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Culture Connections- Edible Diplomacy

November 22, 2012

by Lauren Coffaro

Culture Connections is a series of articles which explore the unique opportunities, interests, challenges, and questions of international participants living in the U.S. on J-1 Intern/Trainee and J-1 Work & Travel programs.

After the end of the fall harvest in 1621, 53 European settlers in the Plymouth Plantation in what is now known as New England,  and 90 Native Americans, who had lived in the region for generations, gathered together for three days of celebration and feasts.  This peaceful and joyous occasion is what many Americans refer to as the first Thanksgiving.  It became one of the first official holidays of the United States of America shortly after the country’s founding when it was announced by George Washington on October 3, 1789.  In this way, the tradition of celebrating commonalities over food is woven into the fabric of our society since its creation.

Turkey, a bird native to North America, is commonly eaten at Thanksgiving feasts. Photo licensed under Creative Commons.

In our present-day world of diverse cultures and people, it remains true that there is a fundamental experience that all humans share: eating.  Eating is a central part of the day-to-day human experience, and food is a reflection of that experience in communities not only across the U.S., but across borders. In cross-cultural interactions where spoken words aren’t understood and physical cues are distinct, sharing a meal can unite people and create positive memories.

The U.S. Department of State recognized the potential of culinary diplomacy in 2012 with the creation of their first ever American Chefs Corp.  Consisting of more than 80 chefs from around the United States, the goal of the corp is to promote U.S. cooking and agriculture abroad by cooking meals, giving speeches, writing articles, and visiting foreign chefs and civilians on a global tour.  “Factoring in others’ tastes, ceremonies and values is an overlooked and powerful part of diplomacy,” Hilary Clinton wrote to The Washington Post, adding that meals she shares abroad are important to fostering strong diplomatic bonds.

The American Chef’s Corp is not the first program overseen by the U.S. Department of State where culinary cultural exchange is the focus. Each year, young aspiring chefs and restaurateurs train in the United States on the J-1 Intern and Trainee programs.  From capstone internships to complete their degrees to mid-career training to develop new skills, international participants learn the ins and outs of the competitive and cutting-edge U.S. culinary scene and bring what they learn back to their home country.

Culinary cultural exchange also takes place outside of the kitchen.  Participants from all J-1 exchange visitor programs make great memories at the dinner table.  From trips to unique restaurants to potlucks and, yes, even fast food, international participants on J-1 exchange programs learn about the U.S. through their taste buds.  Take Tareq, a university student in Jordan who participated on the J-1 Work and Travel program in summer 2012.  “My favorite food is American BBQ!” wrote Tareq when asked about some of his best memories in the U.S.  “And my favorite breakfast is hotcakes…the best dessert is apple pie.  And I can’t forget marshmallow nights,” he recalled, referencing making s’mores by the fire with friends.

The table is set for the Pearl of the Orient dinner put on by J-1 Interns from the Philippines to share their culinary traditions in the U.S. Photo licensed under Creative Commons.

As with any true exchange, the excitement runs both ways.  International exchange participants often bring tastes from around the world to their friends in the U.S. by sharing their favorite dishes from their home countries.  J-1 Intern Nick from the Philippines organized a food and dance extravaganza called “Pearl of the Orient” at his host organization, inviting friends and coworkers to share celebrate the things he loved most about his home country.  After the night was over, residents in the small North Carolina town had lingering tastes and fond memories of a culture halfway around the globe.

In 1621, the Pilgrims and Native Americans laid the groundwork for a rich future of promoting peace through food.  Thanksgiving is one of America’s most famous successes of culinary diplomacy, so much so that it has remained a tradition for nearly 400 years.  No matter how communication, transportation, or utensils change in the future, eating will continue to unite us all.

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