Dishing up dialogue at Conflict Kitchen

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Just off a bustling city square in the heart of Pittsburgh, a multi-colored kiosk serves the world on a plate. Part takeout café, part art project, Conflict Kitchen prepares cuisine from countries with which the United States government is in conflict. “Conflict” is defined across a continuum: from a difference in ideology to actual combat.

“Pittsburgh is a city of immigrants and it continues to be,” co-founder Dawn Weleski explains. “The idea of really knowing your neighbor — to come to a greater understanding of one’s place in their own city and in the world, as an American — is a political act, and you can do that starting with food.”

Weleski and co-founder Jon Rubin recognize that, for many Americans, their introduction to other cultures is through different cuisines. The goal of Conflict Kitchen is to make food the starting point for an exploration that extends from the meal to the wrappers in which the food is served and on to public events.

Conflict Kitchen’s neogë’ wade’sgöndak is a Haudenosaunee dish of  succulent venison braised with juniper and cranberries, served alongside boiled potatoes. (Photo courtesy of Conflict Kitchen)

The Kitchen launched in 2010, with a mouthwatering menu from Iran featuring dishes including koresht-e rivas (lamb shank slow cooked with rhubarb and turmeric) and bastani nooni (a saffron ice cream sandwich). This was followed up with installations from other parts of the world, such as steamy arepas from Venezuela, spicy bibimbap from North Korea, and tabbouleh and butternut squash dip from Palestine served with olive oil from the Daraghmeh family farm in the West Bank.

The conflict that is currently highlighted is historical. There are 567 sovereign indigenous nations within US borders that, to most Americans, are completely invisible. “We’ve been focusing more on relationships we have with foreign countries,” Weleski says. “But what does it mean when we’re treating people who were here before us as foreigners in their own land? If we’re to really investigate what ‘conflict’ means — and how America was founded — then we need to look at where our conflicts initiated. And that is with the Haudenosaunee, as well as the number of other indigenous people that were here before us.”

Each order at Conflict Kitchen comes with a wrapper, highlighting Haudenosaunee issues ranging from food sovereignty and cultural appropriation to the centrality of corn and complicated history of fry bread. (Photo by Adam Milliron)

The Haudenosaunee Confederacy, also referred to as the Iroquois Confederacy, is a league of six Indigenous nations located primarily in upstate New York with historic ties to Western Pennsylvania. The Confederacy is considered one of the oldest participatory democracies in the world — one that has endured despite multiple attempts at dissolution by the French in the late 1600s and the United States during the Revolutionary War.

This iteration of Conflict Kitchen launched last fall and reflects an indigenous narrative of survival and resilience with a menu that includes neogë’ wade’sgöndak (succulent venison braised with juniper and cranberries), gagaihdëhdö (cornbread made from roasted Iroquois white corn flour) and ogösäse (a succotash of sweet corn, beans and squash stewed with tomatoes and peppers). Corn, beans and squash are known within the community as “the three sisters,” a culinary grouping that plays a significant role in Haudenosaunee cuisine and culture.

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White kernels of heirloom Iroquois corn are used in everything from succotash to cornbread and cookies. (Photo by Adam Milliron)

The food is served in a wrapper that features commentary from enrolled members of the nations in the Confederacy, as well as individuals of Haudenosaunee descent. They highlight issues ranging from food sovereignty and cultural appropriation to the centrality of corn and complicated history of fry bread.

Fry bread was borne out of displacement, “when Native people were put onto reservations and given rations of dried milk, dried sugar, flour, fat or oil,” the wrapper explains. “They made the best with what they had.”

While fry bread is considered a staple of indigenous diets, there is debate as to whether it is actually a traditional food, because, as stated on the wrapper, “it came from a time when the Indigenous people were taken from their very resourceful lands, put on reservations and given rations … the US government experimented on us with salt, sugar, bleached flour and stuff like that, which is why levels of obesity are so high on reservations. Fry bread may be a big thing with Natives, but it’s pretty much the worst thing you could ever eat.”

For those curious to try their hand at cooking Haudenosaunee dishes at home, Conflict Kitchen has booklets filled white corn-based recipes available. (Photo by Adam Milliron)

These kinds of insights don’t only enlighten the local community, Weleski says. “They offer a daily reminder of the diversity that does exist within Pittsburgh.” And through the lens of conflict, explains Lauren Jimerson, the project manager for the Iroquois White Corn Project, they offer connections that aren’t often forged. Jimerson led a workshop on hulling and washing heirloom corn and preparing Iroquois white corn soup as part of Conflict Kitchen’s public events. “When I saw the menu was in my language and the staff was very knowledgeable and could talk about cultural appropriation and all these themes that we’re facing as contemporary Haudenosaunee people, it actually moved me to tears. It’s not often that our story is told from our point of view.”

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Photo of Conflict Kitchen (top) by Adam Milliron.

This project made possible with support from KCRW’s Independent Producer Project.