Eating Without Borders
Culinary diplomacy helps open mouths and minds for a more understanding future
"Dining is the soul of diplomacy."
—Lord Palmerston, prime minister of the U.K. (1859–1865)
The 1963 Broadway hit Oliver! features a cast of half-starved orphan boys imagining a world filled with food. They sing, salivating about their culinary utopia: “That's all that we live for. Why should we be fated to do nothing but brood, on food, magical food, wonderful food, marvelous food, fabulous food, beautiful food, glorious food!”
The boys got it right: Food is all of that and more.
There's a global movement afoot, celebrating food in ways far beyond a theatrical stage. That movement, sometimes called "gastrodiplomacy" or "culinary diplomacy," is employing food in conversations, meetings, or seemingly any gathering of people to enhance the dialogues taking place. At both a basic and crucial level, this diplomacy involves countries using food to influence public perception and enhance their international standing.
Generally, over the centuries, dining experiences and food in general have been used to express messages or improve communication between people. Examples abound.
The Bible, for instance, is replete with verses related to "breaking bread" together as a means to unite people. During early Greek and Roman days, food was used to lubricate interactions between and among adversaries. To avoid the Spanish Inquisitions, both Jews and Muslims displayed pork legs in windows or engaged in public pork eating to avoid being perceived as anything but Christian (pork is prohibited in Judaism and Islam).
Today, this type of diplomacy is usually aligned with cross-cultural conflicts, and countries across the globe have (finally) discovered that food can lead to greater cultural understanding, cooperation, and engagement.
Some cultures, such as Lebanon, have citizens themselves promoting their cultures. But other countries, such as Thailand—the international pioneer of gastrodiplomacy—made the practice more official by offering state-sponsored grants to entrepreneurs who opened Thai restaurants around the world. Solidifying this transnational food presence boosted Thailand's tourism industry and served to shed its image as a conflict-oriented country in Southeast Asia.
Let's stir it up a bit. We’ll dig deeper into how this ancient cuisine custom found its way into today's world, and explore why and how this movement gained steam and stamina.
The world has been, and is, chaotic. Few of us would argue with the enormous challenges facing people everywhere. Religious wars, water and food security, drug cartels, climate change, poverty, government corruption…the list could fill the pages of this magazine! These global horrors demand action—not from across a battlefield but from across a dinner table.
Food is a central route to interpersonal understanding. We don't have to look beyond our borders to experience the value of food. Within America, food is part of what it means to be human.
Comfort food is exemplary of where we turn after a difficult or exhausting time.
Bereavement food, in many circles, is considered appropriate after a funeral; a mourner might be brought food, or the mourning family might host a luncheon. Soul food inspires others to prepare greens, cornmeal, and sweet potato pie for family picnics or holiday celebrations. Even the English word “companion” is derived from two Latin words: com, meaning "together" and panis, meaning "bread."
Creating avenues for positive communication is critical. We may think of resolving major (and minor) issues as impossible, but gastrodiplomacy has been recognized as one way to prove it’s possible after all. And despite the pessimism that has hung over the country the past few years, some people still believe that the human mind is capable of kindness and compassion.
Supporting this fact, UNESCO identifies three unique cultural cuisines on its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity: the Mediterranean diet, and both the French and Mexican national cuisines. Together, the U.N. views them as creating strong social ties; invigorating local, regional, and national identities; and encouraging intercultural dialogue.
The Diplomatic Culinary Partnership
The role of food and its value in global relations in America is usually traced back to the classic hot dog. In 1939, in a precursor of the importance of the U.S.–U.K. alliance in World War II, President Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor invited the King and Queen of England to a White House picnic. The all-American hot dog was served. Although the Queen was perplexed as to how to eat the tubular sausage, the King not only enjoyed it but also drank several beers.
News reports concluded that the picnic was a clever way for Roosevelt and the royalty to talk about support for the upcoming war, which was already at England's back door. Clearly, both Roosevelt and the King "relished" their relationship.
With Greek and Roman ancestors using food to create social bonds, America is pretty late coming to the proverbial dinner table. Yet we have found ourselves among those countries who see food as having diplomatic possibilities.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton once proclaimed that food is the "oldest form of diplomacy." Following this declaration, it was only a matter of time before the intersection of food and diplomacy would be governmentally sanctioned. In 2012 Clinton launched the Diplomatic Culinary Partnership, which was dedicated to heightening attention to how food can enhance diplomatic efforts between the U.S. and other nations.
The initiative established the American Chef Corps, which is a group of about 100 American chefs who provide resources and talents to the U.S. Department of State. Today's partnership is primarily run out of the wheelhouse of the James Beard Foundation (whose namesake held that "food is our common ground") and called The Culinary Diplomacy Project.
The relationship among America, food, and diplomacy, according to former White House Executive Chef Sam Kass, is clear: The U.S. is seen as a superpower around the world. Yet, food could be used to "humanize" the country, to show that this big bad boogeyman is really much more like those countries that fear or resent us. Although food may not lead to peace, Kass admits, food can lead to conversation, which in turn may lead to peaceful settlements.
The Corps undertakes a variety of roles related to communicating cuisine. Working with an embassy in a particular part of the world, chefs may sponsor local speakers to talk about food sustainability, food safety, healthy eating, and even the role of women in the preparation of various foods.
Difficult dialogues about gender roles, food harvesting, water rationing, and worker rights are important byproducts of these chef-community forums. Dispelling stereotypes, like the idea that America eats nothing but KFC and McDonalds, is also a prominent and usually subtle goal.
Eat with your mouth (and your mind) open
Talk can be cheap, however. Consider the difference between these two:
1. A Nepalese newspaper prints a quote from the U.S. ambassador to Nepal saying that America cares about and respects Nepal.
2. The U.S. ambassador to Nepal helps a Nepalese chef cook momo (a dumpling), wearing either a traditional kurta (a long shirt worn over leggings) or a patuka (a cloth worn around the waist instead of a belt).
Food preparation would certainly capture the Americans’ respect for the Nepalese more effectively than any words. As historians would argue: traditions communicate legacy.
A global fare
The times demand action, and various countries around the world have been at the forefront of change. In some cases, food has been used to advance a brand, such as China "investing" in Chile by sending its chefs there to teach Chinese cooking. Cambodia, South Korea, and Taiwan have also launched efforts to educate international business travelers, sometimes called "chopsticks diplomacy" or "soft power."
The thinking goes like this: If travelers eat and enjoy the home country’s food, they’ll associate that enjoyment with the country, which works to dissipate negative stereotypes and cultural ignorance. Because food has strengthened the associations between the country's people, values, and politics in travelers’ minds, the home country then enjoys a better reputation.
Bringing home the bacon: TV's travelogues and local input
Today, diplomacy is not only carried on by heads of state, chefs, and ambassadors. Television has long been chomping at the bit to connect and communicate through food. Although Anthony Bourdain, Andrew Zimmern, and Gordon Ramsay may not be household names, they were and still are mediated leaders in exploring global culinary practices.
Even with Bourdain's death, viewers remain captivated by the international reach of food. These travelogues carry American homelands into other countries, and in turn, other countries introduce celebrity culinary leaders to their land. All the while, food is being tossed around as a learning tool.
It’s not only television travel hosts who have brought food to life for millions—so have those who are not in front of a camera. Communities as diverse as London and Washington, D.C. have established programs promoting cultural identity and cultural inclusion.
Conflict Café in London, for example, concentrated last year on the Philippines, featuring Filipino food prepared by an Anglo-Filipino chef and diners who shared stories of conflict and challenge as Filipinos.
In the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C., a different diplomatic immersion takes place. In one situation, field trips to restaurants such as Das Ethiopian Cuisine introduced diplomacy seekers to a great deal of Ethiopian culture, including the influences that Italians had on Ethiopian food and politics.
With at least one poll showing that over half of the people surveyed said eating another country's cuisine leads them to think more positively about that country, we can only imagine the culinary options yet to be realized.
As our world becomes both increasingly complex and torn apart by violence, people across the globe must collectively look for innovative ways to connect with others. We no longer can, or should, rely on politicians, civil servants, or a nation's leadership to solve our conflicts. Mediators have fallen pessimistic and peace-makers have hit roadblocks. The world, therefore, should take the lead from those countries that have found a way to sustain dialogue in challenging times.
Whether it's at an interpersonal level or a national level, marvelous and glorious food has found its way into the hearts and souls of people. Our world is just a little kinder, and a little less stressful, because of communal culinary gatherings around the world.
Gastrodiplomacy. It truly is a kitchen-table issue.