In each installment of “Breaking Bread,” Phylisa Wisdom will discuss gastrodiplomacy–using the history of different foods, and eating and cooking those foods, to foster understanding and cooperation between cultures. Think of it as breaking bread to break down barriers. We’ll explore who gastrodiplomats are and what they’re doing–or cooking–to engage in dialogue with, or about, other cultures and countries. The column will feature interviews with sassy changemakers, recipes from chefs involved in gastrodimplocatic efforts, and analysis of effective efforts (and sometimes wretched failures) from all over the world. We’re unapologetically in favor of talking politics at the dinner table.
You may have already heard the political buzz terms “culinary diplomacy” or “food diplomacy.” In the blog series, Breaking Bread, I’ll primarily use the term “gastrodiplomacy," because a new idea deserves a new, sexy name. When we talk about gastrodiplomacy, we’re talking about cultural exchange and learning via one of three avenues:
1) government to government
2) government to citizen
3) citizen to citizen
First, an example of what gastrodiplomacy is not: a lot of foodies in American love sushi and broader Japanese cuisine, myself included. I know the Japanese name for several ingredients, and can tell you the difference between udon, ramen, and nigiri. The tongue-in-cheek blog Stuff White People Like echoes my thoughts on why we’re so enamored with the cuisine: sushi is “everything they [rich white people] want: foreign culture, expensive, healthy, and hated by the ‘uneducated.’” It’s tasty and makes us feel suuuper interesting. Sure, using chopsticks and drinking sake are exciting because they’re a deviation from our normal eating routines, but chopsticks and sake do not make gastrodiplomacy.
Between 1942 and 1945, thousands of Japanese-Americans were imprisoned by the US Government in remote internment camps because of widespread panic concerning anti-American sentiment among the community. It was California’s then Attorney General Earl Warren who led the charge to put ethnically Japanese Americans in camps until the end of the war. Years later, in 1966, America’s first sushi restaurant opened in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo. At first, the restaurant was only frequented by Japanese families, but soon Japanese businesspeople began taking their non-Japanese American colleagues out for sushi meals. Sushi restaurants were only found in major metropolitan cities like Chicago and New York City at first, but the cuisine became increasingly popular across the nation as interest grew among a more diverse clientele.
Imagine this clientele dining at a sushi restaurant in 1966 for the first time, struggling with chopsticks and the concept of eating raw fish. This was only twenty years after American-born Japanese people, including children, lost their homes and businesses because they spent the war years in remote internment camps. Some of the first Americans to eat sushi may have had vivid memories of the internment camps and the end of the war, and may have held their own biases about their colleagues. Then, they dined in the first Japanese restaurant in the U.S. and met Japanese or Japanese-American service and kitchen staff. They may have seen how the chef delighted in serving perfectly-formed rolls, or had a cheeky flirtation with a bartender. What would have happened if Earl Warren had dined in a sushi restaurant with Japanese colleagues before the war? Would he still have reacted to the bombing of Pearl Harbor with a knee-jerk policy based on fear of the unknown and strange neighbor? Perhaps if he’d spoken to a Japanese colleague about his kids or his ailing mother back home, he would have been less afraid of a group of people whom he perceived as “other.” A new familiarity with what was once frightfully other: that’s the goal of citizen to citizen gastrodiplomacy.
There are restaurants and movements in America today posing the same types of questions about what intercultural experiences can do for diplomacy. Pittsburgh, as it turns out, is a leader in citizen to citizen gastrodiplomatic efforts. Conflict Kitchen is a take-out restaurant with a rotating menu that focuses on showcasing the food of a country with which the United States is in conflict. Prior to opening Conflict Kitchen, co-creators Dawn Weleski and Jon Rubin ran the Waffle Shop, a late night and brunch food joint where customers were filmed having political discussions over food. When they decided to continue to engage the community with a new project, they had observed that food was a catalyst for dialogue, and deemed it crucial to their ongoing efforts. Food, much like wine, stimulates conversation, and restaurants give people a safe place for communication and conversation. Upon reflection, they found that what the Pittsburgh food scene was lacking was the cuisines of countries that the USA was in conflict with and thus, Conflict Kitchen was born.
Currently, the menu is Venezuelan, but every few months the menu will evolve depending on the geopolitical landscape. So far, Conflict Kitchen has cooked and served food from Afghanistan, Cuba, and Iran. Palestinian and North Korean food are next in the queue. There’s more than a feast on the menu; chatty staff sparks discussion on current affairs or political issues relevant to the country. Rather than aiming to impart specific knowledge, the goal is to facilitate dialogue using the nexus between food and conflict. Special events are planned, including panel discussions and performances, to engage the Pittsburgh public in several aspects of each country’s life and culture. Food wrappers have quotes or stories by locals from the featured country. The Iran menu featured wrappers with quotes from citizens on topics that varied from poetry to women’s rights. The ultra gastrodiplomatic Conflict Kitchen goes beyond offering an ethnic food “experience” and engages diners in true guerrilla diplomacy.
Gastrodiplomacy as a concept is a fairly new lens through which we will examine ways that food can, and should, foster opportunities for cross-cultural relations. It’s a much more enjoyable way to talk politics than over a boardroom table, or as is often the case, in the fog of war.
Have you been to Conflict Kitchen or engaged in your own act of gastrodiplomacy? We’d love to hear your thoughts!
Phylisa Wisdom has an MA in Public Policy from King’s College London. Originally from San Diego, she’s now living in Melbourne, Australia learning firsthand why it’s the coffee capital of the world. Follow her on twitter at @phylisajoy.