The Bánh mì was impeccable: crunchy daikon, savory beef and sweet plus acidic chili-lime mayo combined to create something that was magically foreign, but comfortably local. On a hot Friday afternoon, Navy Yard filled with four-wheeled ambassadors. My tongue could travel halfway across the world with 10 steps to my left or to my right, and it was easy to get lost amongst the tacos, hoagies, gelati, empanadas and curries at Truckeroo.
Beyond the smells, tastes and sounds of orders being yelled to truck-based culinary conductors, there is a history. Bánh mì dates back to French colonial involvement in Vietnam (then Indochina) in the 19th century. Combining the distinctively French baguette with rice-powder and Vietnamese meats, sauces and sides led to the birth of a sandwich that fused two cultures from opposite sides of the world, the result of a colonial empire.
Natives of D.C. will rave about the vibrant Ethiopian food, and many have sampled wot, injera or tibs. Yet, rarely is the question asked why D.C. has the largest Ethiopian population in the United States. The answer is rooted in the USSR-supported, Ethiopian Marxist movement of the 1970s. However, the story goes beyond Cold War politics: during the diaspora of the 1970s, Ethiopians settled in areas of D.C. like Adams Morgan and U Street, which were neglected and feared after the race riots of the 1960s. The immigrant population reinvigorated these neighborhoods and helped transform them into modern-day hotspots.
This past week launched the Diplomatic Culinary Partnership, a joint effort between the U.S. State Department and the James Beard Foundation. Eighty chefs were given the designation of State Chefs as part of the American Chef Corps (some familiar names might be Mike Isabella, Rick Bayless and José Andrés). This partnership acknowledges the importance of food in understanding and connecting the world. The culinary 21st century has been defined by a recognition and admiration of local, ethnic and cultural foods. Never before have unique food cultures been embraced so openly by writers, critics, TV personalities and food blogs.
Food as diplomacy recognizes that the way to a person’s heart is through their stomach. Culinary ambassadors can connect the United States with individual from around the world through what is perhaps the oldest diplomatic tool. Food is universal, but also something that is unique to different countries, ethnic groups and religions. Understanding a culture’s food is essential to understanding the culture as a whole.
Food is more than just Yelp! reviews or Instagram photos. Food in D.C. is defined by not just cross-cultural collaboration and Americanization, but also ethnic independence. Culinary ambassadors are the first steps in understanding the world beyond GDP, political brinksmanship and the basic theories of international relations. The story behind the food, the story that connects us to different cultures, is almost as amazing as the sweet, spicy and savory Bánh mì at Truckeroo on a hot Friday afternoon.
Sam Mendelson is a sophomore in the School of International Service.