Kitchen With A Conscience

Never discuss politics at the dinner table, they say. But for the past three years, a take-out restaurant in Pittsburgh, US, has been throwing kebabs, bolanis and arepas in the face of that dictum. And with a good reason.

Called the Conflict Kitchen, this project by artists Jon Rubin and Dawn Weleski, serves food from countries that the US government is in conflict with. The goal, as Jon puts it, is “to give [people] as many different perspectives of one country or political conflict as [possible], in as engaging a way as [possible]”. This list of countries is not small, and the Conflict Kitchen rotates its theme every six months. So far, it has served food from Iran, Afghanistan, Venezuela and Cuba (its upcoming versions will bring food from North and South Korea, and Palestine, Israel).

Through an e-mail interview, Jon tells us what’s cooking at Conflict Kitchen. Where did the idea come from? We decided to create the project out of a response to what was not in our city—cultural diversity, political discourse (at the level of the street), and diverse ethnic cuisines.

Is Conflict Kitchen an anti-war campaign? That seems a bit broad. We are concerned with exposing our customers and our city to the complicated lives, cultures and political viewpoints of those living in countries they hear only negatively about in the media. In essence, we are trying to demystify the notion of otherness that we (Americans and all humans) like to construct when we are presented with something unfamiliar and foreign. The goal is to make the foreign seem familiar, even local.

Is Conflict Kitchen’s approach simplistic? Does it imply that the answer to all complex political problems is people-to-people contact? In fact, our goal is the opposite. Most Americans have very simplified views (if they have views at all) on political situations and foreign conflicts. Our hope is to complicate, not simplify, how they see a What does one get if they eat out of Conflict Kitchen? Food? Peace propaganda? Friends in country they knew little about. Politics is a constantly shifting field of relations and histories that are always seen through subjective lenses. Food for us is the first, simplest, and most apolitical lens, and although it is vital to what we do the food is not an ends in itself. We want to give our customers as many different perspectives of one country or political conflict as we can, in as engaging a way as we can.‘strange places’? You certainly get good food and an introduction to a culture you might not know a lot about. “Peace propaganda,” might be a simplistic way to see what we are doing, but in the end we are not really concerned with labelling our enterprise with any one designation. We are happy to feed the people of our city and initiate with them a conversation that goes behind the simplistic rhetoric of the left or right.

Food, of course, is your key communication device. What are the other methods you use to make your point (or build bridges, as the case may be)? All the food comes in a custom-designed wrapper that contains interviews with people from the country of focus. We also do lots of events and programs to further engage our customers including something we call “The Iranian Speech”, which involves Iranians all over the world writing part of a speech that they would like Barack Obama to deliver. We will be assembling all submissions into an upcoming publication that will be distributed to thousands of our American customers and performed by a Barack Obama lookalike in Pittsburgh, USA.

Another ongoing engagement is called “The Foreigner.” Through simple mobile technology, one of our staff members functions as a human avatar for Sohrab Kashani, a young man living in Iran. You can meet, speak, and have lunch with Sohrab through the body of our staff member at the Conflict every Wednesday from 11am-2pm.

We also are working with Pittsburgh's main public library (located across the plaza from our restaurant) to present a curated selection of over 70 books and dvds related to Iranian culture and politics. People can find this collection on the first floor of library just inside the entrance.

You have hosted Skype dinners with dinners with people in “conflict countries”? Any take-aways from these events? The best conversations always happen around food.

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Salil Deshpande

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