I love to eat. The sheer joy of sinking my teeth into steaming hot, homemade chicken enchiladas, or the mouth-watering sensation of biting into crispy corn tortilla chips dipped into fresh ceviche brings an indescribable happiness to my heart, rivaled only by my love for family and my morbidly obese cat, Marley.
And apparently I’m not alone. It turns out that people throughout the world also love to eat, especially the world’s biggest movers and shakers. Recognizing the power of food in shaping international trade and politics, governments across the globe have begun to invest in ‘culinary diplomacy,’ a tactic defined by my friend and resident expert, Sam Chapple-Sokol, as ‘the use of food and cuisine as instruments to create cross-cultural understanding in the hopes of improving interactions and cooperation.’ It reflects a recognition that food can literally bring people to the table.
Culinary diplomacy is nothing new. From the Silk Road to the French Revolution, the meals served to dignitaries, Heads of State and military leaders have often doubled as instruments for negotiations, precursors to peace, or harbingers of war. Even today, the amount of time, effort, preparation and money that goes into conceptualizing and serving a Head of State is astounding. For instance, a White House chef was once tasked with crafting a menu for visiting Japanese dignitaries. Rather than highlighting American cuisine or attempting to cook a traditional Japanese meal, the chef sought to coalesce elements from both cultures in one dish. By infusing Idaho russet potatoes with a wasabi filling, the chef subtly demonstrated respect for guests of honor and their homeland while also showcasing an American dinner staple. This is culinary diplomacy in action.
But not everyone is a Head of State boasting a sophisticated palate. For most people in the world today, food is a necessity of life, not a medium of diplomatic strategery. Yet breaking bread remains a powerful tool for cultural exchange and mutual understanding regardless of one’s income bracket or background. When we share a meal with others we inadvertently let our guards down and accept the vulnerability that accompanies the visceral act of eating. The use of food as a means of cultural exchange at the grassroots, people-to-people level is what I, and other scholars, refer to as gastrodiplomacy.
Winning the hearts and minds of people through their tummies is a popular sentiment in Ireland. Although unbeknownst to most, many Irish people engage in gastrodiplomacy each and every day. At Ulster University, where I study conflict and human rights law, I introduced the theory behind the concept of gastrodiplomacy to many of my friends in the international student department as well as local Irish students. It didn’t take much to sell the idea of a club that brings friends together over food. Together we founded the university’s first ‘Gastrodiplomacy Society’ last Fall and to date, we have hosted events that have exposed students to cuisine from countries like Romania, Poland, Germany, Brazil, the United States, India, and even Finland! For Mardi Gras, we asked students to bring the foods they typically eat on Fat Tuesday or for Carnival. Despite being a new society, we had over 50 people at our event!
In Northern Ireland, discussing the legacy of the Troubles is fraught with difficulties. This is still a country healing from the ravages of conflict, with the Commission for Victims and Survivors recently releasing a report that an estimated 500,000 people were directly affected by the thirty-years of brutal violence. In a country with 1.8 million people, that’s a significant segment of the population! However, during my short time here I have been able to forge friendships and engage in honest dialogue with individuals from all ends of the political and social spectrum, mostly because, well, I like to eat. Sharing a drink of whiskey with PSNI officers at a pub in Carrickfergus and striking up a conversation with the local baker at Central Station who feeds my sausage roll addiction has taught me more about Irish society than any lecture, conference or reading assignment. By taking the time to sit down for a meal with a friend’s family in Draperstown after feeding their newborn sheep and baby calves, I gained a new appreciation for the phrase ‘from farm to fork.’ Yet it has been precisely during such moments — while indulging in a savory roast beef from a cow raised right on their farm! — that I truly gained insight into the values and lived experiences of people in rural Northern Ireland. Over these meals, stories of the past seamlessly flow into the present, provoking greater understanding, opportunities for healing and mutual trust. This is the power (and beauty) of gastrodiplomacy!
Talk about getting a flavor for a country!