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From Conflict to Table: Conference Explores Food as Diplomacy

By Anne Deekens

Johnanna Mendelson Forman pictured with Nikki Silva of NPR's Hidden Kitchens at the Conflict Cuisine Conference.

When it comes to diplomacy, can food help to foster peace? This proactive (and tasty) question was explored during the conference “The Kitchen as the New Venue of Foreign Policy: Can Food Build Peace or Drive Conflict?” convened by Scholar in Residence Johanna Mendelson Forman on April 21 at the School of International Service. The conference examined how food can help build cultural understanding among nations.

The event highlighted Mendelson Forman’s research and capstone course on conflict cuisine, which investigates how ethnic food serves to translate and assimilate foreign cultures. According to Mendelson Forman, the varied ethnic cuisine in the United States often originates from victims of global conflicts -- such as those who fled the Vietnam War, the Soviet war in Afghanistan, and Ethiopia’s civil war. Many of these immigrants found employment by creating markets, grocery stores, and restaurants, thereby translating their cultural heritage through food.

Several Washington, DC chefs, diplomats, scholars, and other food diplomacy advocates were present at the conference to discuss food as a venue for diplomacy, conflict resolution, peace building, and national identity.

“This conference reflected on the different ways that food affects conflict and how it becomes a tool of foreign policy as a form of soft power,” explained Mendelson Forman, who is a policy expert on post-conflict transition and democratization issues.

Following Mendelson Forman’s opening remarks, the first panel attempted to define and raise awareness about the emerging field of gastrodiplomacy, a U.S. State Department program that uses food as a foreign diplomacy tool. The panel included Paul Rockower of Levantine Communications and former Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy Tara Sonenshine of George Washington University.

Another goal of the conference was to determine whether food builds peace or drives conflict.

“We know that food’s relationship to conflict is complex and multidimensional. But it is only recently that the world of food -- humanitarian development, agriculture, and diplomacy -- have become part of a larger inquiry that addresses how food is not only a tool to communicate culture, but is also central to the impact that conflicts have on civilians,” Mendelson Forman said.

Attendees also had the opportunity to sample various ethnic cuisines. Tim Carman, a staff food writer for The Washington Post, spoke to Washington, DC diaspora chefs as guests nibbled on Salvadorian pupusas, Syrian shawarma, and other ethnic foods.

The conference concluded with a panel on “Culinary Diplomats and Nation Branding,” featuring Patricia Jinich, chef of the Mexican Cultural Institute in Washington, DC, best-selling cookbook author, and host of Pati’s Mexican Table on PBS. Jinich and the other panelists discussed how nations can brand their cuisines under UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage distinction in order to promote tourism and improve international relations. Mendelson Forman and Nikki Silva, co-producer of the NPR series Hidden Kitchens, provided closing remarks.

Mendelson Forman hopes the conference will lead to more partnerships with private groups and will raise awareness about the goal of gastrodiplomacy -- to help nourish diplomatic relations worldwide. Gastrodiplomacy can foster peace not only by being a tool for diplomats, but also for citizens who travel and are interested in food to help share a dish that sparks conversation and understanding.

Watch the event online: http://www.american.edu/sis/events/ConflictCuisineSIS.cfm

Read more about Johanna Mendelson Forman’s Conflict Cuisine course here: http://www.american.edu/sis/news/20140522-The-Kitchen-as-a-Venue-for-Foreign-Policy.cfm

Follow Mendelson Forman on Twitter @JohannaWonk and discover the latest news about conflict cuisine at www.conflictcuisine.com and by using the hashtag #ConflictCuisine.