Shane Mitchell


CulturallyOurs Shane Mitchell Far Afield Podcast Interview

Shane Mitchell

Show Details

In this episode, we explore Food as I chat with Shane Mitchell, a food, culture and travel writer who has been in the journalism space for the past 30 years. Shane is three times James Beard award winner and the author of a beautiful food Far Afield – Rare Food Encounters From Around The World – where she documents food as an extension of culture, people and a community in different countries. 

Shane talked about the journalism space and how we need to avoid this concept of parachute journalism. We need to make sure we spend enough time connecting and interacting with the people, land and community so that we can truly represent them and their narratives authentically. 

Show Notes

Karthika interviews Shane Mitchell, a food, culture and travel writer who had worked with some of the biggest names out like Travel and Leisure, Bon Appetite, and Saveur to name a few. She has won three James Beard awards – one of the highest honors given to people in books, journalism, broadcast media, food, and lifetime achievements.

Shane talked about her experiences in journalism for the past 30 years, her decade long journey with her book, Far Afield Food Encounters From Around The World and her connections with people and their lands. Food is such an incredibility intimate way to connect with others where we leave all biases, prejudices and ego at the door and sit down to share something deeply personal and humbling like a meal.

The Transcript

Karthika: Welcome. Shane, thank you so much for joining me on CulturallyOurs. I am really very excited to have you on the podcast and I cannot wait to chat with you and get to know you a little bit better.

Shane: Thank you for asking me.

Karthika: Absolutely. So before we begin, could you tell us a little bit about who you are, where you’re from, just to help set the stage for this conversation?

Shane: Okay, sure. I’m a journalist. I am based in upstate New York. I write a great deal about food and culture and what that means for us as people who are hungry.

Karthika: Great. I like the way you put it as people who are hungry. Now you’ve been a writer journalist for quite a while, right? About 30 years. And you’ve received three James Beard awards already. How did this career come about? Was this something you always knew you would get into?

Shane: Yes. So I always knew I wanted to be a writer. My father was an artist and so it was my mom and we, the kids, were always allowed to hang out in his studio as long as we employed ourselves. Whether it was playing with paints or drawing with his pencils or sketching or anything like that. And I was actually drawn to his typewriter, his manual Remington. I would always go into dad’s studio and whack away at the typewriter. By the time I was around nine, I knew I wanted to be a writer. And so that’s how I got started on that path.

Karthika: Thats amazing. And on a complete side note, I also love typewriters. I have an old one at home. When I was in school we did not have computers like they do today. And so one of the subjects we learnt was typing. I don’t know why, because we did a lot of writing in school, but I loved pressing those keys and the sound of that was so grounding in a sense. For me at least. So I love typewriters.

Shane: I still have one, not my father’s, but I still have a manual typewriter and I type on it now and then. Either letters or important things like labels for canning jars, jams and such.

Karthika: You’ve written and you’ve published work in some of the big names out there, Travel + Leisure, Afar and most recently The Bitter Southerner. What has been your favorite genre of journalism?

Shane: Well, I don’t know if it’s favorite but currently most of my work focuses on food. Not reporting from restaurants or talking about the current dishes that are so popular. But more of food as a doorway into people’s lives. And it has been an amazing way to sort of explore how people live through what’s on their table.

Karthika:  We all love to eat and like you said earlier, it is such a great way to just share stories, connect and leave all sorts of, prejudices or biases at the door and just come in and sit at the table and just engage with people for who they are.

Shane: Right. Unless of course you have an absolute allergy to say garlic, like a friend of mine or you just don’t really like oatmeal.

Karthika: I am right there with you. I’m not a big oatmeal person either. Now I found you though your amazing book called Far Afield – Rare Food Encounters From Around The World. And I have to say it’s one of my favorite books, not just for the visuals, which I’m very drawn to as a photographer, but also the words and the conversations that you shared. Why did you decide to do a book like that?

Shane: Well to be honest, that is what I do. I tell other people’s stories and I wanted people to read through the chapters in the book and understand that we’re all connected. No matter where you are from, no matter what you eat. Wee all bring it to the table in the same way. And all these narratives, whether it’s from Maasai warriors in Kenya to shepherds in Iceland. I wanted to show how traditions are being preserved, how certain cultures really cherish those traditions that are essential to their survival and how they are keeping their culture alive.

Karthika: Now you have gone to India, Iceland, France, Japan, Kenya, and a few others in the book. Are there any sort of experiences or maybe even people that you met who really stood out for you and perhaps made an impact in your life, in your lifestyle or more importantly, your mindset from that experience?

Shane: Everyone I met was amazing. It was really extraordinary. I will say that this book took about 10 years to do, so I met a lot of people, while I was researching it. But that also had a lot to do with what my job was at the time. I was special correspondent for Travel And Leisure magazine and that allowed me to go to some of the most extraordinary places in the world. But what I kept finding was the things that appealed to me about those places were certain people that I develop deeper relationships with. And then went back to over time. I’ve been in Iceland eight times and the people that I tell their story about in Hawaii, the mockchu are basically friends that I’ve known now for a decade. And I go back again and again. It’s not just like parachuting in and interviewing somebody for a few hours and then leaving. I have deep relationships with a lot of these people. For instance, I’ve been going to the Island of Hawaii for 20 years, so I have really close connections there.

Karthika: Right. And you brought up a very good point about parachuting in, I know we talked about this earlier, but you know, this whole concept of just going in, being a part of the experience for a little bit and then assuming or sort of imagining that you know everything versus actually really making an effort to understand not just the people but the land and how they’re interconnected. That just gives a very different depth to the story.

Shane: Oh gosh. Yes, absolutely. Because you know, you’re not going to necessarily understand why people in Japan will never say no to you unless you really understand the complexity of that question. The complexity rather of why people don’t say no, they’ll say yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. And they really mean no, no, no, no, no. It’s not possible unless you have an understanding of the culture. That’s why it is important to report deeply on narratives rather than just and do a quick hit job and leave.

Karthika: I think it just makes the whole experience so much more enjoyable. As I get older, I can’t do those 28, 48 hour trips where half the time I am just getting over jet lag and then I need to get back home. I want to be in a place, I wanna see more of how the locals live and how they experience things because that just helps me sort of put myself in their shoes a little bit. And you get at least a little understanding how they live and how life is taking place there.

Shane: Oh yes, absolutely. That sort of understanding of the world comes with time and if we’re fortunate enough to have that, it just opens your mind to different pathways and different ways of living. It just gives people a better sense of the world and that leads to a better sense of compassion.

Karthika: Absolutely. Now, through food, you are sharing these narratives. Can you walk us through maybe an example of sort of how you would go about using food as a way to describe a culture or people?

Shane: Yeah, sure. Since we’re talking this time of year, let’s talk about day of the dead – Dos de Los Muertos – is now celebrated in many parts of the world, but most specifically in Mexico and places where the Mexican live. Now a lot of people may know more about day of the dead now because of the movie Coco. And essentially that’s one way of really understanding what Mexico is about. Because day of the dad kind of falls at the same time as Halloween and All Saints Day. And there’s a very specific reason for that. There is a Catholic overlay to a very old Aztec tradition, but the important aspect of day of the dead for families is to erect an altar that is a memorial to loved ones who have left our world and moved on. But what’s important about those altars is to always put food that the loved ones ate not just as a way of sort of drawing them back because you know, if they smell the black beans cooking, they might come back and might tempt them back, but also as a way I think of families perpetuating memory of a person who has passes. I now do an altar to one of my sisters who’s passed away and she loves those nasty snack food pretzels infused with cheese, one of her favorite snacks. So I put that on the altar for her every year now.

Karthika: Absolutely. I couldn’t agree more. Food is a medium in keeping that memory alive and keeping their stories alive for the next generation. It’s a very powerful way of conveying the sense of a person. Now Shane, what are some of your mottos or mantras in life? And the reason I ask this is that I am very curious on how dealing with food, culture and people for the past 30 years has affected you? Has it changed you in any way?

Shane: Oh gosh, yes, absolutely. The types of stories I’m telling now, whether it is for The Bitter Southerner or for Savour magazine or in this book are the things that I would not have been reporting on when I first started as a journalist. You were asking about a mantra and one of the ones I really like quoting is actually a Zen Buddhist saying, which is ‘The journey out is the journey in.’ And you can interpret that however you want.

Karthika: Now, how do you balance all these things in your life? You have a career, your own personal aspirations, your family, your other interests. Talk to me a little bit about all of this juggling that potentially goes on.

Shane: I’m a Libra, we’re all about balance. I always say that a career in journalism is a marathon, not a sprint. You have to be committed to the process, a career in writing. In fact, not just journalism, but career and writing is something you can do over your entire life. And you get better at it as you go along. I think finding balance means being able to shut down and then just say, I’m done. Let me have a nice dinner, let me take the dog for a walk, let me put my feet up in a hammock and grant myself the day off because normally I don’t. I don’t have days off. The only official days I take off are my birthday and Christmas.

Karthika: We all need those days when you put your feet up in the hammock and can maybe have a cup of tea or indulge in  chocolate cake or whatever it is. Right. Cause that’s life.

Shane: Oh yeah. The chocolate cake. More cake. Absolutely.

Karthika: Now, Shane, if you are open to sharing with us, because I feel like sometimes when people hear personal narratives they can relate better. So whatever you’re comfortable sharing, what have been some of your life’s most beautiful seasons or experiences? And on the flip side, some of the harder ones and what have these things taught you?

Shane: Beautiful seasons. Well, for me thats spring because things start coming alive again. I find that the cycle of life weighs heavier on you as you get older and you’re more conscious of it. We have really long winters here. And this is not a metaphor. Last year it was six months between first snowfall and last snow fall show. Spring is a really hard earned season for us. So learning to appreciate those tiny little incremental steps until leaves come onto the trees is very important. And as far as a harder season, I find that it’s the loss of certain family members has really impacted what I do. We are five siblings and I lost one of my sisters very young. I miss her every day. But it also led me to explore things that I might not have done. So for instance the chapter on day of the dead in Far Afield really is about her. And it’s what I was doing to process grief after she died. That’s why I went to Mexico to explore the whole concept of day of the dead and see how other people process it. That was one of the most poignant essays I’ve ever written.

Karthika: What advice would you give others who perhaps want to get into journalism or writing? How can they make this transition effectively? And I think more importantly, honestly, because we talked about this whole parachute journalism and how that’s maybe not the way you want to go about this career.

Shane: Well as you know, journalism is under attack right now and is being marginalized and in many ways minimized. And that has a lot to do with economic pressures. There’s a huge political aspect to that. When the work that you do is being treated as less important, it’s a major hurdle to overcome. And in your decision making about whether you want to commit to this or not, it can be scary if you look at all the instances where foreign journalists are under attack. You look at how difficult it is to get a desk job, what pay is for freelance writers are right now or anyone in the reporting world. It’s monumental. When I notice young college girls saying I am going to go freelance, my heart sinks. It is extremely difficult. I’ve been freelance for most of my career. I’ve been on many mastheads but have always maintained in my independence as far as being on the desk. Cause I just don’t sit still very well. So as far as advice, if you’re just starting out, I really recommend getting training on the desk. Get hired to do what you want to do and find a mentor, whether that’s an editor or an older reporter or an older journalist or a podcaster or anyone who you could follow in their footsteps. Try and reach out, join associations like the Author’s Guild. These are places that’ll help you in your career and these are people who can help find your own voice and find what you want to report on.

Karthika: That’s very true. A lot of times we feel like we have to go at it alone but there are enough people who are willing to listen. Sometimes it is just listening and if we are comfortable asking for help. I think a lot of times we don’t because we feel like maybe there’s nothing I can give. But I find that when I put myself out of that comfort zone and reach out, people are willing to sort of listen. And even if it is just like saying it’s okay, it’ll be fine, focus on this or have you thought about this? It just helps having that sounding board.

Shane: Exactly. And it is one of those cliches about how in this creative realm be prepared for rejection. A lot of people will say that it is part of the process. I tend to disagree with that. You need to learn how to speak up for yourself and argue for your thoughts in your position and your skills. But it takes time and it’s of the one thing you have to not be afraid of is asking for that. There will be people who will say no, but eventually if you are lucky you will find someone who will say yes. And that’s the way forward.

Karthika: Yes. A friend of mine told me this, and it’s been over two years since she said this, but I always remember it because  it seems so relevant. No, doesn’t mean never. It just means not now. If you have that mindset, you will not be dejected as much. You will push it off and say okay maybe not now. Maybe in six months, maybe in a year, maybe next week. You never know. That’s true. Just don’t take no as never. Just take it as not now.

Shane: There is a whole new concept now around that word no. There is this idea that if you reach out and you don’t get an answer, thats the new no. Quite frankly thats the new rude.

Karthika: So what do you do for fun? How do you unwind after a long day?

Shane: Glass of wine. Play ball with the dog. And have some cake maybe.

Karthika: All right, we’re going to do a quick rapid fire round. So just whatever comes to mind. Don’t overthink it.

  • Coffee tea or something stronger – Earl grey tea from Camellia Sinensis in Montreal.
  • A favorite flavor of ice cream – Chocolate soft swirl
  • A quote that you get inspired by – There’s a quote in my book at the beginning of the introduction and this one really did inspire me. It’s an African proverb – ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.’
  • Horror, movie, action, adventure or drama – Drama.
  • Favorite seasons – Spring, summer, fall or winter. All of them.
  • Childhood dream job – I wanted to be Astro boy. There was this an animated cartoon from Japan. It came out of a very famous studio that created other iconic anime cartoons that played on Saturday mornings. There was just something about him that made me want to be him.
  • Beach or mountains – Beach
  • This one might be hard, but favorite food or dish? – Sometimes people ask if there was one food that I could eat for the rest of my life, what would it be? And my answer is rice, because there’s so much complexity to it. There’s so many different varieties. It is in so many different cultures. And it’s not easy to cook.
  • Favorite country in the world and why? – Wow. I don’t have a favorite because I have been to so many but perhaps I would say that the one I have gone back to the most is England. I have a really close relationship with people in London. One of my cousins married a British gentleman right after World War II and emigrated to London. And one of the formative experiences of my life when I was young was going to London. And spending a summer there when I was 17 and being able to wander around and just spend all my time in bookstores and starting my reading career if not my writing career.

Karthika: That sounds wonderful. Shane, what has been your biggest aha moment, if you will, in life?

Shane: Biggest aha moment was realizing that people don’t know I’m a woman all the time and happy to tell them over and over and over again. It makes me very conscious of gender issues even in this day and age. This happened a week ago. I was in Louisville, Kentucky walking through a bourbon distillery and the man who was one of the master distillers was also named Shane and he was completely shocked when he heard my name. He had never met a woman named Shane.

Karthika: What lies ahead for you, Shane? Are you fully living your dream or what comes next if it’s okay to share with us?

Shane: Well! I am working on a long range literary series with this magazine called The Bitter Southerner and it has evolved over the year. Originally when I first talked to the editor in chief, his name is Chuck Reece. We were going to do a one off funny essay about why I hate grits. At that time the publication was not covering food. And I said, I can see you, you’re doing a lot about the culture of the South, politics of the South and music of the South, but you’re not really doing much about food. Let’s concentrate on some kind of food essay. And the essay that came out of that was about 7,000 words long. It was called Kiss My Grits. And that’s the first essay that was ever nominated for a James Beard award for me. And that kind of was a turning point. You were asking about aha moments. That has evolved into what we call the problematic crop series. And so that is ongoing. There’s going to be a new story launching in a couple of weeks and then next year I’m starting on two more of those.

Karthika: Excellent. I have to read kiss my grits because I am not a big fan of it either. It is just something about the texture that doesn’t go down easily for me. So I’m really curious now to read that.

Shane: You’ll find it very funny cause I’m not convinced either even by the end, but you’ll enjoy it.

Karthika: Thank you so much Shane. This has been absolutely amazing. Like I said earlier, I found you through your book and I really wanted to chat with you because that book is stunning and it’s so beautifully written. So thank you so much for coming on the show.

Shane: You’re so welcome. And I will say that if any of your listeners want to buy it, may I please recommend that you go to an independent bookseller. The , uh, one of whom I think is the best Kitchen Arts & Letters in New York. And the other that I think is really good is Omnivore Books in San Francisco. I’m a big fan of supporting independent booksellers.

Karthika: Absolutely. I love supporting small shops and the shop local movement. I will add the links on the show notes.

Shane: You cannot just explore life the same in a supermarket mall setting, can you? Life’s the same in a supermarket mall setting.

Karthika: Totally agree. Thank you so much, Shane.

Shane: Take care now.

Leave your comments below

  1. Serafina says:

    Hi Shane,
    Congratulations on an adventurous and literary career. Your book looks like it contains so much beauty and connection. My name was Christena Baker, originally from Carmel. You may remember my brother, Bill Baker, who was about your age. I’ve made some attempts to look for Kaki on FB, etc. without success. Last night, 2/12/2021, she appeared in a dream. We were sitting at a kitchen table talking. I had the sense, or maybe she told me, that she died. Found the obituary the next morning and researched the incident on, I think, an FAA website link. My deepest sympathies to you and your family. She was an amazing childhood and young adult friend. If you want to get in touch, please do so. My email is provided, but just in case:

  2. Serafina says:

    Hi Shane,
    Congratulations on an adventurous and literary career. Your book looks like it contains so much beauty and connection. My name was Christena Baker, originally from Carmel. If you have time, please get in touch. Thank you!