This past semester, the GW Food Institute and Sustainability Collaborative hosted a speaking event, Food as Culture: An Evening Event featuring Chef José Andrés. In addition to the acclaimed celebrity chef, the panel discussion included Ambassadors Ralph Samuel Thomas of Jamaica and David O’Sullivan of the European Union.
I was lucky enough to sit down with the esteemed Ambassadors before the event and ask them a few questions about the topic. Their insight was engaging and offered a global perspective on food. Read on for a look at what they had to say.
Spoon: To you [Ambassador Thomas], what is the relationship between food and culture?
AT: The relation between food and culture—the foods that people consume—really reflect the history of a people. It’s a reflection of migration patterns and the national origin of the people in that country. In the case of Jamaica, for example, we have a multicultural, multi-ethnic society. It’s truly a diverse range of people who have brought with them the foods that they liked, means of preparation, and the practices of how food is used (weddings and family gatherings and so on)—and the food patterns are reflected by their way of life.
Not only this, but also when you begin to get the mixing of cultures, and new emerging cultures, then the foods will change and modern ways of preparation will be introduced. Convenience, refrigeration—all of these promote adaptation. And of course, in the case of Jamaica, which gets 1.5 million tourists, the food also is adapted to the international audience that comes into the country. This adaptation becomes something powerful that we all share.
Spoon: In what ways do you find the intersection between food and culture relevant in your everyday work?
AT: I spent a great deal of my career as a banker, and food played an integral part in business. A meal was a very important way of cultivating a client, of having a discussion. A business meal could be a lunch, a dinner, or some such exchange to provide an opportunity for a very long conversation and develop trust in a relationship, for ambassadors especially. Food can definitely be a medium that allows people to interact in a more relaxed environment. People are very social animals and during a meal people tend to become far more relaxed.
In different ways—families, relationships, even business partnerships—are strengthened by meals. There are so many diverse applications of how food can reflect culture, and how food can be used in different ways, not only for ambassadors.
Spoon: From your work as a diplomat, can you talk a little about your observations of global differences in eating habits and customs?
AT: Well, I served as a diplomat in China so I can tell you from experience that there are many different types of Chinese food and such diversity of flavors in different regions. Often eating practices in these different regions have adapted as a result of historical patterns of famines and starvation. People adapted to learn to use everything for food, and this mentality has carried over into the present way in which people consume food.
Also, Chinese food in America is quite different from Chinese food in China! When food travels around the world it will take on characteristics of different regions, reflecting local eating habits and customs.
Spoon: What do you think is the most important takeaway concerning food and diplomacy?
AT: Understanding how to engage with a society and engage with people in diplomacy is really a cultural endeavor, and with food as a key medium. If you can understand that aspect of it, then you can have a better way of understanding people. And if you can create understanding, and build trust, then you can do business, make agreements and form diplomatic connections.
Spoon: Now can you [Ambassador David O’Sullivan] tell me about the scope of your work with the European Union and how you find yourself involved with the food world?
AO: My job is to deal with issues which are the responsibility of the European Union itself, whether it’s trade matters, sanctions, foreign policy, security or indeed issues relating to food such as sanitary and phytosanitary restrictions.
We’re currently having trade negotiations with the US right now to have an ambitious trade agreement, which we call the TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership). We hope this will further free up transatlantic trade, particularly in food and agricultural products, which are a mainstay of our trade. The US is a major export market for European quality food products. So that’s basically what I’m doing on a day-to-day basis.
Spoon: Immigration certainly has a big influence on a culture. How do cuisines change as a result of this? How does national diet change?
AO: Cuisine has become much more international. When I grew up in Dublin in the 1960s and 70s, there only were one or two Chinese restaurants, and that was it. Now when you go to Dublin today you find many Chinese, Polish, Russian, Thai, and Japanese restaurants. (I lived in Tokyo for many years and especially love Japanese food so I’m happy about this for sure).
Food has become much more global, and you find a much greater variety of food in different parts of the world than you did 20-30 years ago. And this is a huge benefit for us all.
Spoon: You mentioned earlier how the US is a major export market for European quality foods. Do you think Americans regard European food as of a higher quality? Does European food have this association?
AO: European food is not better than American food, however, our quality food definitely finds a good market here. People like it. I’m sure they also buy quality American products. But clearly whether it’s our cheeses, our wine and spirits, or meat products (a bit trickier because of the restrictions on exports), these products appeal to people and indeed they tend to have a higher value added than most agricultural exports.
What the US exports to Europe is mainly commodities whereas what we export to the US is mainly processed agricultural products which of course has higher value and is therefore of a higher benefit to our producers.
It was a great privilege to have the chance to talk with these distinguished ambassadors. Ambassador Thomas’ insight certainly makes us think about the history and culture behind our everyday eating habits while Ambassador O’Sullivan put a lot on our plates regarding the global context of food systems and trade. It’s safe to say food is an integral (and tasty) part of diplomacy!