Talking Politics with Strangers

**Image Caption: At the Skype dinner between Pittsburgh and Tehran. 
Courtesy: Jon Rubin.**
 

Talking Politics with Strangers: Amber Landgraff in conversation with Pittsburgh Pennsylvania’s Conflict Kitchen

Pittsburgh Pennsylvania is currently host to two restaurants that offer customers more than a simple meal. Part small business, part art project, these restaurants attempt to engage with the local Pittsburgh community using food as a hook to get people in the door. The Waffle Shop produces and broadcasts a live-streaming talk show with its customers and operates as an eatery, a classroom for students from Carnegie Mellon University, and a TV production studio. Customers are invited to come in, order waffles, watch the filming of the talk show, and, if they are interested, take part. The content of the show is determined by the customers and covers a variety of topics as they interview each other about their unique opinions and perspectives. Watching the highlight reel on the Waffle Shop website (www.waffleshop.org), I saw everything from a conversation about the ethnic diversity of Pittsburgh to an interview with a 13-year-old author, a poetry reading, and a conversation about monopoly etiquette.

Following the success of The Waffle Shop, its creators, Jon Rubin and Dawn Weleski, were interested in coming up with other ways to engage with the community that uses it. What they came up with was Conflict Kitchen, a take-out restaurant that serves food from places that the United States is currently engaged in conflict with. The Conflict Kitchen uses food as a way of starting a dialogue that goes beyond what people commonly see about countries in conflict with the US in the mainstream media. It functions as a take-out window, a research lab, a site for political dialogue, and a performance space. Still in its first iteration, Conflict Kitchen took on the conflict between the US and Iran, interviewing Iranian-Americans and Iranians living in Iran about everything from their daily lives to what the conflict looks like inside the country. I spoke with Dawn Weleski and Jon Rubin about their motivation for starting the take-out restaurant, the local community’

s response, their surprise over the sustainability of the project as an actual restaurant, and where they see the project growing from here.

Amber Landgraff: What was your motivation behind starting Conflict Kitchen? How did the two of you come together to work on the project?

Jon: Dawn and I run a space called The Waffle Shop that was actually created out of a class that I teach called the Storefront Project, which uses vacant spaces throughout the city as project sites for developing experimental public projects in the city. The Waffle Shop space is book ended by two different music venues and bars and initially we functioned by coaxing those patrons into becoming our very late night audience and participants. The shop itself is a working waffle restaurant that also produces a live streaming talk show with its customers. The food essentially functions as way of luring people in and keeping them there as we create our productions collaboratively with our audience. We stream it all live online and archive some of the best stuff on our website. The talk show functions as a platform for people of all walks of life to come together and engage in public conversation about pretty much anything. We often provide a host, who anyone can come up and talk to, but at this point we have people from throughout the city working with us to produce their own spin-off talk shows. It’s like amateur dinner theatre meets amateur TV. We’re always trying to look for new ways to engage the people who are coming to the shop or the surrounding businesses. The Waffle Shop’

s kitchen has a side door that faces a busy street and we often thought about how we might start another business out of this kitchen door, activating this available space.

Amber: How did that question lead to the creation of a take-out restaurant?

Dawn: Actually there was a guy that started selling hot dogs next to our kitchen door. It was good competitive stimulus for us to think about how we could use the kitchen door as a second business and a new form of social engagement. Being that the door was to our kitchen, we immediately thought of creating a to-go window. We didn’t want to sell waffles because that would defeat the purpose of getting people to walk into The Waffle Shop, so we started naming the kinds of cuisine we would like to see in this city that don’

t currently exist. There are no restaurants that serve Afghan cuisine in Pittsburgh, no Persian restaurants, or Cuban cuisine. After we started naming some of these places, we realized that they happened to be countries that the US government is maintaining some sort of conflict with. And, since we wanted to try to create some sort of culinary diversity within Pittsburgh, we asked ourselves, what if our restaurant always went out of business so we could highlight and engage with a lot of different countries and cuisines?

Jon: It may not be a very smart business strategy but we felt it was actually an important strategy to change the restaurant in order to hold lots of different conversations based on what people in Pittsburgh might not know, not only culinarily, but culturally and politically. We felt, much like in The Waffle Shop, the food could be an entry point into a conversation that people might not normally be comfortable having in public, this time, though, it would be focused on the life, culture, and politics within each country we focused on for the take-out window.

Amber: How do you find the restaurant is functioning in terms of sharing food as a way of developing relationships, or acting as a source of information about different conflicts?

Dawn: We are most interested in using the restaurant to start a dialogue. Our initial interest was in a) how we can get beyond what the mainstream media is misfeeding us and feeding the rest of the world about these conflicts and about these cultures, and b) how we can get past the conflict that is actually going on between governments and introduce people to the everyday life and culture of these countries. There are several ways in which this conversation and engagement occurs. Take our Iranian version, Kubideh Kitchen, as an example. First, the food itself initiates a conversation between our customers and our take-out window employees about the daily life, geography and food practices of Iran. Second, our food is packaged in a custom-designed wrapper that includes interviews with Iranians, both in Pittsburgh and Iran, on subjects ranging from Iranian food and poetry to the current political turmoil. Third, each iteration is augmented by events, performances, and discussion about the culture, politics, and issues at stake with each country we focus on. Our first public event for Kubideh Kitchen was a meal held simultaneously in Pittsburgh and Tehran, where diners in both cities sat around long tables that were joined via live webcam: an international dinner party. Each city prepared the same exact recipes and shared food and conversation. Another event was coordinated with an artist-run space in Tehran called Sazmanab Project, and presented a live screening of videos curated directly from YouTube posts shot both in Tehran and Pittsburgh. This back and forth format utilized the vast and idiosyncratic resources of YouTube to present first-person video accounts that reflect on the daily life of each city. The 40-minute screening was followed by a live Skype conversation between attendees in Pittsburgh and Tehran.

Jon: Most recently, we worked with several local Iranian organizations to hold Pittsburgh’s first-ever Persian cultural festival. It was amazing, we had over 200 people there and I’d say that at least 30% were non-Iranian. The other thing is that in some ways each version of the project is an opportunity to engage in a collaborative form of research. We see the project as a real-time research centre in which we’re presenting what we discover in our conversations with Iranians, or Afghans, or Venezuelans, depending on the country we are presenting, and people are coming to us at the take-out window each day presenting what they know and we’

re sharing that too. The take-out window often becomes an impromptu platform for discussions on culture and politics. We like to feel that the project creates a space for people to ask questions that they might feel uncomfortable or afraid of asking. We wanted to create a much more nuanced, less polarized discussion about politics, and culture, and daily life and humanize the people who live in these countries. Our employees who work the window play a vital role in stimulating and responding to dialogue.

What we had learned from The Waffle Shop is that we could coax people in with food — people who ordinarily wouldn’t participate in the arts, who wouldn’t be performers or go into an art venue — and then they would actually do something slightly unusual and get on stage and be part of a talk show. One of the things about American culture is that people talk sports publicly with strangers but they don’t talk politics. So we thought about how we could create a natural environment where people would get into a political discussion in a public space with people that they might not know and share their own viewpoints and cultural background. We’

ve discovered that this project has started to do that, at the window itself and with the programming that we do.

Dawn: Right now we are interviewing a lot of Afghans through contacts we made locally, online, and through some of the Iranians we have been working with, about their daily life, about what it’s like for American soldiers to be there, and about what they think about the conflict that’s going on within their country. We’re not asking them complex questions, we’

re asking them the questions that a typical American might be afraid or embarrassed to ask because they worry they might not have the knowledge about the conflict that most people expect them to have. What we are trying to do is create a safe, engaging and comfortable space for a conversation to happen around these topics, and certainly through food we are able to do that.

Amber: The wrappers you use for the food include stories and information about the source country (in this case Iran) that answer some of these questions. Can you talk a bit about how the wrapper was designed? What is the content of the wrapper?

Dawn: For the different iterations of the restaurant we interview people that are from the focus country and culture, people currently living in that country, and those who have immigrated to America. The idea is that the entry point for the discussion about this culture doesn’t come from second-hand research, it comes from first-person conversation. I can read the New York Times every day and understand one perspective of what is happening in Afghanistan, I can read a book about the history of Afghanistan, or I could ask a person in Afghanistan what’

s going on there.

Jon: What’s important to us about speaking directly to Afghans is you get a real mix of thoughts and opinions, sometime contradictory, of what it means to be Afghan and what daily life in Afghanistan is like. Obviously there is no single story or identity being presented, but as it comes directly through lived experience, and all lives are different, this is to be expected. For our Iranian wrapper there are comments about tea, women’s rights, Israel, perceptions of the US, and more. The section on Israel includes several quotes from Iranians who are critical of the state of Israel but not of the Jewish people. The section on women’

s rights presents one Iranian speaking of how women are leaders in government and industry, and another pointing out that they are still considered second-class citizens subject to unfair restrictions, and another pointing out how they have difficult dual roles in society as workers and homekeepers.

Amber: What has the response to the project been like? Do you find that people are asking questions and starting conversations?

Jon: With any kind of enterprise that is not announcing itself as either a political work or an artwork, or anything more than just a restaurant, some people are going to just eat the food. But there is also bit of a bait and switch going on where, much like The Waffle Shop, we are able to capture the attention and participation of a lot of folks who might not normally participate in discussions about foreign culture and politics. Conversations tend to happen very organically once a customer is introduced to the basic premise of the restaurant.

Dawn: And that’

s probably one of the reasons that the project is as successful as it is, because we provide multiple levels of engagement and the public can choose at which level they would like to engage. Just passing by and seeing the Farsi on the sign (in the Iranian version), that in itself adds a level of diversity to the daily life of the neighborhood. And of course people can choose to eat the food and read the wrapper, talk with our staff or with other customers assembled at the take-out window. Some of the best conversations actually happen between customers without our participation. Many of our customers seek out their own information about daily life and politics in Iran and come back and tell us about it. And then, other customers come to our programming and events, which hopefully allows them a different entry point into life and culture in Iran.

Amber: Can you describe what a typical day at the Conflict Kitchen is like?

Dawn: The window is the performative forum for the project and that’s really where everything happens. We partner with the Waffle Shop to recruit students as well as Conflict Kitchen interns who have done a great deal of the research and worked with us throughout the project to actually staff the take-out window. We have a lot of people coming in and out, participating in different ways, doing everything from research, making and serving the food, and facilitating conversation at the take-out window. The interns start each day by setting up, prepping and making the Barbari bread. I usually drop by to give them basil and mint from my garden. Every couple of weeks Illah (our Iranian friend in Pittsburgh) drops off fresh beef and fresh flour. Interns set up the George Foreman Grills — that we were using this very American tool for grilling so pleased Illah. Basically they stand at the window, prepping food, and waiting for people to come. Believe it or not, we are now open for a couple of hours each day of the week and have anywhere from 40-70 people coming per day . We have one staff member cooking and another at the window discussing and facilitating conversation. When customers arrive they tell them about the premise of the restaurant and ask if they are familiar with contemporary Iran. The person at the window has to facilitate the discussion between themselves and the person that has come to get the food but also facilitate discussion between strangers who are waiting outside at the window. And that’

s a fairly typical day.

Amber: The fact that you have people coming back as regulars is kind of fantastic.

Jon: Yeah, it’s great. There are some office workers in the area who come and buy 10 kubideh and take them back to the office. Or there is a church across the street and we’

ll get people who come every Sunday after the service.

Dawn: It’s also funny to see Pittsburghers being very proud to bring their Iranian friends with them to the window. One of the most interesting things for me is when people are openly identifying themselves by their heritage or ethnicity or the country that they were born in, which is something that you don’t find people doing every day. And I’m not just talking about people saying that they’

re Iranian, but people saying that they are Indian or Greek, or talking about how their food is similar or different from what we are serving.

Amber: You are also organizing events to go along with the day-to-day running of the kitchen. You organized a Skype dinner between Pittsburgh and Tehran with a shared menu served in both places. Can you tell us a bit about how that was organized, what the turnout was like, and what kind of conversation was provoked?

Dawn: It actually was an idea that one of our interns had. We were talking about how we could share an actual meal live with someone in Tehran, instead of just having a removed discussion with an Iranian through the wrapper on the Kubideh. It sort of became this transcontinental dinner party. What was really interesting was when, towards the end of the event, the young people started talking in both places — 70% of the Iranian population is under 30, and we had quite a young crowd in Pittsburgh — commiserating about their experiences of finishing university, not being able to find a job in the field that they had studied, dating, rock concerts. I think at that moment we knew we wanted to find a way for that sort of immediate conversation to happen at the takeout window as well. So we’

ve also been speaking with a hotel owner in Kabul about setting up a live feed so that anyone who was at the hotel would be able to speak to someone at the Conflict Kitchen window, to have that immediate connection.

Amber: There has been a lot of positive response to the Conflict Kitchen. Where do you see the project going in the future? Do you think that this is a model that could be put into place in other locations and with other conflicts?

Jon: We’

ve received a lot of interest, from a family doing their own version of the project at home, where each week they cook a meal from a different country that the United States is in conflict with and they do research on it, to individuals who want to create projects of a similar nature, to people we are actively seeking collaboration with. There are lots of possibilities.

Amber: Would you consider “franchising”

the kitchen and bringing it to other cities?

Jon: We just had a conversation with some folks in San Francisco about doing some sort of iteration of the project there. But San Francisco is a very different city, they do have Persian restaurants, they do have Afghan restaurants. One of the things we were thinking about was the possibility of maybe doing something mobile, whether its like a meals on wheels or a food truck model, and that it would focus on international border conflicts, like Pakistan and India, or northern and southern Sudan and present how food, culture and politics collide, mix and separate in these regions. Obviously there are a whole series of rifts that are developed through geographical border conflicts. One of the other things that we are interested in is developing a business model so that someone could take this over and run it as their own business. It would be an interesting next step. It’

s intriguing for us to imagine something that starts as public art and becomes an ongoing business.

Amber Landgraff is a writer and curator based in Toronto. She completed her MFA in Criticism and Curatorial Practices at OCAD University, and is currently thinking a lot about on-the-ground possibilities for change.

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