Cooking Up a Dialogue
by HAMED ALEAZIZ
07 Jul 2010 02:54
Sandwich stand serves a meaty mission.Pittsburgh's Kubideh Kitchen is the latest in a long line of efforts to bridge the cultural divide between Iran and America. The first in a series of food stands that will feature fare from countries with whom America is in conflict, it serves up authentic Iranian food and discussion. Created by a group of Carnegie Mellon University artists and scholars, the project, dubbed Conflict Kitchen, aims to expose Americans to cultures they might have little contact with other than through the nightly news. Kubideh Kitchen goes straight for the gut, literally. It will be around for only three months before another food stand takes its turn, but its impact is already impressive. Even Jay Leno has taken notice.
There's only one thing on the menu at Kubideh Kitchen: a sandwich with kubideh -- a traditional style of ground meat -- mint, onion, and basil served on Iran's staple bread, barbari. The tasty sandwich's wrapper contains more than a good lunch: it is covered with the words of Pittsburgh-based Iranian Americans and Iranians in the home country, whose answers to questions about Iranian poetry, religion, youth, and women provide insight into their views.
One of the project's creators, Carnegie Mellon professor and artist Jon Rubin, explains the reasoning behind it: "In a small way, the Conflict Kitchen project is trying to initiate or start people toward a degree of understanding for a culture that is more nuanced...looking at the nature of the conflicts we're involved in and the people that are affected by them."According to Rubin, the food stand has been embraced by local residents. About 50 customers frequent the stand every day to get some of the sandwiches prepared from a recipe developed by an Iranian family that resides in the area. According to Rubin, 90 percent of the customers had never tasted Iranian food. What's more, most are learning about Persian culture for the first time. While aware of the potential to stimulate discussion and increase understanding of Iranians in America and in Iran, Rubin is realistic about the power that food has to open new paths of communication: "To some people, their only concern is: Is the food good or not? And it is, it is."
To further the cultural exchange, in June Kubideh Kitchen used Skype to host a live discussion between a group in Tehran and 40 Pittsburgh residents at the restaurant. The two groups feasted on the same dishes, including Iran's famous spice-laden stew, ghormeh sabzi, as they discussed issues ranging from dating to everyday life over the course of two hours.
Sohrab M. Kashani, a young Tehran-based artist and the curator of Sazmanab Project Gallery, orchestrated the Tehran side of the event, bringing Iranians to his gallery for the transcontinental conversation. "The intention was to open up a dialogue between the two sides of the table and it did happen very organically in my opinion," he said. "Everyone here was surprised to see tables from the two countries joining one another. I could see people staring at the projected image on the wall and wondering if that was in fact live footage of a table setting in Pittsburgh!"
Kashani and Rubin have been working together on a 2.0 version of Rubin's project dubbed "Never Been to Tehran" in which people from all over the world were encouraged to send pictures of what they imagined Tehran to look like. Last year, they organized "Tehran/Pittsburgh in Random" a video essay curated from YouTube videos that were uploaded by Pittsburgh and Tehran residents on topics such as dancing, nose jobs, and cooking.
On July 10, Rubin and Kashani will again stimulate interaction between Americans and Iranians through a second Skype-powered discussion at Kubideh Kitchen. Before the group exchange discussion, they will be airing a new Tehran/Pittsburgh video essay.
Kashani believes in the power of collaborative art and discussion to create change. "I don't want to sound cliché, but I would very much like it to help people engage in open dialogue with each other," he said.
Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau