You are here: American University School of International Service Big World podcast Episode 30: The Politics of Food

The Politics of Food

It is not surprising that food—something so universal yet so individual and culturally specific—would have a place in foreign policy. In this episode, SIS professor Johanna Mendelson Forman joins Big World to discuss culinary diplomacy, gastrodiplomacy, and conflict cuisine.

Professor Mendelson Forman shares how governments use food as a tool for soft power (1:38) and explains the difference between culinary diplomacy and gastrodiplomacy (4:46). She also discusses the connection between food and war—what she calls conflict cuisine (6:40).

Why is conflict cuisine a unique part of DC’s culinary scene (10:46)? How does Professor Mendelson Forman use food and visits to local restaurants to teach students about war and peace, diplomacy, and conflict resolution (12:43)? She answers these questions and explains what has changed in DC’s conflict cuisines over the last five years (15:03).

Finally, Professor Mendelson Forman examines the possible impact of COVID-19 on family or chef-owned global cuisine restaurants (17:05) and discusses the important role social gastronomy, or the use of food to do good, is playing during the coronavirus pandemic (18:48).

During our “Take Five” segment, Professor Mendelson Forman tells us the five ways she’d like to see people use food as a tool for activism and social change (9:39).

0:07      Kay Summers: From the School of International Service at American University in Washington, this is Big World, where we talk about something in the world that really matters. There are vanishingly few truly universal experiences. One of the most basic of these is eating. We all do it, and we all have really specific ideas about the best food, the tastiest food, the healthiest food, and the guilty pleasures. We also all have cultural associations with how to eat and where to eat, and with whom to eat. It is not surprising that something so universal, yet so individual and culturally specific, would have a place in foreign policy. Today, we're talking about food, but maybe not the way you think. We're discussing culinary diplomacy, gastrodiplomacy, and conflict cuisine.

0:54      KS: I'm Kay Summers, and I'm joined by Johanna Mendelson Forman. Johanna is a professor here at the School of International Service, and a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center, where she heads the Food Security Program. She is an expert and a thought leader about the nexus of food, war, and civic engagement. Johanna, thank you for joining Big World.

1:14      Johanna Mendelson Forman: Thank you, Kay.

1:15      KS: Johanna, some listeners may not think of food as an important part of international affairs, but we know that a big part of foreign policy is the ability to wield soft power, where a country can persuade others to do what it wants without force or coercion, so just to get us started, how do governments use food as a tool for soft power?

1:38      JMF: Well, even before the term "soft power" became part of the international relations vocabulary, culinary diplomacy has been one of the most important diplomatic tools that nations have, and this goes back to ancient times when the Romans were conquering empires for themselves and countries, they even served the losers dinners to win them over, but soft power is really everything short of force, but used for persuasion.

2:07      JMF: Culinary diplomacy, modern culinary diplomacy, the French claim to have started, that is debated by many other countries. But in fact, using the palate, using the way people perceive food, showing the luxury of food, the variety of food, also has a power of persuasion, and the French... Of course, the French court was known for this, but it wasn't the only place that used food this way, it was used throughout Europe, it was used at the Congress of Vienna when they were making the peace in beginning of the 19th century. In fact, the French brought the famous chef Careme to help persuade Nesselrode, the Russian delegate, that he could in fact be persuaded by what is now known and you eat as Nesselrode pie, by offering extravagant desserts and using that as a sweetener.

3:09      JMF: The other thing that's very interesting is that culinary diplomacy was used during the Second World War among the Allies, and many of these famous conferences, from Yalta to Potsdam to Adana, that were attended by President Roosevelt and Stalin and by Winston Churchill, were actually feasts, they were dinners, and the reason it was thought that they used this method was that food became the equalizer in many ways among the Allies, even though everybody had their own agenda. These elaborate meals were so carefully curated in the different countries, and they were also military logistical operations, because you can imagine during World War II, with submarines that were floating around with weapons, the Germans had lots of submarines, that they would have to try and get food to different locations very carefully, so it became both a military operation and a dining experience.

4:11      JMF: And then finally, culinary diplomacy as we know it today, all one has to do is think about state dinners at the White House. These are important tools that our nation uses to show the bounty of our country's agriculture, and they became more and more important, particularly from the time of President Kennedy, when Jacqueline Kennedy, as first lady, hired a French chef to execute them.

4:39      KS: What is culinary diplomacy, and what is gastrodiplomacy, and what are the differences?

4:46      JMF: Well, the term "gastrodiplomacy" is a relatively new term in the food diplomacy vocabulary, but just as we have state-run diplomacy with food, culinary diplomacy, so we have citizen-run diplomacy around food, which we call under the broad umbrella gastrodiplomacy. So what is the difference between the two? Well, let me give you an example. A food truck is an example of gastrodiplomacy. Many of us who live in cities around this country know that there are food trucks for every nationality serving those cuisines.

5:23      JMF: Gastrodiplomacy is also a way of promoting tourism. Many countries seek to brand themselves as food destinations. That's a little hard to do as we live through a COVID pandemic, but still, the use of food as a way of promoting a brand is very important in the private sector's effort to promote food tourism, which is a very big and important part of the hospitality industry.

5:53      JMF: And finally, let me just add one thing about gastrodiplomacy. Private citizens who are involved in food in neighborhoods, in communities, use their food to introduce people who are not familiar with their country with a different cuisine, because we all learn about places that we can't visit through our palates, and that's always been important in our country, and in other countries too.

6:19      KS: Absolutely. So Johanna, food can be used as a diplomatic tool, as you've said, and it can help foster cultural understanding among countries and people within those countries, but unfortunately it's also a weapon of war, so what is the connection between food and war, or to use your term, what is conflict cuisine?

6:40      JMF: Well, that is one of the saddest parts of the story of food, and it's not only a new phenomenon, but the cheapest weapon of war in the 21st century is food, and one only has to look at famines that have been inflicted by man-made efforts. So if you look at what's happening, for example, in Yemen, which has a tremendously horrible conflict that has led to starvation of millions of people, the government and the two factions fighting are withholding the delivery of food, causing child malnutrition and hunger. If we remember what's going on in Syria, at the beginning, those people who were not supportive of the Assad government were denied food by having the troops close off their villages.

7:33      JMF: The use of food as a weapon of war is a violation of international law. This is clear from the Geneva Conventions, which date back of course to the late 19th century, but moreover it is a powerful ability of a state to control a population, and it's not only a state that can control a population. In many countries where we see non-state actors fighting, one of the first things that people do when they come into a community, if they're trying to suppress it, is to steal food, or to withhold it.

8:10      KS: This is a fairly ancient tactic. I mean, this goes back to castles and forts being under siege when the goal was just to starve out the enemy, so this is one of the more ancient forms of conflict, and using it against people who maybe aren't even involved in the conflict.

8:27      JMF: Exactly, and we know from the post-Cold War period that many of these modern internal conflicts were very much disasters when it came to the access to food supply, because if you're in conflict, you can't farm, you can't reap your land, and people who can't farm and reap their land, what do they do? They move, they become migrants. So just as we have the phenomena of climate migration which is going on, we also have migration because food supply is disrupted, and one of the first things you do when you are working in reconstruction of countries, and this is something I worked on for many years at the US Government Office of Transition Initiative, is you try to rebuild the food supplies and give people access to the ability to have something to eat.

9:25      KS: Johanna Mendelson Forman, it's time to Take Five. This is when you, our guest, get to wave a wand and change the world. Specifically, what are the five ways you'd like to see people use food as a tool for activism and social change?

9:39      JMF: First, I'd like to see more women empowered in the community to use their skills in the kitchen for social change. I'd like to see more groups of students coming around the table, because the table is a neutral ground from which we can discuss hard issues, and the table is a new form of secularism. I'd like to see in our community greater engagement of students with the food deserts, and working with those communities to help them educate about food waste, which is very important. And I'd also like to see, on a global level, a greater recognition of the connection between food and climate change.

10:23      KS: Awesome, thank you, that was quite a list.

10:26      KS: Johanna, I said at the outset that you are a thought leader, and to that end, you've created a course that is taught at SIS called Conflict Cuisine: An Introduction to War and Peace Around the Dinner Table. Within that course, how do you use food to teach students about war and peace, diplomacy, and conflict resolution?

10:46      JMF: The course really evolved from my own interest in teaching about how countries come out of war, but one of the blinding flashes of the obvious that comes to people when they're thinking about these issues is that Washington, DC, is a mecca for people who have left conflict countries, and in fact there was a congressman named Wyche Fowler, who eventually became a senator from Georgia, who used to say, "You can always tell where America is at war in Washington by looking at the new restaurants that open."

11:18      JMF: And it may sound funny at this point, but he was really right, that after the Second World War, the United States was still involved in many conflicts, the biggest of course was the Vietnam War, and in 1975 when that war ended, the South Vietnamese who came to the United States and were helped by the US government settled in many parts of the country, but particularly in northern Virginia. So we began to see a proliferation of Vietnamese markets and Vietnamese food vendors, and that was followed by other conflicts.

11:55      JMF: In Afghanistan, if you remember, there was a terrible Soviet invasion in 1979, and we began to see Afghan refugees, and that was another conflict that we saw food in. And of course, if we fast-forward, Washington, DC, has the second-largest population of Ethiopians outside of Addis Ababa, because there was a conflict in Ethiopia when the communists took over there, and in the '80s we saw a large volume of Ethiopians coming to our community. And of course, the Central American wars, the last part of the Cold War, were fought not only as proxy wars in that region, but it was also a force for diasporas coming to Washington, so we have large numbers of El Salvadoreans, Guatemalans, and Nicaraguans.

12:43      JMF: So this really changed the face of food, and how it related to my course was very simple. The people who had come from these countries could tell stories, and stories are very powerful in educating people. How did the conflict impact them, what did they take with them? Many of them only came with their recipe books, or recipes in their heads. How did coming to a new community like Washington, DC, affect their ability to educate people about conflict? Now, I use a strange technique, I actually have students go to restaurants and meet with the owners of these restaurants, and that is something that I think is very important.

13:26      KS: That is, to me, I think the most interesting-sounding part of your class, certainly the one that a lot of people would say, "Wow, I'd like to do that." So you actually take the students out to restaurants, they get to talk to the chef owners-

13:39      JMF: And they get a meal, they get a meal, and I'll tell you, that is probably the highlight, but it's really something that many of these students who come to Washington from all different areas and come to American U, have not tasted an Ethiopian injera, they haven't had a pupusa, they haven't had a banh mi from Vietnamese community, and we also go... For example, we have a very large Vietnamese food center called the Eden Center, and I always do a tour of the Eden Center so the students can go to the markets, and then they wind up meeting some of the vendors and learning about things that they didn't know before, and all of this is a lesson in how your palate can actually be the first entry point into food and a country's history. And of course, there's serious work, they have to write a paper and pick a country I haven't chosen, because we have many other conflicts in the world of which we have residents in Washington.

14:39      KS: Yeah, and you mention some of the countries that we've grown accustomed to seeing here in the DC area, Vietnam, El Salvador, Ethiopia, all these different types of cuisine, that from Afghanistan. What would you say over the last five years has been different? What types of conflict cuisines have you seen in the area that are new?

15:03      JMF: Well, one of the things that evolved from conflict cuisine is a sense that food can be a means rather than an end to achieve a social impact, and what we're seeing, because sadly the refugees coming into the United States have been more limited, is we're seeing people from these communities working to call attention to the plight of their fellow citizens that live in other parts of the world.

15:35      JMF: What we've also seen is how, when there are new refugees, and we certainly have new people coming in, that the community, our students, for example, are working with them, not only to help them learn English or to help them get around the city, but they're also learning how that food becomes a medium of communication when you can't talk. Your hands become the tools of your business, you learn and watch people cook, and it helps break down barriers even when you don't speak someone's language.

16:08      KS: Right. Johanna, the last question that I have is kind of related to the situation that we're in right now. Restaurants have been decimated by the coronavirus pandemic and COVID-19, the most vulnerable restaurants in any economic downturn are always the single owner, standalone, chef-owned restaurants, and COVID-19 has added an additional layer of vulnerability for traditional sit-down restaurants because of social distancing requirements that have limited their capacity. So basically, we all know that McDonald's as a company's going to be just fine, although the employees may not be, but family or chef-owned global cuisine restaurants are having a really hard time, so my question is, do you think that the impact of COVID-19 will be short-term on these cultural ambassadors, or do you fear that we may be looking at a longer-term decimation of restaurant culture in the US?

17:05      JMF: Well, that's a big question, and I think that's the question that the restaurant industry itself is looking at, but I think that everything reinvents itself. After the Black Plague in Europe, we had the Renaissance, and an Italian medical historian pointed to the fact that people formed pods in communities and were able to reinvent and survive, so I'm optimistic that many of these people who are now struggling will come back in a different form or a different way.

17:42      JMF: Washington has a tremendous resilience, and one of the examples I'll give you is... Well, I'll give you two examples. One is a restaurant that opened called Immigrant Foods right near the White House, and that group of people started using different immigrant cuisines to educate people, socially distanced, outside, about the cuisines of immigrants, but also ways to take action, so food and chefs and cooks have become activists.

18:14      JMF: The other example is that in Baltimore, which is one of the cities nearby, and I may take the class there by video camera, is that a group of Syrian and Afghan and other refugees from the Middle East have formed a collective, and what have they been doing? Instead of cooking for the markets, they've been cooking for schools that have had their programs closed down, but yet poor schoolchildren still need a meal or two twice a day, so they've become food kitchens to supply poor and hungry families with food.

18:48      JMF: So within these terrible times, we've seen tremendous resiliency and the ability to restart programs, and that is something I have to get in here, which is called social gastronomy, and social gastronomy is the use of food to do good. Not to consume it alone, but to use it as the social vehicle, and we're seeing it all over Europe, we're seeing it all over the Middle East, we're seeing it in the United States, with the rise of all these restaurants or food kitchens or... That are being run to support refugees in these difficult times.

19:28      KS: I think if there's been one possible plus, in a way, to the coronavirus situation, it's been that it's exposed the level of food insecurity among Americans, and our schoolchildren in particular, in a way that people, I think, had been able to be willfully blind to, and seeing restaurants kind of pick up and stand in the gap there has been very heartwarming and encouraging, to see them try to fill in and make sure that kids who're at risk for food insecurity, and who are generally on government-funded lunch and breakfast, still get those meals.

20:06      JMF: Well, it's tremendously useful and important that the people who have these cooking skills are working to support people in times of crisis. Even in our own Washington area, there's a restaurant that's called Muchas Gracias, "Many thanks" in Spanish, and they've opened up using many of the people who were employed in these restaurants, and serving carry takeaway meals, but they're also creating an ability to support families who have lost their jobs. So it's not the perfect solution, but you hear about this every single day in cities around the United States.

20:43      JMF: And we're right at the end of World Food Day celebrations or observances, World Food Day was the 16th of October, and I think one of the interesting things about World Food Day is that the World Food Programme, the United Nations agency that supports food and feeding around the world, especially in conflict zones, received the Nobel Prize, and that also calls attention to two things. One is that food is very much a part of survival, but it's also a consequence of war, and that the World Food Programme, which is tasked with feeding people around the world who are hungry, is now feeding thousands and thousands of people a day, with a staff of 90,000 around the globe, and it is the only source that exists to help people.

21:35      JMF: So here in the United States where we have kitchens opening up, and chefs coming up and stepping up to this kind of work, gives you some hope that we'll be able to overcome what is a once-in-a-century experience, and if I have students, I'm going to do this all virtually in the spring, who come away understanding the power of food to resolve disputes, to create community activism, to create more inclusion and social change, we will have succeeded very much in creating what we need in food justice.

22:11      KS: Johanna Mendelson Forman, thank you for joining Big World and kind of taking us through how food is not just a universal need, it's a vector for social change, for diplomacy, for justice. It's been a treat to speak with you.

22:25      JMF: Thank you, Kay, for having me, and I look forward to talking further about this.

22:29      KS: Big World is a production of the School of International Service at American University. Our podcast is available on our website, on iTunes, Spotify, and wherever else you listen to podcasts. If you leave us a good rating or review, it'll be as great as your mom fixing both pumpkin pie and pecan pie for Thanksgiving. Our theme music is "It Was Just Cold" by Andrew Codeman. Until next time.

Episode Guest

Johanna Mendelson-Forman,
adjunct professor, SIS

Stay up-to-date

Be the first to hear our new episodes by subscribing on Apple Podcasts.

Like what you hear? Be sure to leave us a review!

Subscribe Now