U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton never once wanted us to think of her as some little woman waiting for her husband to come home from work with an evening cocktail and a home-cooked meal. But that does not mean she does not know the persuasive power of food as a diplomatic tool. She’s turned the State Department kitchen into a tool of international diplomacy.
Clinton put her Chief of Protocol, Capricia Penavic Marshall, in charge of what’s come to be known as “food diplomacy.”
Classic French food that used to dominate diplomatic functions is largely gone. New and innovative chefs, cuisines, ideas are bubbling up all over State from social media, and now culinary creativity. Foreign diplomats are served American food with fresh local ingredients, along with reminders of home.
Even in the White House, the desire to know when food comes from and how it informs who we are and what we stand for can be seen in the First Lady’s garden. Listen to a great NPR story from this past May on how the garden came about and why it is an important aspect of presenting the U.S. to foreign publics.
“It’s really important because they’re going to talk about some tough issues with one another,” Marshall said. “We want the framework of those tough discussions to be relaxing, to be welcoming, to be inviting.”
Marshall says that when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was at the State Department recently, he was surprised and pleased to find good hummus at the table. My colleague’s crowdsourcing project, JEWCER, has a project titled, “Hummus Wars” which brings together foodies and publics of Israel and Lebanon for the coveted title of “best hummus.”Christopher James, the State Department’s deputy chef, said they use a spice visitors are accustomed to or they present a dish in a way that has never been seen before in their country.
And when China’s Vice President Xi Jinping visited this year, a top Chinese-American chef was brought in to cook Chinese delicacies. “Vice President Xi’s eyes lit up,” Marshall said. “He was so honored by the gesture.”
What I think is missing is the story. Rarely do we use foreign foods, dishes, recipes, and spices to inform our narrative of U.S. foreign policy to global publics. By integrating this story and our values behind it, we can demonstrate respect, engagement, and listening through the food to deepen international relationships.
Even this week, acclaimed chef, Jose Andres, created the menu for a meeting of protocol chiefs from all over the world. He went on to say, “I believe that dinner, gathering people around a table, you have a true opportunity to send hidden messages,” Andres said. “… Through a menu and through the food that you put on a plate.”
To remind the foreign diplomats of the tragic losses and recovery from Hurricane Katrina, Andres served Louisiana Gulf shrimp. “Doing this simple gesture all of a sudden at the State Department is sending a message that we need to be supporting American ingredients, we need to be supporting our fishermen.”
It would be hard to prove that good food makes for better diplomacy especially at a time when nations are so sharply divided on so many issues – but don’t tell that to Andres, who believes all things are possible through food. He said, “With better food and a happy table, probably, probably, we will have a better world, a happier world.”
To watch CBS News’ piece on Clinton’s food diplomacy project, click here.
To watch Jose Andres’ 2011 TED talk, “Creativity in Cooking Can Solve Our Biggest Challenges.”
Links to others talking about food diplomacy: