Saturday, June 8, 2024


Mahsa Biglow/Jon Rubin/Dawn Weleski
Pittsburgh, USA: Conflict Kitchen, 2015
82 pp., 18 x 13 cm., softcover
Edition size unknown

Conflict Kitchen was an internationally renowned take-out restaurant in Pittsburgh that ran from 2010 to 2017. It served cuisine exclusively from countries with which the United States was in conflict.

NPR described the venture as “an experimental public art project—and the medium is the sandwich wrap.” It was founded by artists Jon Rubin and Dawn Weleski, funded in part with proceeds from the neighbouring Waffle Shop, which Rubin had opened a few years prior (see below). The Waffle Shop was a functioning storefront restaurant that produced and broadcast a live-streaming talk show with its customers during all operating hours. Pittsburgh feels like the kind of city where one DIY art project begets another, rather than bankruptcy. 

“[Conflict Kitchen] is a place on the street level where we can unpack politics together, using food as a storytelling device,” Rubin told the Smithsonian Magazine in 2013. Each iteration was augmented by performances, publications and events. 

The first of these was a free meal held simultaneously in Pittsburgh and Tehran, where diners in both cities sat around long tables that were connected via Skype. The menu included freshly baked Barbari Bread, Tah Dig, Khoresht Fesenjan, lamb kebabs, Khoresht Ghormeh Sabzi, and Doogh, a yogurt and mint drink.

The food wrappers at the restaurant were printed with interviews with people from the country being highlighted. The wrappers for the first iteration, which focused on Iranian food, featured sections about bread, women’s rights, poetry, fashion, nuclear power, tea, and the perception of Americans. 

"We're using food as an entry point to help people explore cultures that aren't talked about in the mainstream media,” Rubin told Salon in 2010, clarifying "We don't support the Iranian government or anything”. 

SKIES AND SEAS WERE PASTED TOGETHER is the first of four publications produced during the seven year run of Conflict Kitchen. Each featured interviews with residents from the countries in question. These were conducted in Iran by artist Mahsa Biglow, accompanied by her photographs of the subjects. 

On the left side of the book, children are interviewed, and on the right, the same questions are posed to their grandparents. 

In keeping with the foregrounding of voices of residents, the titles of each book is taken from the interviews. Seven year old Amirali was asked "Where did our planet come from?” and he replied "Skies and seas were pasted together and made a big circle that scientists named Earth.” 

Other questions include: 

Q: What would you do if you were president?
A: I would remove financial inflation.
Q: What are you afraid of?
A: I’m scared of death and souls.
Q: What would you ask an American kid your age?
A: Is your country beautiful like mine?
Q: How would the world be different if animals could talk?
A: If wild animals could talk, it would be really scary.
Q: What is the hardest thing about being a kid? The best?
A: The hardest thing is having to study. I don’t know. Yes, studying. The best thing is that we can come outside and play with our friends. Kids can play because we have spare time, but when you grow up, you have to study all the time.
Q: If you could make one rule that everyone in the world had to follow, what would it be?
A:I would make a rule that no one can start a fight or a war.
Q: What is something that confuses you about grownups?
A: They fight again and again.

A’zam, his fifty-three year old grandmother was asked the same: 

Q: What is the hardest thing about being a grandma?
A: The hardest part is that I’m always worried about my grandchildren’s futures because of the unique situation that we’re dealing with here in Iran. Grownups generally have no hope for a bright future here.
Q: If you could make one rule that everyone in the world had to follow, what would it be?
A: Only one rule? Well you cannot change the world with only one rule!
Q: It’s not a matter of changing the world. I’d like to know your priorities. So, if you had only one rule to make, what would it be?
A: I would try to strengthen rules that bring justice.
Q: What is something that challenges you about children?
A: When they insist on being stubborn.

"Conflict Kitchen reformats the preexisting social relations of food and economic exchange to engage the general public in discussions about countries, cultures and people that they might know little about outside of the polarizing rhetoric of U.S. politics and the narrow lens of media headlines.”
- Jon Rubin

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