and to remember to be humble: we are only part of the whole. Far Afield helps us get there.