Food misunderstandings are a plenty even within the same country. While recently touring a farm in Northern California, I was served a boiled artichoke. As a Southerner, who is more accustomed to eating fried okra, I stared at the purple pinecone for a while and then asked how I should eat it. Perhaps a more inclusive example would be for you to think back to the first time you cooked with a close friend. At that time, you were exposed to the cultural kitchen habits of that particular individual.
Although there are many differences in how food is prepared and consumed, the questions that arise from those differences such as ‘Why do you add this ingredient instead of this one?’ are the beginnings of cultural understanding through displaying interest and building a higher tolerance for ambiguity. During these discussions, one is also experiencing culinary diplomacy.
Culinary diplomacy is an exchange between government-to-government or citizen-to-citizen where food is the catalyst for interaction. State dinners would be an example of government-to-government culinary diplomacy. The United States’ Diplomatic Culinary Partnership, where members of the American Chef Corps represent the United States at events in the U.S. and abroad, would be an example of citizens interacting with other citizens over food.
For the past six months, my co-host, Sam Chapple-Sokol, and I have worked to elaborate the definition of culinary diplomacy through our bi-monthly podcast entitled The Culinary Citizen, where practitioners in the field talk about their projects using food as a tool for intercultural communication and conflict resolution. We have interviewed academics whose cookbooks are helping expand the knowledge of a region and nonprofit leaders assisting refugees maintain and reinvent their identities through food.
Much to the dismay of unsuspecting interviewees, the final question to each episode is asking what is his or her universal truth about food. Most often, respondents will answer with “food is one of humanity’s basic needs; therefore, it is the great connector.” Although surprisingly, someone once answered “chocolate.”
Whether your gastronomic truth is more esoteric or unique, next time you engage with a culinary setting unlike the one with which you are familiar, begin asking questions in order to develop your proficiency in that distinct culture’s kitchen.
Learn more about The Culinary Citizen.
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