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Peace at the Dinner Table

Here’s the next installment of our reports from the Humanities Research Seminar on food.  This week, Sasha Martin, author of Life from Scratch and the Global Table Adventure, reflects on the connections between food and peace.

What does it mean to eat in peace?

It is my belief that the dinner table is a threshold across which we might better understand the complexities of seeking peace on a global scale. The form doesn’t matter – a mat on the ground, a narrow sofa table, or a four-legged, wooden structure.

producepeaceIn his poem, Sirhan Drinks his Coffee in the Cafeteria, the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish explores the last memory a convicted man has immediately before he assassinates Robert Kennedy, drinking coffee in a cafeteria, which Darwish places in sharp contrast to the man’s untethered refugee status, likened to growing up “on a ship.” In her poem, the Jamaican poet Lorna Goodison shares a laundry list of childhood sweets enjoyed on her home island in the poem Songs of the Fruits and Sweets of Childhood. Both poets use food imagery in tandem with location, anchoring the reader to notions of self and belonging, fraught though they are. For Darwish, the conflict is apparent and abrasive as he explores the dual identity of a refugee. For Goodison, the list of Jamaican sweets hides a more incipient truth – a search for the purity of childhood riddled with questions of class and superiority – something “tempting” but so “tangled.”

What each of us places on our table is no less tangled. Any attempt to “eat in peace” must include considerations of what we consume, who we’re with, and why.

What we consume. The dinner table contains a microcosm of all of the world’s ailments and joys: There sits the first post-blight potato, the Taco Bell wrapper, the farmer’s market cheese, the imported lychee, nothing at all; One gathering passes wine de terrior, another ladles water from a bucket, still another sips tea, enjoys a coffee ceremony, nothing at all. The food we serve (and the food we do not serve) is a passport that identifies our values, social class, cultural preferences, and historical context. Moreover, the language we use around what we consume indicates origin – cilantro can be coriander, red pepper can be paprika.

Who we’re with. Who we include around our ‘table’ – and who we keep out – reveals more than geopolitical boundaries and often outlives the cartographer’s invasive lines. In Darwish’s poem we see Sirhan, alone but yearning for some connection to his heritage, as though it might envelope him, even from afar: “He drinks his coffee and he dreams. / He draws a map without a border in it.” In Goodison’s poem From the Garden of Women Once Fallen, thyme is cooked to “carry the scent of Sunday as usual,” in an effort of “save-face” on a “dry Sunday.” A few lines down Goodison demonstrates the extent to which we wish to keep up appearances when we are forced to reside in a conflict zone, however small.

When you dwell among your enemies
you never make them salt your pot.
You never make them know
your want.

Sharing food serves to bond but also to separate the initiated from the other, as wheat from chaff. This is why the practicing Christian bonds with fellow Christians during Lent, as they commiserate (or celebrate) their abstinence from chocolate, red meat, and other edible sins. The shared experience reinforces the community – religious or otherwise.

Why. Mealtime is when humanity comes together with gaping mouth and yawning hunger. As much as food, we seek communion. Communion, from the Latin communionem (nominative communio) “fellowship, mutual participation, a sharing,” – is as much about actively accepting each other as it is breaking bread. When we eat we are at our most vulnerable – both to poison and ambush. Thus, this communion requires trust.

There is a long tradition of using food in peace negotiations and restorations. In response to racial tensions, the Wichita police force attempted to harness the power of food negotiations: in July 2016 they shared a picnic with the black community to restore community trust and goodwill (Hundreds turn out for Black Matter Protest-turned picnic). As of 9/19/16, after the shooting of Terence Crutcher, an unarmed black man, the language of food emphasizes the gap between white and black communities:

“I’m pushing for not only a march or a meeting, I’m pushing for a seat at the table,” he said, “where we can affect change in the policies and the culture of the police versus the community.” – Rodney Goss, Pastor, in the Tulsa World (my emphasis).

Whatever the locale and whatever the offerings, whether or not we might satisfy our deep rooted hunger for peace remains the ultimate question. Those who land on the side of pessimism, might agree with Hans Magnus Enzenberger, and at the very least we might heed his warning in For the Grave of a Peace-Loving Man:

the thing which he called his peace,
now that he’s got it, there is no longer a mouth
over his bones, to taste it with.

I choose, however to find comfort in the fact that we are, on the whole, an optimistic race. Dan Jurafsky writes in The Language of Food that human nature tends towards optimism. Our optimism is revealed in the Pollyanna Effect, wherein we are far more likely to use positive words than negative, despite having more negative words than positive. Ultimately, this optimism is what illuminates us as a human race, and what will pull us forward in our efforts towards peace.

The Chinese Philosopher Lao-Tse (also Lao-Tzu, 6th-5th c. B.C.) asserted in his famous poem that peace starts within. Our ability to make room for each other at the table is the first, natural extension of hospitality. I might, therefore be so bold as to modify his poem* as follows:

If there is to be peace in the world
There must be peace in the fields.
If there is to be peace in the fields
There must be peace at the mill.
If there is to be peace at the mill,
There must be peace among customers.
If there is to be peace among customers,
There must be peace in the kitchen.
If there is to be peace in the kitchen,
There must be peace at the table.
If there is to be peace at the table,
There must be peace in the stomach.


*The original poem, by Lao-Tse:

If there is to be peace in the world,
There must be peace in the nations.
If there is to be peace in the nations,
There must be peace in the cities.
If there is to be peace in the cities,
There must be peace between neighbors.
If there is to be peace among neighbors,
There must be peace in the home.
If there is to be peace in the home,
There must be peace in the heart.