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The military-takeout complex: An interview with Conflict Kitchen

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Conflict Kitchen is a restaurant in Pittsburgh that only serves food from countries the U.S. is in conflict with. Founded by artists Jon Rubin and Dawn Weleski in 2010, so far Conflict Kitchen has served up takeout dishes from Iran, Venezuela, Cuba, North Korea and now Afghanistan. I caught up with Jon Rubin by phone to talk about the restaurant that married food with politics.

Christina Turner: Where did the idea for Conflict Kitchen come from?

Jon Rubin: The project came about because of what we felt was absent from the landscape in Pittsburgh, specifically the lack of cultural and ethnic diversity within the city. Oftentimes, one of the ways in which communities and expats introduce themselves into an American city is by opening restaurants. We're a small city and the population of expats from Afghanistan or Venezuela or Cuba that are living in Pittsburgh is very small, so it's not likely that they're going to open restaurants. So what we thought is that we could open those restaurants and use them as an opportunity to not only bring that cuisine to the culture of the city, but also to start a very specific conversation about politics and conflict that is particular to U.S. relations worldwide.

We recognized that food was a very basic device that appeals to a broad range of people regardless of ideology, and that by functioning as a restaurant we were capable of engaging people who might not come, say, to an academic conference or a political rally or a cultural discussion group. Then we have the capacity once they arrive to present them with information that is more than the food itself. So that seems to be a really interesting bait and switch device that we're capable of employing. The core mission of our project is to have a space in our city that's open for political discussions and catalyzes curiosity about countries and people who live very far away.

CT: Why conflict, though? If your goal is cultural diversity, then why enlist conflict as a criterion for your restaurant?

JR: We start from a crisis point. Some conflicts are more obvious than others. In Afghanistan, for instance, we obviously still have military troops. A crisis point is any point in which we're sending over troops or we're engaged in covert, or even overt, actions within a country. It's a symptom of something that has gone wrong between the United States and that country. It's looking at this symptom as a starting point, but what happens is that's usually the end point for most discussions that you might see in the media.

We're interested in asking: what's the culture that lies beneath this crisis? What are the dynamics that we might not be aware of, whether it's how people are living in Afghanistan and what the impact of our presence there has created in the minds of Afghans, or what Afghans say here in the United States think about the U.S. involvement there. And what is the historical and contemporary culture that we might be engaged with? When we [the U.S.] go and take actions abroad the ramifications of those actions play out against the context of the culture of that country before we even arrive. Oftentimes, I think folks in the US don't know that context so they see our actions in isolation. Sometimes you frankly don't know the cuisines from that part of the world. How does that start a story of place that is not just based on an American perspective? 

With Afghanistan, our goal has been to present a variety of viewpoints and to complicate the narrative instead of simplifying it. To not base people's perceptions on Afghanistan around troop movements or suicide bombings but to hopefully look at the incredibly complicated landscape that exists there.

CT: How do you decide on the food for each new version of your restaurant? What goes in to the process of choosing a menu?

JR: We have a chef, Robert Sayre, who develops all the recipes. Sometimes we travel, so we went to Cuba and developed most of the recipes by cooking with folks down there. You're trying to figure out the nuance and stories behind the cuisines. We were recently in South Korea where we developed our menu with North Korean defectors. We're going to Palestine in about a month to develop recipes there. Other times Robert is starting from cookbooks and then we're essentially taste-testing with the local expat communities here in Pittsburgh. We recognize that there is no such thing as "right" [version of a dish]. Authenticity is a slippery term because everyone has a version, right? Which is kind of the beauty of cooking.

CT: Who comes to your restaurant?

JR: We now have followers or fans who try to come to every version that we do. They really look forward to the printed materials and interviews that we hand out. We're featuring a local Afghan who lives in Pittsburgh who's shared a whole bunch of thoughts on a variety of topics and we've printed those onto the boxes that your food comes in. Then we'll shift to some citizen journalists in Kabul. Then there are the folks who just really like the Kabuli Pulow that we sell.

CT: Your next version will be Palestine, coming up next fall. Tell me about what you have planned for that? 

JR: I'm Jewish -- I'm a non-observant Jew -- so I've grown up with a narrative around Israel and Palestine and Palestinians. We are [located] nearby a very large Jewish community. I've had some casual conversations with people that have lead me to believe that they're not entirely comfortable with us presenting a more nuanced, humanitarian perspective on the Palestinian people. That said, we actually have a lot of Jewish food that has a kind of European, Middle Eastern background to it that people are already eating. So the food might be more familiar to a larger population here.

We're also interested in hearing different viewpoints. Now when we're going [to Palestine], we're going to be hanging out, almost exclusively, with Palestinians. Our goal is not necessarily to get the Jewish perspective. I think the Jewish perspective is well represented globally and in our community. One of the issues people will say is, well, we're not in conflict with Palestinians. Or, there is no such thing as Palestine. There's no country named Palestine. Those are really two very interesting questions that may be the starting point for people.

I think it's pretty clear [the U.S. is] the primary supporter of the State of Israel, and that Israel is in very serious long-term conflict with the Palestinian people. It's very hard to say that we're not in either direct or proxy conflict with Palestinian people.  But I think even those very basic questions are a good starting point for a kind of curiosity for our customers -- something that might lead to a conversation that they might not normally be having.

CT: Do you have any particular goals in mind for what you want to come out of the conversations that you have in the space when you start a new version?

JR: The larger goal is to essentially create a more curious and informed local population here in Pittsburgh, in the hopes that they come away from the experience of the restaurant feeling like they want to do more research or look underneath the surface of the headlines that they're reading. Hopefully the by-product is their seeking to make more informed decisions about their elected officials. I think one of the things about the U.S. is that we're just not incredibly introspective country, by and large. There aren’t a lot of spaces on the street where people are in the public squares, where people are getting together and debating and discussing.

CT: What's in store after Palestine?

JR: Who knows? It seems like there could be a Russian Conflict Kitchen coming up.

Image: Conflict Kitchen

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