by Amy Whipple
Schenley Plaza is buzzing with people. Under the big white tent, people eat lunch to a performance of C Street Brass, sunbathers dot the lawn, a string of preschoolers wind their way to the carousel. The Cathedral of Learning and a low-flying plane are the only breaks in the remarkably blue sky.
Erika Joyner and her boyfriend Billy Joe Moore park their bikes and wait in line at the Plaza’s newest takeout eatery, Conflict Kitchen, which relocated from its previous storefront location in East Liberty in April. By June, it’s the talked-about place for lunch in Oakland. Over the course of a two-hour lunch window, as many as 500 people pass through the Plaza. These days, Conflict Kitchen see between 100 and 300 of those people.
As the name suggests, Conflict Kitchen serves food from countries with which America is in conflict as a way of educating people about those countries. It was started almost three years ago by local artists Jon Rubin and Dawn Weleski, who were known at the time for their live talk show cum restaurant in East Liberty, The Waffle Shop.
“We were already using food as a way of getting people involved and talking to each other or strangers and seeing themselves as people who had stories to tell,” says Rubin. “We looked at what we felt was missing from the Pittsburgh landscape—ethnic food, cultural diversity. We very quickly moved toward politics, more specifically politics of our engagement as the United States in other countries.”
They began with Iran, which, at the time, was high on the list of the countries civilians feared we might go to war with. Rubin has friends in Iran, so “it’s very easy for me to be empathetic, understanding Iranian culture. It’s hard to imagine my country bombing them.” There was also nowhere in Pittsburgh to eat Iranian food. The same has been true for the Afghan and Venezuelan iterations of the menu.
With Conflict Kitchen, Rubin and Weleski have upped their game. Rather than reaching out for personal stories from home as with The Waffle Shop, Conflict Kitchen aims to reach out with personal stories from across the globe. Through one series, people are able to have lunch with someone who is currently living in Iran. The catch, though, is that the person in Iran is communicating via an interlocutor sitting with the customer in Pittsburgh counterpart. Rubin says, “It’s a way of meeting someone in a very different circumstance through the body of someone who is the same circumstance as you.” They’ve also had a Barack Obama impersonator give a speech made of statements from Iranians across the globe.
Conflict Kitchen is also just a place to get good food. For instance, today is Joyner’s birthday, and, when Moore asked where she wanted to celebrate, “I knew where I wanted to go,” she remembers. Joyner’s birthday coincides with the waning days of Conflict Kitchen’s Iranian menu, so she orders Kookoo-e Sabzi (herb and egg frittata served on nan with mast-a khiar, fresh herbs, sumac and onion) and Yakh Dar Behesht (“Ice in Heaven”, or rosewater pudding). Joyner herself works in the food industry and is a former coworker of Conflict Kitchen’s Culinary Director Robert Sayre. “Everything Robert’s ever made is awesome,” she says. “He’s really talented.”
But even “just a good place to get food” is more complicated that it seems at first. We all know that food is what brings us together, and no matter the dearth of some kinds of ethnic foods in Pittsburgh, the city itself has a long history of introducing people to the cuisines of other countries and using that as a way to facilitate togetherness. You probably don’t think twice about eating Italian food, but that hasn’t always been the case. In order to get to that level of acceptance, a city usually needs a large immigrant community with a wealth of eateries. Since the communities that are represented by Conflict Kitchen are underrepresented in Pittsburgh, “we’re trying to make the city more vast than it actually is,” says Rubin.
“Regardless of your political leanings, you’re more adventurous in your food habits than your political habits,” he continues. “Conversation happens all over, but food is a very particular space where conversation gets initiated—at home or in public.” As he also notes, Americans don’t want to be preached to, nor is it polite to talk about politics with strangers. We’re also, as a country, split on how we view the cultures of others. “Food bypasses all that and creates a common ground. People can discuss whether they like the food or not, but they’re not making a political comment initially. Food…is primarily visceral, it goes right to your gut.”
Taking it to the people
By moving to Schenley Plaza (with the help of a Root Award from Sprout), Conflict Kitchen has increased its visibility to a wide variety of people who frequent the universities, library, and hospitals. Says Rubin, “It’s one of Pittsburgh’s only public piazzas that functions as a public square.” They didn’t need to find an audience for their Obama impersonator: the audience was already there by nature of the space.
But, as Rubin and Weleski learned from The Waffle Shop, some people want to get food and that’s it. “I recognize that when you create these projects that people aren’t expecting—we’re not in a theater space—this is an unruly public space where people are there for a whole myriad of reasons,” says Rubin. “That’s a much more fascinating space than doing just performances in traditional art spaces where you’re getting people who are already interested.” When people march or hold protests, the concepts are simplified to fit on signs or in chants. And the people around you are in agreement with you. Rubin adds, “I think there’s a nice mix of people and ways in which we can engage them in the park. We also recognize that if people are coming to our restaurant to eat, that’s the best invitation for conversation.”
“If you want me to know about an issue, food is the best way to bring it to my attention,” says Joyner.
For all the weight of what the restaurant is trying to accomplish, Rubin insists Conflict Kitchen isn’t entirely serious and that it’s more connected to the whimsy of The Waffle Shop than it seems at first blush. “Its meta-premise is kind of funny. It strikes people because there’s humor in selling food from people who are theoretically our enemies. It’s kind of embracing something irrational or absurd.”
Conflict Kitchen’s menu will change to Cuban fare on July 1st. As with the other countries represented in the project, Rubin says, “We’re not trying to present a particular political ideology; we’re trying to lay out the complexity of the dynamics of both the country and our relationship with that country. It’s always more complicated than you initially think. It’s not right or wrong.”
Associated activities with the new menu haven’t been announced yet, but it’s always worth a trip to the Plaza for some potentially view-changing (and definitely tasty) food and who-knows-what-else in all that hustle and bustle.
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