“It’s the Whole Earth Catalogue for politicos.”Wes “Scoop” Nisker, author of Crazy Wisdom
“…we must first be able to dialogue with one another, to give one another subject-to-subject recognition that is an act of resistance.”bell hooks, Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life
Believing that the quickest way to a person’s heart is through their stomach, Conflict Kitchen seeks to build cross-cultural understanding and promote peace by introducing people to the food and culture of places with which their government is in conflict. Based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and the brainchild of artist/activists Jon Rubin and Dawn Weleski, Conflict Kitchen has, since 2010, used a simple takeout window framed by a colorful facade to serve up the cuisine, and celebrate the culture, of a succession of countries, including Iran, Afghanistan, Cuba, North Korea, Venezuela, and Palestine.
The takeout window functions as a platform for public dialogue, and the food line becomes a space for hungry Pittsburgers to engage with people and places the media consistently distorts and misrepresents. The takeout counter is staffed by chefs and public artists who are trained to facilitate conversations about the featured country. Each food wrapper is printed with personal profiles of people who live in the country being celebrated, as well as articles on the country’s food, art, religion, culture and government.
To extend the experience beyond the takeout line and further encourage cross-cultural dialogue, Conflict Kitchen also organizes public events that center around food. Pittsburgh locals and Iranians in Tehran shared a meal via webcam in a virtual, city-to-city dinner party where both groups made the same Persian recipes, then sat down to eat together. Other events have included informal lunch hour discussions on food and politics, dinners with invited speakers, and live cooking lessons through Skype.
While Conflict Kitchen has operated successfully for several years, the Palestinian version received death threats that forced them to close for nearly a week in November 2014. In response to the threats and allegations of being anti-Israel, the directors of Conflict Kitchen emphasized that their purpose is to hold a loudspeaker to the voices of people from across the world — Palestinians and Palestinian-Americans included. The backlash they received is proof that this type of work is necessary; conflict can only be effectively challenged with understanding.
Conflict Kitchen uses food as a vehicle for cross-cultural understanding, and is committed to providing a permanent place for political discussion for the citizens of Pittsburgh — as well as delicious takeout.
Conflict Kitchen succeeds by offering the public many points of entry, from tasting a new dish, to interacting with employees or fellow customers, to reading interviews printed on the food wrappers and sharing intimate meals with people far away. Cultural exchange is central to the project; the organizers make it a priority for locals and people overseas to express their points of view, to hear other points of view, and to be part of the ensuing conversation. Conflict Kitchen thus challenges biased representation by facilitating an experience that allows each group to speak for themselves.
Conflict Kitchen succeeds in creating a clever and surprising way to spread information: food wrappers! Composed of printed first-person interviews, the wrappers don’t just convey genuine perspectives; they tell a story while the patron is eating.
The webcam meals between Pittsburgh and abroad provide a temporary glimpse of what it means to share cultures, politics and, of course, food. By creating a zone of open dialogue and cross-cultural understanding for at least one meal, Conflict Kitchen makes tangible the possibility of a world where we listen to each other and draw our own conclusions.
Everyone is different. Some people are shy, others are bold. Some people are visual learners, others respond best to stories. Some people are already on your invite list, others just stumble upon your project. It therefore behooves us to provide several ways for people to engage with our message and, in general, to be as accessible as possible. Conflict Kitchen offers many points of entry: conversations at the takeout window, a visually arresting storefront display to attract attention from passers-by, food wrapped in printed interviews, as well as space for conversing and sharing food during public events. In short, the more points of entry, the more opportunities for changing minds and opening hearts. It is that simple!