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Naomi Duguid

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Eastern adventures

Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid travelled across China for their most political – and most personal – book yet

Cookbook authors Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid still remember an anxious moment they shared while cycling in remote western Tibet in the late 1980s, when Duguid was pregnant with their first child. “We had arranged a ride in a truck full of pilgrims,” she recalls. “The deal was that we’d pay half now and half when we got to our destination. So we jammed our bikes in the back with everyone…. The truck comes to this desolate place where they sell gas, and the driver asks us for money. I told him no, we’d pay him when we got there. He turns to the others and clearly says something like, ‘We can’t go on because they won’t pay.’ Some of them were pretty rough characters and a knife gets pulled, so I shouted at the driver to get his attention. I said, ‘Alright, we’ll pay you now but you have to sign a paper saying we paid.’ So I wrote the paper and everything just stopped, there’s this silence as we do this magic.”

That sort of experience might put most people off the idea of remote travel. But for Alford and Duguid, such intense excursions have formed the basis of their careers – and a way of life. Over the past 30 years, they have explored – alone and together – every continent except Antarctica, sharing an equal interest in collecting recipes and taking the gorgeous travel photographs that appear in their five award-winning cookbooks. And the Toronto-based couple, both in their early fifties, say they’ve had many more positive experiences than bad ones.

Their sixth and newest cookbook, Beyond the Great Wall: Recipes and Travels in the Other China, represents over 20 journeys made through the remotest regions of non-Han China since 1983. It covers a massive area, including the mountainous southern provinces, the “roof of the world” plateau of central Qinghai, the 1,000-mile expanse of Tibet, the salt marshes and grasslands of northern Xinjiang, and the Gobi desert regions of Inner Mongolia. Travelling by bicycle, bus, jeep, horseback, truck, and motorcycle, the duo sought out cultures that were isolated, or at least far removed, from Western or even mainstream Han Chinese infl uence, to experience what Duguid terms “unmediated thereness.” Alford nods at the term. “Good travel is when you really feel out there and vulnerable,” he says. “It doesn’t mean it was the most fun, but you learn the most when you are the most vulnerable.”

Such openness has had the effect in all of their cookbooks of providing readers with vast windows into cultures and cuisines they might not have otherwise known about. And in the case of Beyond the Great Wall, it has led to the duo’s most personal and political book.

Alford and Duguid, raised in Wyoming and Ottawa, respectively, met in Tibet in 1985. In a remarkable story retold in the book, they fell in love that fall, traveling through the Himalayas to places such as Lhasa and Shigatse, where they slept under a lunar eclipse outside the Tashilhunpo monastery. Using dozens of such short memoirs, as well as photos of landscapes, people, and villages, they have assembled much more than just a collection of recipes. The volume’s lush, coffee-table format, featuring sumptuous studio food photos by Richard Jung, resembles their earlier books, such as Mangoes and Curry Leaves (2005), about the Indian subcontinent, and Hot Sour Salty Sweet (2000), about the Mekong River region. But where those books focused on celebrating their subjects, Beyond the Great Wall is also a lament for the erosion of the non-Han cultures, and a pointed critique of modern China.

Since the 1980s, Alford and Duguid, who also own a home in northern Thailand, have witnessed an explosion of sinicization – the assimilation of cultures into the majority Han-Chinese culture – throughout China’s non-Han provinces. “The impact is unimaginable,” says Duguid. “You have to be in the middle of it, and then you just go, ‘Oh, fuck.’ It’s not incremental change; it’s revolutionary change.” Travelling in Xinjiang last year, Alford was shocked to encounter massive waves of domestic tourism as far north as the Altai Mountains, between Mongolia and Kazakhstan, where horseback travel and yurt huts are still commonplace. “I’m way out near the Siberian border visiting the Tuvan people,” he says, “and there appears 40 busloads of Chinese tourists.”

These concerns give Beyond the Great Wall an edge not always present – or called for – in the pair’s previous titles. Like all of their books, the new one collects hundreds of authentic recipes meticulously gathered from marketplaces, private homes, roadside stands, and restaurants – but even without the recipes, it stands as a piece of social anthropology in the same class as great travelogues.

This is something that Alford and Duguid’s publishers are keenly aware of. “The book is incredibly gorgeous and lavish,” says Random House Canada publisher Anne Collins, “but it delivers a message that is so pertinent and grassroots.” Ann Bramson, their editor at Artisan in New York, concurs, saying, “Naomi and Jeff lead an enviable life, and they forward our knowledge of places we know little about.”

Bramson has worked with the pair since their first book, Flatbreads and Flavours, published by Morrow in 1995. They followed Bramson to Artisan, beginning with Seductions of Rice in 1998. That was also the first book for which Random House Canada bought separate Canadian rights, as it has done for each of the duo’s subsequent titles. Bramson has since achieved near-legendary status, having published such bestsellers as Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry Cookbook and Sally Schneider’s A New Way to Cook, and Collins happily defers to her as the “great artist” behind Alford and Duguid’s publishing success. Understandably so, given North American in-print numbers like 114,000 for Hot Sour Salty Sweet, and 78,000 for 2003’s Home Baking.

The decision to publish a lavish cookbook like Beyond the Great Wall in the spring would normally be considered folly; typically, admits Bramson, the public has more appetite for high-end cookbooks during the pre-Christmas shopping season. Not to mention that the current climate is dominated by books from TV celebrity chefs, and the American economy is teetering on the brink of recession.

On the other hand, of course, the Beijing Olympics are set for August, and the global spotlight is on China. At the time of this writing, thousands of Chinese troops were pouring into the Tibetan provinces to crush protests against sinicization. “We anticipated this sort of unrest would be happening,” says Bramson. “The headlines we are seeing today about Tibet, it’s all there in their book.”

Publicity plans, bolstered by a 40,000- copy first run, will highlight the political focus. After an initial round of Canadian media in late April, Alford and Duguid will head to Manhattan for the official launch at the Rubin Museum of Himalayan Art on May 2. Then they will go on a 20-city American tour throughout the summer – their largest to date. “It’s not going to be a normal cookbook tour,” says Bramson. “There will be a lot of lectures and slide shows.” In the fall, they return home to tour Ottawa, Montreal, Calgary, and Vancouver.

One gets the feeling that Beyond the Great Wall represents a sort of culmination for Alford and Duguid’s career together. Rarely has a cookbook been so political, or felt so intimate. And now, for the first time in their lives, Alford and Duguid are each working on separate titles. Duguid is putting together a photo book that will document international food chains from field to table, while Alford is writing a novel about a man’s travels in Kathmandu and Hong Kong in the 1980s. No doubt those books will be informed by the same curiosity and deeply humanist spirit behind all their cookbooks, which have shown that there is no better way for people to transcend political and social barriers than by breaking bread together.

Such has been the driving spirit behind all of Alford and Duguid’s work. “We go somewhere where we’re not defended or have walls we can go behind,” says Duguid, “and then we get to actually have human connection.”

Alford nods. “That’s what we do. That’s what our profession is in life. We know when a situation is going to be a significant experience and [we] move forward, because that’s the good stuff!”