I’ve always believed that the food people eat tells a story about them. Where they’ve been, where they are and possibly even where they’re going. That’s why I was so fascinated when I heard about the International Supper Club. It’s an art project that Amie Thảo and Olli Tumelius have taken on, to document human stories along a 15,000 mile bicycle trek across the world’s largest landmass.
Their plan is to dine in people’s homes as they cycle across Europe and Asia and share the stories they collect through their website. While we may not all be able to pack our belongings onto a bike and ride across the world, by documenting and publishing these personal stories, Amie and Olli are making it possible for everyone to hear what they hear and see what they see. I had a chance to interview the pair recently, and while their journey is just getting started, they already have some interesting stories to share.
Since visas to countries along the Silk Road such as Iran, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan can cost a pretty penny, they’re trying to raise enough money to help cover some of their costs through a Kickstarter project. They have 15 days left to meet their Kickstarter goal, so help them out and follow along with their journey on their website.
What was the inspiration behind the International Supper Club?
I had an “International Supper Club” in Seattle. Every month (for two years), 6 to 12 of my friends would meet and go to different restaurants around Seattle. We tried everything from Northwest cuisine to gourmet burgers to Korean to Moroccan food.
Last year, I cycled 5,000 miles around Europe. My love of food and cooking led me to spend a lot of time in kitchens. During the last month or so, I realized that the International Supper Club had gone international! I wanted to share the stories that I heard with a wider audience.
Why travel on a bicycle?
Human-powered, environmentally-friendly, cost-effective and fun. We aren’t confined by timetables and schedules. On bikes we are fast enough to cross deserts without going insane and slow enough to say hello to everybody along the way. It offers a different perspective than the one out of the windows of a dusty tour bus. We are off the beaten path most of the time and can easily interact with local people.
Where will your route take you?
We flew into Málaga, Spain on February 29, leap year. First we are detouring to Portugal to dip our back tires in the Atlantic. Then we are going to cycle through Southern Europe – Spain, France, Italy, the Balkans, enter Asia through Turkey, then onto Southeast Asia. We’ll end this leg of our trip somewhere in the Pacific and go back to the States via Japan. Our exact route is subject to politics, weather, and the outcome of our Kickstarter campaign.
What are some of the most unusual dishes you’ve encountered in past journeys?
In Denmark, I stayed with a family that accidentally killed a deer with their car. They roasted it and served it for dinner. Since the (poor) deer caused thousands of dollars of damages to the car, it was probably the most expensive meal I’ve ever eaten.
In Germany, I stayed with a family who worked and lived at a Vietnamese restaurant. When the customers went home, they prepared their own meals, dishes not available on the menu. They gave me a bowl of chilled red soup and watched, impressed, while I ate it. I found out afterwards that it was made of duck blood and organs.
I have also discovered new combinations for familiar ingredients. The Dutch put chocolate sprinkles (hagelslag) on their toast. Pickles are well loved in the Baltic states; you can get pickle-flavored potato chips and pickles on your pizza. Austrians use pumpkin-seed oil on salads and in soups. I’ve gotten a lot of good ideas.
How do you find people to host you for supper?
Sometimes by chance. On my second day in the Netherlands, a Dutch couple in their 60s cycled next to me and invited me to stay at their house. I was with them for two nights and had a wonderful time.
Other people found me through my blog and invited me to stay with them. A group of cyclists on a Polish forum planned my route and introduced me to their friends and family. I only camped three nights during my five weeks in Poland!
I cook for people when I can–in Austria I hosted a Vietnamese dinner party–but I am often invited as a guest.
What places are you most looking forward to visiting?
Everywhere really. We are curious about the Balkans and Iran. I am also looking forward to visiting Vietnam to see where my family is from. And of course, Japan. Sushi!
Food-wise, after being in Europe for over a year, I can’t wait to eat my way across Asia!
During your past journeys you’ve dined on a lot of different foods at different tables. Was there anything that all the meals shared in common?
Meals are a time when people get together and reconnect. It is also a way to show care and hospitality. I was offered food by many people with limited English. I understood their intention even though we couldn’t speak.
Once I stayed with a man whose mother was openly disapproving of hosting strangers from the internet while at the same time making sure that I had enough delicious polenta to eat! Many of my meals included a mother or grandmother that encouraged me to eat more. That might be universal.
Do you have any advice you can share with people who might be interested in taking on a similar adventure?
Maybe that a dream is more important than a plan and experiences are more important than stuff (including gear).
Before I discovered cycle touring, I thought a long trip like this had to be very expensive. But if you wild (free) camp, provide your own transportation, and don’t buy too many snacks– it is quite cheap. There are also ways to make money on the road–we work on various IT projects, but other cyclists play music, sell zines or perform magic tricks.
My best advice is to take the leap and follow your dreams. Things will work themselves out.