The vanguard of foreign relations doesn’t lie in policy, but rather, in food.
I started this form of diplomacy when I was five. During the holidays, I pulled a stepladder over the stove and made armies of cookies with my mother. My flour-dusted fingers gingerly arranged them into tins and hand-delivered them to neighbors’ doors.
Abroad, sharing food opens a door into a person’s life. It’s a “taste this, it reminds me of home” conversation. Food is an extension of communication. It describes where words fail and touches in a way that the hand cannot (or should not!)
In Argentina I’ve tried many new culinary curiosities and shared many meals, but some of the most fun I’ve had is bringing my food to Argentina.
Last week I lugged home a bulging canvas grocery sack full of what would be dinner for my host-mom and me. Finding the ingredients was like a scavenger hunt — involving three different shopping locations. The hard-to-find ingredients made cooking that much more magical.
I had a pre-planned menu in my head, but after I failed to encounter canned black beans for black bean burgers, I had to think on my feet. In the middle of the canned legume aisle, I had a minor emotional breakdown. Luckily, a few cans of chickpeas caught my glance. My Tex-Mex/Cuban dinner was going to include a little Indian curry.
And maybe some Lebanese salad? Why not.
“Es…perfumada!,” she said after her first bite.
Perfumed. I’ve never used that word to describe a curried sweet potato and chickpea burger. Or any food, really.
Surprisingly, the Mexican guacamole, the Lebanese fattoush, and the Greek yogurt & tahini sauce complemented each other fairly well. More than the food, I was ecstatic to be feeding someone new things for the first time. It’s a thrill, really.
Before Argentina, I’d almost forgotten the sensation of newness — of looking at a piece of fruit and having NO idea what it is.
Often, I’ll be talking to Janet and she’ll mention a food to me, and I’ll have to interrupt.
“You know… it’s green…shaped like this…” she gestures. Then exasperated, she says, “FINE, I’ll go get one.”
And she runs out of the store and returns with a maracuya or a piece of pastry. I shake my head saying “sorry Janet, I still don’t know what that is.”
…But I’ll taste it!”
Whiskey works wonders too. Kentucky bourbon whiskey, specifically.
For the first few months of my trip, I kept one-shot bottles of Jim Beam in my purse, should I ever feel like making friends.
One rainy evening I took a cab to my tango class — about a 20 minute ride. It was nasty outside. The streets were overflowing and the sky was dark. Lodged in traffic, the cab driver and I talked non-stop about his grandkids, tango, and “this boludo in front of us who can’t drive!”
I was highly entertained, and to show my appreciation, I slipped a bottle of bourbon into his hand along with the wad of pesos.
“Te gusto el whiskey? This one’s from my state, Ken-took-ie,” I said. “Chau!”
Just before I closed the door I heard him yell, “wait! I want you to marry my grandson!”
I smiled and bolted into the freezing rain.
These simple interactions may not have made the most monumental changes in U.S. foreign policy, but I’m an optimist. I like to imagine that the next time an Argentine I’ve met reads a headline involving the U.S. that puts them in mal humor, they’ll pleasantly remember a perfumed burger. Or a tango dancing Kentucky girl. Maybe they’ll remember that the U.S. isn’t one exclusive prototype. Some Americans like curry and most absolutely can’t live without Mexican food.
Chefs just might be the next best ambassadors. Diplomacy is delicious.