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Conflict Over Conflict Kitchen: When Restaurants Get Death Threats

November 19, 2014

The early part of this month was a tough one for Conflict Kitchen, an (in)famous Pittsburgh restaurant/art project. The restaurant was closed over the course of several days after receiving a letter containing death threats. The restaurant has since reopened, but on top of that, a one-time sponsor, the Heinz Endowment, has publicly distanced themselves from the restaurant.

If you’re unfamiliar with Conflict Kitchen, you can read more about them here on their website, but the whole point is that they serve a menu that changes from time to time, highlighting food from a country that the U.S. is currently in conflict with. The food’s packaging contains excerpts from interviews with people from the country in question. At the heart of the current controversy? The restaurant is now serving Palestinian food and, as could probably be anticipated by anyone who’s paid like a split second of attention to international politics in the past several decades, the wrappers (which you really ought to read in their totality) contain some quotes by Palestinians speaking less than favorably about their country’s current relationship with Israel. Although the wrappers also contain Palestinians’ comments on several other topics including food, religion, dating, and their own government, the restaurant and wrappers have been criticized by conservative media outlets as “anti-Israel propaganda” and even as “anti-U.S.” by the geniuses over at Breitbart.

But these critiques miss some hugely important rhetorical distinctions, and grossly misapprehend how significant sharing food can be.

Let’s talk about these things in turn. From a rhetorical perspective, there’s a huge distinction between presentation and endorsement. We reference things other people have said all the time, for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes we agree with these things, sometimes we don’t, sometimes we’re merely recounting them for the sake of reportage, and you can often tell our stance on a quote from the language we use to introduce or describe it. For instance, if we’re recounting a conversation with someone, and we say that they “proved” a point, that’s a lot different than saying they “claimed” or “argued” or “stupidly tried to suggest” it. I mean, just above, I quoted the “geniuses at Breitbart,” but you were probably able to guess from the surrounding language that I neither agree with the quote nor think they’re actual geniuses.

So, let’s look at Conflict Kitchen’s wrappers. The central block of explanatory text says each section of interview quotes “highlight[s] the perspectives of multiple people.” That’s a pretty neutral statement—while we often think it’s a good thing to hear the perspectives of lots of people, nothing in that text indicates that Conflict Kitchen, as an organization, necessarily agrees with or endorses those perspectives.

Secondly, Conflict Kitchen’s entire mission revolves around an incredibly important fact about food. The whole point of the project is to promote tolerance and understanding. In other words, they’re not trying to take a side opposite the U.S. in the titular conflicts, they’re trying to do their part to end the conflicts altogether. And sharing food is a great place to start.

In all cultures the world over, food is a source of comfort, a reason to gather with friends and loved ones, and a great unifying factor. There’s a reason that major life events and milestones—birthdays, graduations, promotions, weddings, even funerals—often involve sharing food with loved ones. We all eat, we all do so within culturally specific guidelines about what to eat, and we feel affinity with people who eat like we do. We also notice the differences between ourselves and people who eat differently. So, understanding and sharing in a people’s food and traditions surrounding meals are two small but hardly insignificant steps towards erasing that difference. Realizing that people across the globe are eating and enjoying the same thing you are now trying for the first time is humbling, and if you’re open to learning about someone’s food, you’re that much more likely to be open to learning more about them. And learning about their food is already learning about them. Not to sound all new agey, but food, in short, can be a transcendent experience. Trying new foods isn’t going to, like, eliminate war or anything, but it’s a lot harder to hate people when they’ve invented something as goddamn delicious as hummus.

Taken together, the combination of food and words put out by Conflict Kitchen is an incredibly powerful statement. It serves to remind us that people are people, no matter where they are in the globe. They shop. They date. They marry. They share things with guests and friends. They wrestle with questions about the role of religion in public life. They feel patriotic towards their homeland. They are often confused or frustrated or made to feel marginalized by the actions of their government and governments worldwide. And when they get hungry, they eat. The elegant simplicity of this idea is part of why Conflict Kitchen has become such a popular staple here in Pittsburgh. Because the whole point isn’t to take Palestine’s side (or North Korea’s, or Afghanistan’s, or America’s, or anywhere else’s), it’s to encourage us to celebrate our shared humanity and to get past the idea of sides altogether. And it breaks my heart to see that wonderful message misunderstood.

If you want to know more:

  • The unifying power of food culture is an idea that has been written about at length by tons of people—scholars, journalists, activists, cultural critics—for a bunch of different reasons. People like Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Claude Fischler in “Food, Self, and Identity” point out the cultural significance of food to criticize the modern food industry. Jonathan Safran Foer talks about it in Eating Animals to encourage us to rethink our relationship with meat. In Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser reflects on how fast food (and, by extension, our whole diet), for better or worse, represents a prioritization of some values over others. Food studies is a huge chunk of my current research, so if you’re interested and want more recommendations, please ask!
  • My point about using contextualizing language to determine a speaker’s attitude towards a quote comes from J.R. Martin and P.R.R. White’s The Language of Evaluation: Appraisal in English. In their chapter on intertextuality (in short, the way that texts/speech/etc. references other texts/speech/etc.), they note that we can reference other discourse (through quotes or other, less direct means) in such a way that either invites further perspectives or implicitly rejects them, and that we do so in such a way that positions us on a spectrum between outright distance/disavowal and endorsement of the discourse we’re referencing. Simply put, merely quoting someone to show their perspective is far from endorsing their ideas. A lot of criticism of Conflict Kitchen’s menu seems to stem from the fact that they also don’t represent the Israeli side, but c’mon. They’re not serving Israeli food. If they were, they’d quote all sorts of Israelis. Indeed, they’d quote nothing but. This is a pretty simple point to grasp, so arguing that they need to represent the perspectives of people not in the countries they’re serving food from indicates any or all of the following things: stupidity, stubbornness, or a decision to ignore Conflict Kitchen’s “About” page.
  • I don’t want my discussion of intertextuality above to skirt the issue of censorship and/or imply that the only reason Conflict Kitchen’s wrappers are okay is because they’re not actually advocating a position critical of Israel. Even if that weren’t the case, regardless of what the wrappers said, we’ve got a pretty longstanding tradition here in America of making sure that ideas, even controversial ones (whether or not we like them), are constitutionally protected. Or, as Walter Sobchak would put it whilst enjoying his coffee, the Supreme Court has roundly rejected prior restraint. I would hope that as civilized goddamn human beings we could all recognize that no one’s opinions on the horrible mess that is the Israel/Palestine conflict warrant death threats—one of the few UNprotected forms of speech, something we’ve legally decided is even worse when sent through the mail.
6 Comments leave one →
  1. November 20, 2014 10:15 am

    Very well said. As someone who lives near Pittsburgh and has been to Conflict Kitchen this was terrible to see. Another one of the goals of conflict kitchen is to also promote conversation about countries we are in conflict with; to show that they are people just like us. Their might people who are extreme in their views, just like we have here (i.e. Westboro Baptist Church), but there are people who just like us, have regular lives, working, dating, like hanging out with friends etc. Part of the point is to put a human face on those we are in conflict with instead of dehumanizing and not talking about them, which is what tends to happen here.

    • Matt Zebrowski permalink*
      November 21, 2014 12:46 pm

      Yes, exactly, and I think that food is a great place to start with that humanizing influence. It’s a great thing to think about how “people are people” everywhere, even as an abstract concept. But I think sharing in customs like food really drives that home even more. Your comment makes me think of a crazy thought experiment: what if people abroad thought we were all like the WBC? What would we want the wrappers to say about America if a restaurant like this existed in another part of the world?

      Thanks a ton for your readership and your comment!

  2. November 20, 2014 10:27 am

    FYI…your first two links don’t seem to work. Maybe it’s just me.

    • Matt Zebrowski permalink*
      November 21, 2014 12:43 pm

      Thanks Swarn, I checked it out and they work on my computer, though. Are you perhaps over your free quota for Post-Gazette articles for the month? Is anyone else having this issue?

      • November 21, 2014 12:47 pm

        If I am over my quota, it wasn’t intentional. Maybe that’s the problem though. Not a big deal… Just in case it was an issue on your end I just wanted to make sure you knew. Cheers, Swarn

      • Matt Zebrowski permalink*
        November 21, 2014 12:50 pm

        Yeah, I’m not sure what their quota is, but it’s pretty low. I reached it writing this article even! Thanks a ton for the heads up, though, and I’m sorry you can’t see them! Basically, though, it seems like you’re already familiar with what they say anyway–restaurant closed down due to death threats, restaurant is controversial with Heinz Endowment and certain Jewish organizations, restaurant reopened last week.

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