Conflict Kitchen is a Pittsburgh-based restaurant that offers a periodically rotating menu, each iteration of which highlights the cuisine of a country with which the United States is in conflict. Since it was founded in 2010 by artist and Carnegie Mellon art professor Jon Rubin and his former student, Dawn Weleski, the takeout restaurant has highlighted Iran, Venezuela, Cuba, North Korea, and Afghanistan, has enjoyed near-universal acclaim for its empathetic approach, and become a popular lunch spot in downtown Pittsburgh.
This all changed after September 2014 when Rubin and Weleski unveiled Palestine as their next focus. Before they had even served a single falafel, a multi faceted and nationwide controversy had broken out. Hotly debated questions included: Is the United States in conflict with Palestine? Could focusing on Palestinian cuisine be construed as anti-Semitic? And was the very formulation of such a question a violation of the right to freedom of expression?
Beyond the discursive aspect of the controversy, the future of Conflict Kitchen was put in jeopardy. First, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported on 6 November that B’nai B’rith International, the Jewish organization that organizes Birthright trips to Israel for teenage American Jews, had called on the Heinz Foundation, chaired by Secretary of State John Kerry’s wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, to disavow a $50,000 grant to the restaurant. Two days later, Rubin received a death threat and closed the restaurant, but he reopened it on 12 November after the Pittsburgh police launched an investigation. Conflict Kitchen was quickly back to its average 300 customers per day.
Below are a photo of Conflict Kitchen; a reproduction of the restaurant’s Palestinian menu; and excerpts from interviews with Palestinians in the West Bank and the United States, which appear on the paper food-wrapper used by the restaurant. The full food-wrapper text, including segments on the Nakba, the Palestinian Authority, movement and travel, and other topics, can be viewed at http://conflictkitchen.org.
In addition to changing its menu, Conflict Kitchen highlights the art of its chosen country with every rotation. (Conflict Kitchen)
It’s a Bedouin tradition to always serve tea and coffee to guests. The first cup is a “welcome” cup, and we’ll fill it up one-third of the way. If you push the cup back, we’ll fill it another third. You don’t need to say anything, just push it back. Push it back a third time and we’ll add more, making one full cup of coffee. But if you ask for more than this, you’ll be seen as a greedy, unwelcome guest. At this point you should shake the cup to say, “No, no more coffee.” • Food tourism is a strange concept for Palestinians. It’s more common among Israelis—although, of course, they steal all the recipes from us [laughter]. If you come to eat in a Palestinian home, you’re going to be a guest, not a customer. I work with Palestinian women here in Nazareth and I explain that inviting people into their homes is a way of sharing their stories. The tourists want to hear what they have to say. Otherwise the women think, “Why would people pay for something that we would give them for free?” • We take our tea with herbs. In the wintertime it’s served with sage; in summer, with mint.