Saturday, February 28, 2009

Kitchen diplomacy

I've been reading Honeymoon in Tehran and marveling at the conditions in Iran from an Iranian expatriate's point of view. The Iranian is a U.S. citizen and has been since her parents came to America on vacation just before the Shah was deposed and ended up settling in California. Azadeh Moaveni is a journalist working for Time and has been a correspondent to Iran since 1999. She lived for two years in Iran because she fell in love and married an Iranian whose family owned a textile manufacturing firm and her fiancé was working in the family business and going to university. The book covers the year or so before the marriage and two years after the marriage before she and her husband emigrated to Britain.

While an inside view of Iranian politics and society is interesting, and at times quite informative, it is the food that gave me an idea for a new kind of diplomacy. Cowboy diplomacy didn't work and shuttle diplomacy was eventually a failure, but kitchen diplomacy might be just the thing to break down the walls between religious and political ideologies and make it possible for people to find common ground.

When we understand a region's foods and methods of cooking, we can begin to understand the forces that create and maintain a society. Trace the origin of a food through any country and you will find more similarities than differences and begin to get an appreciation of the ingenuity and creativity that define a people regardless of their origins. Food can also help to trace the origin of race and show the economic health or disease of a country and its people. Trace the origin of any food brought overland or over the sea from distant lands and you will find its relationship to the knowledge, clothing, religion and government of any civilization, its rise, growth and eventually decline.

People show a different face when discussing their favorite dishes and the comfort food of their childhood. It's a softer, nostalgic face that shines with memory and delight. The politics of food are simple. Understand that and the key to any country's heart is yours for the taking.

I propose that instead of negotiations in conference rooms and hotels and the offices of officials, negotiations be carried on in kitchens where world leaders can cook and share their favorite foods. It would, of course, require an open mind to stomach some national dishes, but an open mind is a good thing in negotiations. I've also found that people are less violent and less likely to be violent when their stomachs are full. Wars are conducted on short rations or empty stomachs, which make combatants much more ferocious and blood thirsty. Anyone who has been on a diet can tell you that. Deprive people of their favorite foods and ration what little food is available and nastiness always ensues.

Preparing food in a kitchen full of knifes, fire and heavy pots and pans will also foster a sense of trust. It's difficult to prepare food if you hide all the heavy and sharp equipment and inevitably violence will follow.

Kitchen diplomacy is a sort of stone soup, as described in Grimm's Fairy Tales. Start with a big pot of water heating over a fire and add one stone. It's not very nutritious. If everyone adds a little of what they have to the pot, soon everyone will be feasting on a delectable stew that will leave them fully sated and unwilling (and unable if they're full enough) to fight. Add a bit of wine and the soporific and calming effects of a good meal and everyone becomes more tractable and willing to negotiate. Besides, it's just plain rude and bad manners to shed blood at the dinner table. Even Hannibal Lecter knew that.

What's a few roasted termites or a dish of cold monkey brains between allies when the fate of the world hangs in the balance, especially when we're in no danger of running out of monkey brains any time soon?

That is all. Disperse.

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