Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Culinary Diplomacy: A Taste of Thanksgiving

In light of last week’s holiday (and a great example of this week’s discussion on public diplomacy), I spent a majority of November organizing an event as part of the State Department’s culinary diplomacy initiative.  The “Diplomatic Culinary Partnership” was launched in order to “elevate the role of culinary engagement in America’s formal and public diplomacy efforts” (source: Press release). Entitled Taste of Thanksgiving, the event was filmed at the Blair House, the President’s guest house, and available for live streaming. Members of the American Chef Corps, a network of the nation’s distinguished chefs, worked with other locally renowned chefs to prepare traditional Thanksgiving meals. An audience from over 75 countries watched the chefs cook, collected recipes, and participated in Q&A’s. Embassies abroad expressed great interest in the event, and requested translated versions of the event to broadcast later. The success of the event was heavily dependent on the social media used to promote it; State is making a big effort to integrate technology in its diplomatic efforts, as the Comenetz article in the Washington Diplomat explains.

Aside from my general passion for food, I was personally interested because, having lived abroad and spent multiple Thanksgivings with foreigners, I am always impressed by their genuine interest in the significance of Thanksgiving. Sharing a Thanksgiving dinner, or any meal for that matter, with my friends abroad fostered cultural exchanges over the dining table. Sounds cheesy, I know, but it’s true! Similarly, the Thanksgiving event served as a tool to improve the nation’s relationships with foreign audiences.


  1. Kristie this is such an interesting post, thank you! I’m actually really glad you brought up this topic. The other day I read a very interesting article in one of the daily metro newspapers about chef José Andrés (one of the chefs in the State Department’s American Chef Corps) and his endeavor to bring the American Thanksgiving tradition to Spain this year. (http://washingtonexaminer.com/jose-andres-takes-turkey-day-abroad/article/2513887)

    As a part of a cultural diplomacy effort to promote American culture and values in Spain, chef Andrés is sharing the gastronomic tradition of the Thanksgiving meal with the Spanish population. Andrés first cooked a Thanksgiving meal at the American Embassy in Madrid, and also partnered with the Spanish company Cascajares to provide a Thanksgiving meal ‘package’ to sell to the Spanish public. According to the Think Food Group’s press release about the effort, Cascajares will provide 1,000 roasted turkeys in Spain this year with the goal of continuing to increase this number each year going forward. (http://www.zaytinya.com/images/uploads/Cascajares_Media_Alert_.pdf)

    It is very interesting to see, from your example of the State Department's event and from the efforts of José Andrés, that the Thanksgiving meal is being used as a tool for cultural diplomacy.

  2. In promoting the "Taste of Thanksgiving" event, the State Department strategically used social media to virtually gather people around the table. This community-oriented use of technology succeeded in communicating our nation's storied traditions and deep belief in expressing gratitude. It is innovative and exciting to read about!

    Kristie and Brittany both point out the important roles of individuals; people interacting with other people in real time. These individuals, be they foreign service officers or citizen "diplomats" (such as Chef Andrés), are the most indispensable figures in "21st Century Statecraft," a point that is remiss in the Comenetz article in the Washington Diplomat. (Granted, Comenetz's focus is on the pivotal roles of social media in public diplomacy, but he doesn't touch on the minds and hearts of the folks behind the digital engagement initiatives.)

    It is wonderful that the State Department is using technology to share this U.S. holiday with the world. That Thanksgiving may be explained through information online and live-streamed for those who can't join physically is an extraordinary use of our resources and ideas.

    Thanksgiving also presents our diplomats with the opportunity to host dinners, share stories, and give thanks for the opportunity to give back. Few things can top a shared meal with newfound friends, as Kristie recalls. The Diplopundit blog provides some of the U.S. ambassadorial highlights from the holiday: http://diplopundit.net/2012/11/23/thanksgiving-day-2012-foreign-service-roundup/

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  4. Brittany, thanks for sharing that bit about Jose Andrés’ partnership with Cascajares to share the Thanksgiving tradition with Spain. I think what captures the interest of people is the convivial nature of family and friends sharing a meal together. And, from our research paper, we can conclude that that aspect should resonate well with the Spanish culture. I think it’s a bit strange that “Thanksgiving” will be packaged in a box, then thawed and cooked, (or maybe that’s the “American way”!) but maybe people will add their own personal touches so that the meaning of Thanksgiving doesn’t get overwhelmed by just the food.

    And both Brittany and MJ highlight the positive aspects of the Thanksgiving event hosted by State, as well as culinary diplomacy as a whole. However, I read an article, entitled "Against Foodie Diplomacy", from someone who doesn’t seem as optimistic towards culinary diplomacy as we are.
    article: http://www.tnr.com/blog/plank/107143/against-foodie-diplomacy#comments

    The author views the “Diplomatic Culinary Partnership” headed by State as an effort to rebrand the image of American cuisine abroad (McDonald’s anyone?) but it fails because it is showing expensive cuisine that most Americans can’t afford, along with the foreign audiences with which the American Chef Corps would be engaging. Moreover, she states that the Chef Corps is made up of celebrity chefs (I’m not sure if this is true), which obviously is not representative of average chefs across the nation. Her attitude can be summed up when she says “this particular combination of famous people serving up unlasting stuff that’s meant for the wealthy—well, maybe it’s not the best idea.” She also goes on to say that the hybrid cuisines we claim as American are by-products of imperialism (think: how did Indian curry get to Great Britain?). She thinks the program blatantly says that America took everyone else’s food, their paella’s, their shawarmas, and made it better because it’s been Americanized.

    Though she makes some interesting points, I still think this is a sound initiative with some kinks that need to be worked out; after all, it’s still in its infancy. I think this underlines the importance of gastronomist Paul Rockower’s distinction between culinary diplomacy (communication between government to foreign government, visiting officials, etc., to increase bilateral ties) and gastrodiplomacy (government communicating its culture to the foreign public). Perhaps State could take into consideration gastrodiplomacy into its broader culinary diplomatic efforts. To address her concerns on imperialism, as other proponents of culinary diplomacy have expressed, food has always been globally influenced. When the American Chef Corps travel and host culinary events, a great opportunity presents itself for the chefs to discuss the origins and influences of the food that they’re making. Essentially, I’m very eager to see the direction culinary diplomacy goes in.