This is the first post in a semi-regular series called Culinary Diplomacy. Sam Chapple-Sokol, a culinary diplomat, defines Culinary Diplomacy as “the use of food and cuisine as an instrument to create cross-cultural understanding in the hopes of improving interactions and cooperation.” Sam was involved in the U.S. State Department’s Diplomatic Culinary Partnership as an organizer for the Club of Chefs of Heads of State held in the U.S. in 2013. He, and a gentleman by the name of Paul Rockower (a gastronomist) are responsible for introducing me to the field.
At its best, food is about rituals and beliefs being passed on from generation to generation. People in places where there is a strong food culture (like Italy or Vietnam) identify with who they are and what they are greatly through food.
For last summer’s Kneading Conference, I organized the panel “Culinary Diplomacy: Culture Defined Around the Table.” Through that process I learned a lot more about what Culinary Diplomacy means to different people – how food and drink have shaped some people’s perceptions of the world and defined how they look at foreign cultures.
(I hope to interview Sam and Paul, and each of the panelists from that KC event for this series).
You might think with a last name like “Kitchens” I know something about food. I do, but man is the road of learning long – and tasty – and I have miles and miles to travel.
Growing up my father traveled a lot to Southeast Asia and the Middle East. He brought his love of the dishes he tried home and thus I grew up eating a lot of Asian and Lebanese food. Somewhere along the way he introduced me to Ethiopian food, a favorite – do you know how amazing it is how few people in America realize what an extraordinary food culture there is Ethiopia?? DE-licious! Anyhow, I have always been aware of the beauty of different cultures, because – most likely – of food.
When you travel you realize how intimately related history, geography, and food are.
When I first visited Kinshasa and Kisangani in the Democratic Republic of Congo, two urbanized areas along the Congo River, I discovered them through food…
Last spring sitting close to the dirt, no more than 20 meters from the Congo River, sharing a home cooked meal with a Congolese fisherman I learned details about the region’s history you don’t find in news articles and books. I didn’t have an agenda, I was just curious about his life and about the food his wife was preparing. The yellow of the plantains, the crimson red palm oil in the stew, his hands, her strong arms, the glow of pride and love in his eyes when he looked at his wife and youngest son. I was noticing everything around me and sharing in an extraordinarily unique and intimate experience created around eating.
When his wife lowered a basin of water and handed me a bar of soap I used it, passed it on, and washed my hands – wiping the water off on my pants. I followed the others, tearing off a piece of the thick chewy yellow bread and scooping up mouthfuls of the rich fish stew.
He saw my sincerity and welcomed my interest and let me “in” responding frankly to my questions. We were simply having a conversation while the meal was prepared. An everyday thing that takes place everywhere. I learned more about the region and his tribe in those hours than I could ever have imagined. The meal we ate with out hands was rich and unforgettable.