By Andrea Wenzel


Never before has it been so easy to locate the best carnitas, the creamiest hummus, or the spiciest pho. Global foodie-ism is a well-established phenomenon—replete with vibrant online discussion boards, splashy magazine spreads, and colorful reality television hosts in search of the exotic.

In this era of flavorful discourse, the power of food to appeal to commonality presents an attractive possibility for actors looking to create bridges between cultures and communities, or to contribute to conflict resolution processes and social cohesion. This article highlights the efforts of people-to-people gastrodiplomacy practitioners in the U.S. who either use food as the centerpiece of their work or integrate food as a tool to serve project objectives. Whenever possible, I observed, and ate with these food diplomats to see (and taste) their process in action. Based on these experiences, I will discuss the efforts of some practitioners, the theories that underpin their work, and possible directions for more systematic empirical research.

Culinary Engagement and Cultural Indigestion

In the U.S., enthusiasm for food appears to be a rare passion that transcends political polarizations. Republicans and Democrats consume Mexican fare in nearly equal numbers.[1] But eating across cultures does not necessarily translate into cross-cultural understanding. One need only look at the online palaver sparked by Fox News Channel’s Fox & Friends’ attempt to celebrate National Taco Day, in which they managed to mangle the cultural identity of their meteorologist by assuming all Latinos grew up on tacos (tacos are not part of Nicaraguan cuisine).[2] Even more cultural indigestion, and online accusations of racism, resulted from the release of the cloying song by 12-year-old Alison Gold entitled “Chinese Food.”[3] The song included a mishmash of pan-Asian stereotypes from geishas to giant dancing pandas, and memorable lines such as: “Because Chinese food takes away my stress/Now I’m going to go eat Panda Express.”

But for some, food offers a pathway to potentially meaningful cultural engagement. On television shows like Parts Unknown, Anthony Bourdain takes viewers to Jerusalem to sample falafel—and Israeli and Palestinian perspectives on politics. A Norwegian series called Dining with the Enemy travels to countries from Afghanistan to Rwanda, bringing representatives of different sides of conflicts together for a meal, in a format currently being adapted for English speaking audiences. Meanwhile in Australia, Food Safari enters the homes and restaurants of members of Australia’s many immigrant communities—sharing recipes from Cyprus to Sri Lanka.

 

Kitchen Diplomacy

Beyond the screen, people-to-people food diplomacy initiatives have begun to capitalize on increasingly cosmopolitan palettes. In Brooklyn, the social enterprise start-up Global Kitchen aims to empower chefs from New York’s many immigrant communities to share their cuisine, preserve traditional recipes, and help build awareness of their own businesses. They offer face-to-face cooking sessions in Bengali, Egyptian, Ethiopian, Filipino, Guyanese, and Senegalese fare. The evenings are more exploratory introductions to the cuisines than nuts and bolts cooking classes—with a communal meal enjoyed at the end.

“There’s just an organic quality food creates,” says Jon Rubin, co-founder of Conflict Kitchen—a Pittsburgh-based take-away restaurant offering a rotation of cuisines from countries that happen to be on the wrong foot with the U.S. government, from North Korea to Iran.[4] Conflict Kitchen has offered passing office workers and college students the chance to sample the arepas of Venezuela, the bolani of Afghanistan, and lechon asado from Cuba. “We’re used to all of our great conversations happening around meals,” says Rubin. “Once that comfort is created there’s this space that’s opened up—where people are open to suggestion and possibilities of engaging in ways they don’t normally engage.”[5]

At Conflict Kitchen, food comes wrapped in a colorful flyer containing clusters of opinions, anecdotes, and proverbs on an assortment of cultural and political issues. For the ‘Kubideh Kitchen,’ wrappers highlighted Iranian perspectives on everything from bread to film to Israel. When possible, Conflict Kitchen tries to deepen community engagement through more substantive interactions. They have hosted a live meal via Skype between diners in Pittsburgh and Tehran. Conflict Kitchen’s Culinary Director Robert Sayre thinks they are tapping into the current foodie ethos in the U.S.: “People are more willing to commit to trying something with food.”[6] For example, Sayre explains, if you try to hand out literature on a street corner no one wants it—but if you get that same content with a meal you’ve paid for, you’re likely to take a look as you nibble your sandwich.

Rubin says Conflict Kitchen tries to create a safe space where people can feel comfortable asking “dumb questions” and broaching political taboos. Workers try to engage customers in conversation with humor and a “sense of play.” “I think that’s pretty important when you talk about politics—especially with strangers, especially in public, especially in the United States,” he says. Rubin admits he doesn’t have a clear way to measure their impact. He defines himself as an artist, not a metrics guy. He does not claim a direct correlation between consuming a sandwich and changing a customer’s consciousness. Still, he remains positive. “We feel like on a very basic level, if we can introduce them to the food, and talk about the region and culture, and some basic information–that to me is quite important in the United States.”

From Kitchen to Contact Hypothesis

Central to many of the food diplomacy initiatives I visited was the idea, or hope, that exposure to difference had the potential to lead to understanding. Deliberately or not, practitioners had internalized the contact hypothesis—the notion that interaction between groups may reduce prejudice. The hypothesis, codified by Gordon Allport’s The Nature of Prejudice (1954), holds that intergroup contact can have either a positive or negative impact on attitudes towards “the other.” Prejudice is most likely to be lessened under optimal conditions—when groups have equal status, common goals, cooperation, and the support of authorities, law, or custom.[7] Over time, the contact hypothesis has grown into a widely used theory for analyzing intergroup relations, albeit one with numerous skeptics. Nevertheless, a meta-analysis of 515 studies conducted in 2011 concluded that “intergroup contact typically reduces prejudices.”[8]

Considering food diplomacy efforts in intergroup contact theory terms, what optimal conditions would be needed to move from an appreciation of tacos, á la Fox & Friends, to a greater understanding of the people and cultures behind Mexican cuisine? According to the contact hypothesis, barriers to building empathy may include real and perceived power imbalances and a sense of competition. Tackling fundamental structural change is well beyond the scope of most food diplomacy initiatives. However, at least some of the factors facilitating positive intergroup contact are being attempted at the project level.

“It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from, communication can happen through the food,” says Mealsharing founder Jay Savsani.[9] Mealsharing allows users to connect over a home-cooked meal while traveling—or even in their own hometowns. A sort of culinary equivalent of couch-surfing, Mealsharing aims to promote cultural exchange and build community through food. Users connect to an online network that allows them to share meals with strangers—for free—in more than 300 cities around the globe. Built into Mealsharing are some of the optimal conditions for positive intergroup contact. Savsani says they are trying to create “an equal playing field” where participants cooperate in pursuit of the common goal of sharing a meal and conversation. “There’s no meal, unless it’s the most awkward meal in the history of meals, where there’s no conversation.”[10]

Savsani created Mealsharing after a particularly memorable dinner he had while traveling in Cambodia. Dissatisfied with the experience of eating in restaurants geared towards foreign tourists, he went to the front desk of his hotel and asked if anyone might be willing to invite him over for a home-cooked meal. And so Savsani found himself dining with a Cambodian family, engaged in conversation that veered from Pol Pot to Obama to Michael Jackson. On his rickshaw ride home, the epiphany came. He would find a way to orchestrate what he calls “facilitated serendipity”—using technology to “redefine what it means to be a stranger.”[11] Savsani now has ambitions to “mainstream” the experience of Mealsharing—making the concept of dining with strangers appeal beyond the adventurous foodie and travel crowd. So far, he says the process has allowed him to meet people with worldviews and cultures he would have been unlikely to encounter otherwise—from Paris to Cleveland.

Chile Relleno and Civic Engagement?

Anecdotal experiences shared by these initiatives’ participants suggest that eating across cultures can build intergroup empathy. However, it is not clear how sustainable or deep the effects of these food encounters will be when the glow of the food coma dissipates. According to the contact hypothesis, factors such as ongoing interaction over time and a layering of meaningful shared goals may contribute to more positive attitudes towards “the other.”[12]

At the Aurora Mental Health Center in a suburb of Denver, Colorado, the OACIC program has been taking such an approach over the past four years—using food to facilitate dialogue across cultures and power structures. OACIC, or Original Aurora Community Integration Collaborative, aims to help immigrant and long-term residents better understand one another by collectively pursuing shared goals.

OACIC participant Margarita unwraps a dish of pastel Azteca, a tortilla casserole layered with corn, chicken, and chiles. She explains how she first was drawn to the group because of neighborhood safety concerns. When Margarita heard about their neighborhood watch program, she thought she would go to the meetings, hear a few crime statistics, and go home. “I never thought I’d have a role participating along with the police,” she says.[13] But this was a “non-traditional” multicultural neighborhood watch, explains OACIC Program Coordinator Jenny Pool Radway. “It’s really hard when you’re a regular community member and you’re constantly seeing officers in blue—wearing their uniform. It’s very intimidating.”[14] This is particularly true in a community whose cultural fabric is as diverse as northwest Aurora, where more than 30% of residents report speaking a language other than English at home.[15] While most foreign born residents come from Latin America, neighborhood watch participants also herald from Bhutan, Burma, Burundi, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Sierra Leone. To complicate matters further, many residents are undocumented—adding an additional layer of anxiety to the idea of participating in meetings with the police.

“Our goal was to bring all the community members together, even if they don’t speak the same language, because they all care about safety,” says Radway. She adds that the key has been giving them “an opportunity to interact with the police department in a positive environment, in a casual environment, where they’re sharing a meal.”[16] Radway says it quickly became clear that food had an important role to play. Meetings were potluck style. Neighborhood watch participants were invited to bring food to share with the group.

Radway says the humanizing role of food helps community members see the police as “basic human beings who just have that job.”[17] She recalls a grizzled police officer clapping at the sight of Margarita’s chili rellenos. Margarita says it made her feel happy to see everyone share a meal like a big family. “I had a lot of opportunities to relate to the police officers, and establish a relationship with them,” she explains.[18] Now she feels comfortable reaching out when something happens. And Radway says linkages go both ways. She’s seen undocumented participants inviting police to come to a birthday party. And after the Aurora movie theater shooting, participants cooked a dinner for the police who were first responders to the tragedy. Margarita says she also feels more connected to her fellow community members from various backgrounds. “Before I wouldn’t have noticed them, but now I see them at school.”[19] She says they now say hello and share with one another because of relationships created over the potlucks.

Food was not the goal of the neighborhood watch potlucks. But using food as a tool in the pursuit of other shared goals did seem to build empathy between groups in a way that assisted their sense of community belonging and engagement. This experience may be explained by combining the Contact Hypothesis with another theoretical framework, Communication Infrastructure Theory (CIT).[20] While intergroup contact helped to build understanding between groups, the engagement of these groups was fostered through CIT. CIT studies have shown that people’s sense of community belonging and civic engagement correlates with their ability to connect to storytelling networks[21]—a process helped or hindered by their communication action context (CAC).[22]

In the case of OACIC, the neighborhood watch potlucks were part of residents’ storytelling network. OACIC helped participants access these networks by addressing issues in their CAC—things such as safety, language, cultural difference—and also food. The desire to eat delicious food supplemented other salient community goals. The act of sharing food created an opportunity for cross-cultural exchange, connecting residents with community organizations, authorities, and each other. Potlucks also removed a barrier for many hungry participants who would come to meetings straight from work with grumbling stomachs. In addition, the OACIC example highlights the especially powerful role played by food in immigrant communities—where food can act as a bridge between old homes and new, contributing to multicultural place-sharing, friendship networks, and “hopeful geographies.”[23]

Potlucks and Community Cohesion

In Irvine, California another kind of diaspora potluck is taking place. Trays of kofta, mashi, and macaroni with béchamel fill the long table lining the community center wall. The Egyptian Sisters of Irvine have been busy. Tonight, their children chase each other, pausing occasionally for bites of basbousa, while their husbands sit discussing soccer over plates of shawarma. This is a potluck with a purpose. But the purpose is not so much what is discussed here as what is not: politics.

While this group, composed mostly of Egyptian PhD students or the wives of PhD students, had been meeting regularly for both religious and social gatherings, political turmoil in Egypt threatened to fracture community cohesion. Following the July 2013 coup, gatherings were turning into “shouting matches,” explains group member Yomna Elsayed.[24] Participants worried they would lose more than political unity. Gatherings offered women a culturally supportive space to exchange tips on matters ranging from child rearing, to getting a drivers license, to dealing with cultural stereotypes. “We don’t have any other family here,” Elsayed says. “We realize we are the family of one another and our children will grow together.”

During Ramadan, the group faced a dilemma. In Egypt, supporters of the deposed President Mohamed Morsi were killed when the military dispersed protests in August. Online dialogue over the incident had become heated and polarizing, and the Egyptian Sisters of Irvine were not immune. “I remember there was a great moment of silence. Nobody wanted to meet the other side,” Elsayed says. But it was Ramadan, and they did not want their children to pay the price of political divisions, so they made an appeal on their Facebook group. They would hold the potlucks, but politics would be off the menu.

Elsayed says eating together, and the face-to-face hospitality that inevitably accompanies this, imparts a sense of respect. “When you eat somebody’s food you trust them, you trust the food.” The fact that the women cook up Egyptian specialties for the potlucks adds to their appeal. The food not only reminds participants of home, but it offers a chance for children who are otherwise surrounded by American cuisine to taste these flavors—including dishes their mothers have not necessarily mastered in their own kitchens.

For the Egyptian Sisters of Irvine, potlucks are a central site in the maintenance of community belonging and identity. In the future, Elsayed hopes tensions will cool to the point that they can find constructive ways to discuss political issues. In the meantime, the stickiness of baklava will supplement their desire for social cohesion, even if the rifts beneath the surface are far from sweet.

Researcher as Prep Cook?

This idea of food as a connector of communities can be found across time and cultures. In Afghanistan, where food is often used as part of the conflict resolution process in villages, there is an expression: “I have had water and salt in your home.” It means “We’ve eaten together—we are intimates, bonded to one another.” Integrating food into projects that aim to reduce conflict and build connections within and between communities seems intuitive. However, empirical research could contribute to the development of best practice guidelines for such interventions. Before inviting guests for dinner, people-to-people food diplomacy practitioners would do well to understand what ingredients they need from the grocery store. There is a lot that is not known about people’s food ecologies and beliefs—particularly whether there are correlations between eating across cultures and attitudes towards said cultures. Weaving together theories on intergroup contact and communication ecologies, researchers could assist practitioners by mapping people’s food practices, cultural food knowledge, and attitudes. In doing so, researchers may offer insight into potential areas of overlap where interventions may offer more fruitful, and potentially delicious, community engagement.

 

References and Notes


[1] A Public Policy Polling poll from February 2013 showed a slightly higher percentage of Republicans like Mexican food than Democrats. Waxman, Olivia. “Republicans, Democrats Split on Olive Garden, Other Food Issues.” Time Newsfeed. Web. 27 Feb. 2013.

[2]Gupta, Prachi. “Fox and Friends host thinks Hispanic colleague grew up on tacos.” Salon. Web. 4 Oct. 2013.

[3] Maloney, Devon. “’Chinese Food’ Is the New ‘Friday.’ Except Racist.” Wired. Web. 16 Oct. 2013.

[4] Rubin, John. Personal Interview. 16 May 2013.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Sayre, Robert. Personal Interview. 16 May 2013.

[7] Allport, Gordon. The nature of prejudice. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1954.

[8] Pettigrew, Thomas F., Linda R. Tropp, Ulrich Wagner, and Oliver Christ. “Recent advances in intergroup contact theory.” International Journal of Intercultural Relations 35 (2011)

[9] Savsani, Jay. Personal Interview. 2 June 2013.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Pettigrew, T. F. “Intergroup contact theory.” Annual Review of Psychology, 49, (1998): 65-85.

[13] Margarita [last name withheld]. Personal Interview. 27 June 2013.

[14] Pool Radway, Jenny. Personal Interview. 27 June 2013.

[15] According to Census and American Community Survey referenced in: City of Aurora Planning & Development Services Department. “Who is Aurora? An overview of demographic and social data and trends.” Web. 12 Sept. 2012.

[16] Pool Radway, Jenny. Personal Interview. 27 June 2013.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Margarita [last name withheld]. Personal Interview. 27 June 2013.

[19] Ibid.

[20] For an example of how these theories have previously been combined to explore intergroup relations, see: Broad, Garret M., Carmen Gonzalez, and Sandra Ball-Rokeach. “Intergroup Relations in South Los Angeles—Combining communication infrastructure and contact hypothesis approaches.” International Journal of Intercultural Relations. (2013)

[21] Ball-Rokeach, S.J., Y.-C. Kim, and S. Matei. “Storytelling neighborhood: Paths to belonging in diverse urban environments.” Communication Research, 28 (4), (2001): 392

[22] CAC includes social and cultural resources and elements of the built environment. (See: Wilkin, H. “Exploring the potential of communication infrastructure theory for informing efforts to reduce health disparities.” Journal of Communication (2013)) While access to healthy food via grocery stores has been referenced as an element of CAC, there is limited research examining the role of food in facilitating engagement with storytelling networks.

[23] Johnston, Lynda and Robyn Longhurst. “Embodied geographies of food, belonging and hope in multicultural Hamilton, Aotearoa New Zealand.” Geoforum (2011)

[24] Elsayed, Yomna. Personal Interview. 20 October, 2013.

Andrea Wenzel is a doctoral student at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, radio producer, and international media development consultant. She occasionally blogs about food initiatives at potluckdiplomacy.tumblr.com.