The Dish

Words by Cecilia Reiter
Editing by Margaret Hutchins
Illustration by Katy Mitchell

Food is one of the oldest forms of exchange between people. It is a necessity and deeply tied to our cultural identities. It also has the power to impact us in a variety of physical, emotional, and transformational ways. In her Huffington Post article, Breaking Bread for Peace: Conflict Kitchen and Cultural Food Diplomacy, Vanessa Thevathasan states the power of cuisine still suffers from, “untapped recognition to deliver social conflict transformation,” despite all that food can influence. Ellen Gustafson poses a possible solution in her Change Dinner Project by, “...coming back to the table to become activists in our own home, at our own table...” to help communities in conflict understand each other’s hearts and minds.

People value food, and it is in the kitchen where they congregate to discuss everything from the various ingredients in a dish, to the complexity of a recipe, to the unique spin of the meal brought by the chef. Yet rarely do people share these conversations and the stories behind the meal with those outside their circle of tight-knit family and friends. With our increasingly cosmopolitan palettes, there are more opportunities for understanding and lessons to be gleaned from those who are at the forefront of conflict resolution with a hot meal in hand.  

Everyone can participate when it comes to the power of food, as shown by artist Michael Rakowitz. With the help of his Iraqi-Jewish mother, he brings different audiences into the kitchen to learn about Baghdadi recipes through collaborative cooking in his ongoing project, Enemy Kitchen. In his words, “food opens up a new route through which Iraq can be discussed – in this case, through that most familiar of cultural staples: nourishment. Iraqi culture is virtually invisible in the U.S., beyond the daily news, and Enemy Kitchen seizes the possibility of cultural visibility to produce an alternative discourse.”

There is a positive ripple effect that is created when a meal is used as a way to invite communities in conflict to come together. The Travel Channel series, Breaking Borders, is taking this idea to new heights. The show captures the healing process of food by immersing Mariana van Zeller, award winning journalist, and Michael Voltaggio, acclaimed chef and Los Angeles restaurateur, in conflict zones around the world. While there, Zeller and Voltaggio research local social and political issues, cook regional and culturally specific dishes, and bring together residents with opposing views to discuss politics at the dinner table. The show emphasizes the idea that if two hosts can, in such a short period of time, understand the local cuisine and the participants representative of the meal, then perhaps communities in conflict can also understand one another and find more empathetic solutions.

The act of making and sharing a meal should be recognized as a strategy across the globe, bringing more people together. Imagine if conflicts, like the one happening in the United States over the safety of GMOs, could be resolved through conversations at the dinner table with opposing sides. As seen through the International Alert’s, Conflict Kitchen, Travel Channel’s, Breaking Borders, Enemy Kitchen, and the Change Dinner Project, anyone can address conflicts within a community through food. It is in the power of the dish, where long-lasting solutions can be prepared and shared.