Judging by the name of this blog, I’ve obviously chosen a side in the debate (a still-nascent debate, really – you probably didn’t even know it existed) about whether food can really be used as a tool of diplomacy. The New Republic recently published a volley arguing the other side. This would be Noreen Malone’s article, entitled Against Foodie Diplomacy [go read the article – I won’t make as much sense if you don’t read it]. She outlines the State Department Culinary Diplomacy initiative, and finds holes and problems with it. Some of her points are valuable – for example, that the program isn’t branding but re-branding American food abroad: we are mostly known, whether we like it or not, for McDonald’s and KFC. She’s against the haute nature of the program – the original launch was indeed a voluptuous affair, with high-caliber chefs making rarefied bites of bison and heirloom beans. She points out the vagueness of the program – only appropriate in its third week of existence. She discusses the value of cultural diplomacy, and then immediately sidelines it as ‘not quite representative of main street.’
There is some value in what she has written. Culinary diplomacy can’t just be the realm of Food Network chefs and those wealthy enough to afford the luxuries of what they cook, nor of ambassadors and their guests. This point is well made by Paul Rockower in his recent Huffington Post article. He clearly differentiates between what he calls culinary diplomacy, which he defines as ‘the use of cuisine as a medium to enhance formal diplomacy in official diplomatic functions such as visits by heads-of-state, ambassadors and other dignitaries,’ and gastrodiplomacy, which ‘seeks to communicate culture through food to the broader foreign public’ and ‘to engage people-to-people connections through the act of breaking bread.’
Varying terms aside, Paul’s differentiation is helpful for identifying potential issues with the State Department program, as well as how to improve it. Noreen Malone’s article, though, doesn’t provide such guidance. Instead, it takes cheap shots at a program in its infancy. To complain that the program involves too many TV chefs seems misguided. Her point is that TV chefs are the ones with money to spend on travel abroad, and look more ‘Hollywood than Neighborhood Bistro.’ A few problems here: first of all, a majority of the chefs on the list AREN’T famous from being on TV. Ms. Malone says that herself. They were found through other channels than Food Network – I don’t know how State dug up their list of chefs, but it’s an extensive group from all around the country, and while they may not be your local neighborhood bakers, they do represent more of the American food scene than just the two extremes highlighted in the article – Happy Meals and ‘locally-pickled items and weird animal innards at Brooklyn restaurants.’
Secondly, what actually is wrong with Food Network chefs, or those wealthy enough to travel on their own dime? State is calling this aspect of the program – when chefs visit foreign embassies during already-scheduled trips abroad – a ‘target of opportunity.’ It doesn’t cost taxpayers anything. Ms. Malone is finding fault with something that State can be proud of – they are trying to figure out ways to explore culinary diplomacy without spending our tax dollars.
Finally, what’s up with her side note about ‘the complicated influence of culinary influence itself?’ No one here is trying to sweep imperial history under the rug. I agree that much fusion may very well be post-colonial appropriation of other cultures, but it doesn’t seem to be all that relevant here. Food is and always has been globally-influenced, and I’m sure State and all of its appointed chefs would readily acknowledge their influences. And I think that’s one of the major goals of this program. When a chef travels to a country whose food was an inspiration, he or she will likely be all the more enthusiastic about learning about how that fusion came about – and how it can be deepened.
Ms. Malone sees many dark shadows lying behind this program. True, it hasn’t been explicated in detail yet, but that’s because it is still nascent. And I’m sure if she talked to many of the chefs named as State Chefs, they wouldn’t see their title as ‘authoritarian’ but as an honor – to represent their country, to make connections with chefs from other countries, to learn and expand their culinary knowledge.
This is obviously just all my take. I appreciate that writers like Noreen Malone are exploring these issues, in order to provide some perspective on an understudied area. And maybe she’ll turn out to be onto something – maybe Big Brother is in the kitchen making your dinner. I think we’ll all learn more about the program as it moves forward – State and each of the chefs included.