Great street food is to be had from a takeout window in Pittsburgh. You even get something unexpected thrown in: enlightenment about international conflicts. Conflict Kitchen is an experiment in public art and interaction by Jon Rubin, assistant professor of art at Carnegie Mellon University, and others.
Lynne Rossetto Kasper: What is this all about?
Jon Rubin: Conflict Kitchen is a little takeout restaurant that we run in Pittsburgh that only sells food from countries that the U.S. is in conflict with. We rotate the countries every 6 months or when a different sort of conflict arises.
In our city, this is a chance to create an ethnic and cultural diversity that wasn’t there prior. Certainly the way in which many people are introduced to cultures that they might not be familiar with is when an immigrant community opens a restaurant in their town.
Besides that as the introduction to a culture, we are also interested in creating a space in the public where people can have a conversation about politics, which is something that Americans aren’t very comfortable doing. Food creates that space of comfort; we find that we attract people who might not ordinarily come to a political march, read leaflets or even go to a community meeting around the specific issue, but who would come out for food.
LRK: How does that work? Do I come up to the window and buy some food and somebody hands me a leaflet?
JR: Actually, what happens is you come up to our window, and our staff are all trained mostly as great conversationalists. That’s the type of people we hire -- people who are really interested in the topic at hand, who are willing to talk about politics with absolutely anyone and who are knowledgeable, though we don’t present ourselves as absolute experts.
We ask people: What do you know about Iran? What do you know about what is going on in Afghanistan? What do you know about Afghans? We tell them about the food that we are serving, which is usually somewhat of an anomaly to the Pittsburgh landscape. Then a relatively organic conversation starts about what do people in Afghanistan think about what is going on?
One of the ways that we address that is we present the food with a custom-designed wrapper that is covered with interviews that we have done with people in Afghanistan as well as local Afghans in Pittsburgh. Our hope is that this becomes an introduction to a much more complex and nuanced understanding of what is going on in Afghan culture and Afghan life.
LRK: So the wrapper is the message?
JR: The wrapper is the message and it’s talking about a lot of things. We interview people on topics -- say, in Iran -- from the Green Revolution to the Iranian Revolution to tea to women’s rights to music. We have Iranians telling us their viewpoints; we have a whole section on Israel and Iranians’ views on Israel or the U.S. Often these perspectives contradict each other, much like everyone’s perspectives do.
There is no party line from us or from the people who we are interviewing. It’s important to us that we are not presenting any specific ideology. Our hope is not to simplify the debate, but to complicate the discussion and in essence humanize the people who live under the policies of a regime that they might or might not agree with.
LRK: Just out of curiosity, what would my lunch be inside that wrap?
JR: For example, we served Venezuelan food and had quite a bit of discussion about Hugo Chavez. We served Venezuelan arepas, which are grilled corn cakes with different types of filling. We serve street food from different types of countries; we serve foods that are the most delicious and ubiquitous and end up in a variety of places.
Arepas are very common food throughout Venezuela and Columbia. We served it with four different types of filling: chicken salad, queso, caraotas, and dominó, which is a mixture of the caraotas and anything else. [Ed. note: Find Conflict Kitchen’s recipe for arepas here.]
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