Call it sandwich diplomacy. Conflict Kitchen, a new takeout joint in Pittsburgh, serves dishes exclusively from countries engaged in pissing matches with the United States, whether for enriching uranium, being oil-rich socialists, or acting like restless 12-year-olds who can't keep their hands off the torpedoes. The point is to offer some sort of antidote to cultural misconceptions (about people) borne of sour geopolitics (about power).
The project's the idea of three artists, John Peña, Jon Rubin, and Dawn Weleski. Every four months, they'll pick a new country and hawk its cuisine out of a jerry-rigged stand in Pittsburgh's East Liberty neighborhood. The first iteration, Kubideh Kitchen, which opened last month, trains its sights on Iran. It serves a single dish: a ground-beef sandwich, with onions, sesame seeds, basil, and mint stuffed inside homemade barbari bread. Mmmmm.
The sandwiches come in wrappers custom-made by the graphic designer Brett Yasko. They're covered in text from interviews with Iranians in Pittsburgh and
Iran, and they're equal parts confessional ("I am very concerned that the
U.S. may go to war with Iran") and revelation ("All Persians are
poets"). Here's a detail shot:
The stand itself is meant to provoke. Painted bright blue and dolled up in Persian graphics, it has "Kubideh Kitchen" splashed in Farsi across the top; when it's closed, it looks like a great big billboard to cultural diversity. (The architect was Pablo Garcia/POiNT). "I don't think there are any Iranian restaurants in Pittsburgh," says Jon Rubin, who teaches art at Carnegie Mellon. "Ninety-five percent of the people who come here have never heard of or eaten Persian cuisine, but they're all willing to try it." That might have something to do with the fact that the stand's hard by a couple of nightclubs and stays open till 3 a.m. on the weekends, ie. it's awesome drunk food.
The next incarnation will be Afghanistan. Other countries people have suggested include Venezuela, Myanmar, and North Korea. (Will they serve empty plates?)
The real question, of course, is whether Conflict Kitchen actually promotes tolerance. In a way, Rubin says, it does. "People will start talking about perceptions and misperceptions," he says, "Then the conversation often times moves to someone else's culture, and it becomes an impromptu public forum." Conflict never tasted so good.