Viewing food as a cultural tool is a centuries-old idea. Each country, region, and city have their special, local dishes based on ingredients found in the area. Often these recipes are passed down through generations, and reflect local style preferences. If someone came to spend a weekend in Eugene for the first time, where would you take them to eat? If you choose to take them somewhere unique to our local culture, such as Off the Waffle, Voodoo Doughnuts, or Ninkasi Brewing Company, you have just participated in something called gastrodiplomacy. By inviting someone to participate in Eugene’s culture through experiencing its distinctive food options, your guest may leave with a better understanding of what the locals are like and what makes our city so special.
Gastrodiplomacy: Eating for Understanding
Many countries use the concept of gastrodiplomacy to facilitate trade agreements, help their economy, and encourage tourism. Food also turns out to be a simple way for countries to interact from a distance, almost as a way for a country to brand itself to the rest of the world . Think about something as simple as olive oil: most people know that the Mediterranean is the perfect region for olive oil production; because we can’t make it as well, the United States imports olive oil from countries in the Mediterranean. On the outside, this facilitates our economic relations with these countries, making us trade partners, but when you look deeper, the delicious Italian olive oil at our kitchen table could even be stirring up vacation plans that also help bolster Italy’s economy – all from such a simple food!
Beyond trade and tourism, learning about which foods are important to a culture can often teach you a lot about their traditions and way of life. Recently, Jewish populations around the world celebrated Passover, a holiday commemorating the Jewish people’s liberation from slavery in Egypt with the help of Moses. During this celebration it is very important to abstain from eating or possessing any food products that are leavened (been let to rise). Instead, Jews eat matzo, an unleavened flat bread, to symbolize the absence of corruption and spoiling. In addition, there is the Passover Seder, a special dinner on the first night of the holiday that has many distinct traditions of its own. There is a specific ritual to the meal which involves consuming different foods and wine, all symbolizing the various aspects of the slavery and freedom experienced by the Israelites. Partaking in all of the food rituals of Passover quickly teaches a cultural outsider the history of the Jewish people and the significance of this very important holiday.
The popularity of gastrodiplomacy is currently taking off in the United States. Not only has our government launched a “chef ambassador” program thanks to Hillary Clinton, but American University in Washington DC is the first institution of higher learning to offer a course on gastrodiplomacy in order to help spark a generation interested in international food politics . You can even follow both @gastrodiplomacy and @culinarydiplomacy on Twitter. It is clear to me that college students are taking an interest in food; and we’re not talking cheap ramen and late-night munchies – a group of students from right here at the University of Oregon are spending this term studying food and culture in Italy. Luckily, you don’t have to be halfway across the world to dive into gastrodiplomacy – whether experiencing a cultural meal abroad or dining out right here in Eugene, take a moment to savor where the food came from, who made it, and what makes it special.
Getting college aged students excited about gastrodiplomacy and encouraging cultural awareness through food can make a real difference in our future global diplomatic discourse. This topic is extremely multidisciplinary, allowing nearly anyone with a passion for food to partake. Whether your degree is in economics, culinary arts, environmental science, or international relations, there is something you can do to help countries interact through food and make the world a better place, one bite at a time.
 Haugh, Shannon. “Introducing Our Winter 2014 Issue: Gastrodiplomacy.” Publicdiplomacymagazine.com. University of Southern California, 12 Mar. 2014. Web.
 Poon, Linda. “Gastrodiplomacy: Cooking Up a Tasty Lesson on War and Peace.” Npr.org. National Public Radio, 24 Mar. 2014. Web.
Nadine Astrakhan is a senior at the University of Oregon, receiving her Bachelor’s degree in international and global studies, she can be reached at NSA@Uoregon.edu.