Conflict & Cuisine

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Thanks to everyone who’s come to this blog after the recent feature on NPR’s food blog The Salt. It did a great job summing up my most recent project, working with Dr. Johanna Mendelson Forman to create a new course concept at American University’s School of International Service. It’s exciting that the public can learn more about the course, considering it’s currently only accessible to seniors currently enrolled at American University (and even then we had a significant wait list).

Dr. Mendelson Forman wrote a piece about the course in the most recent edition of Public Diplomacy Magazine (an edition devoted entirely to themes surrounding culinary diplomacy and gastrodiplomacy). It opens with an old cliché about DC’s food scene:

“You can always tell where in the world there is a conflict by the new ethnic restaurants that open.”

[Whether that’s still the case since the US largely closed its borders to new immigrants since 9/11 is debatable, and we will be having that conversation in our last class.]

Looking at food, diplomacy, culture, and conflict, we built a course to explore the relatively undiscovered nexus of these fields. Here are the final two paragraphs of Dr. Mendelson Forman’s paper:

“What we hope to achieve in this course is first, to create awareness that behind the foods that are now commonplace in D.C., is a story of war and hardship, conflict and reconciliation that merits study. These are the conflict cuisines that arrived at our doorstep. Second, through a country’s kitchen one can garner a better sense of how food serves as a tool of soft power, of communication, when language alone is not enough. This can occur when immigrants try their hand as restaurateurs, bringing their cuisines to a new community and gaining acceptance through the kitchen. Third, this course, if successful, can be replicated in other cities in the U.S. and abroad as a framework for those who want their students to understand the integrated nature of culture and conflict.

Food is always present. It is easy to taste and feel, but less understood as a means of bringing citizens around the table. The diversity of the United States is one reason why the country is less prone to violent conflicts. The more heterogeneous a society, the less likely different groups will fight one another.[18] Food is a unique component of this diversity that can help bring different communities together, reach out to others, and carry something of one’s homeland to a new country. Indeed, this makes American conflict cuisine a part of the country’s expanding national food emporium, and also a learning tool for students interested in the study of war and peace.”

If this piques your interest, read the rest of the paper here.

I also contributed a piece to the volume, continuing the idea of combining food, culture, and conflict. War and Peas: Culinary Conflict Resolution as Citizen Diplomacy (sorry, Tolstoy) looks at attempts to resolve international conflict both through commensality and through collaborative projects involving food. Here’s a snippet:

“No matter how entrenched a conflict seems to be, even including deep debates about the origins of national cuisines, food can be a powerful tool to overcome tensions on a person-to-person level. This can occur on several planes, according to how deeply the parties’ interaction goes. At base, mere contact over food, as simple as sharing a meal, can be enough for a connection to be made. Food, as a vital part of life, quickly removes many barriers to interaction. The act of eating together, or commensality, can set the table for potentially healing conversations.

But for protracted social conflicts, with deeply entrenched sides who have limited interaction, more than mere contact is necessary. Indeed, in those situations, food can be a major catalyst for conflict. In this paper I will discuss the concepts of both Track 3 diplomacy and the Contact Hypothesis to argue that it is not just eating food together, but thinking about it, preparing it, and serving it together as well, that provide true opportunities for improving interactions and cooperation.”

More here if you’d like to keep reading.

Want to contribute your thoughts on food and conflict? Can the idea of resolving conflict through food be dismissed as “hummus kumbaya,” as Gaza Kitchen author Laila el Haddad tweeted? Or can we hope that the words of Chef José Andrés ring true, as quoted in my first piece on the topic?

“I don’t think the war strategy has ever worked for humanity, but after thousands and thousands and thousands of years of earth controlled by humans, war still seems to be the answer? I hope one day, food will be the answer.” 

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