Cooking for peace10/2/2013
In romantic lore, food is the universal language that brings people together to appreciate their similarities and understand their differences. In history that doesn’t work so well. As often as not, dinner invitations from an enemy were considered poisoning opportunities. Priscus, an envoy of the Roman Empire, wrote that, during his dinner with Attila the Hun, the latter brought his own wine and personal wooden goblet and that he only ate meat he picked directly off the fire. Lee and Grant signed the treaty that ended the Civil War at a dining room table, but no food was served.
Still, romantic notions linger. Last year, 300 religious and political leaders met in New York to break bread with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The award-winning Norwegian TV series “Dining With the Enemy” dispatches an experienced war correspondent and a gourmet chef to conflict-ridden parts of the world in hopes of bringing enemies together for a really good dinner. The U.S. State Department also budgets for similar hopefulness. Each year they send out a hundred or so feelers to embassies around the world seeking nominations for its Culinary Diplomacy Program.
After a nearly three-year process, five chefs from Palestine were selected for a three-week tour of the U.S. Last week, four of them (one dropped out for personal reasons) visited Des Moines on a trip that also includes New York City, Washington, D.C., Portland, Ore., and New Orleans, La. They spent a day with George Formaro (Centro, Django, Zombie Burger, Gateway Market), another with David Baruthio (Baru66, Baru at the Art Center), a day visiting farmers markets and farms and a day with Sean Wilson of Proof, where they collaborated on a dinner for guests of the Iowa International Center and the Sehgal Family Foundation Center for International Visitors.
Ahmad Ali Ashaier (Ambassador Hotel, Jerusalem), Joseph Asfour (Rossini Restaurant, Jerusalem), Nabil Ahou (Notre Dame Center, Jerusalem) and Peter Hermantas (Bethlehem University) said that Des Moines was chosen for the tour because of Iowa’s reputation for producing quality foods and for the city’s “culture of openness.” The chefs also expressed amazement that Wilson’s kitchen was supplied with every Middle Eastern spice and herb their recipes required. They said they chose a menu of typical Jerusalem dishes and asked that guests be seated at tables of eight for sharing. My table included Jewish, Iraqi, Iranian, Chinese, Irish and Lebanese Americans.
Dinner began with a richly flavored pink lentil soup reduced in chicken stock with lemon juice, onions, garlic, cumin and olive oil. It was garnished with mint and parsley. A second course included five meze (a Turkish-Persian word meaning “snack” or “relish”): a chopped tomato-and-onion salad, a plate of arugula with olive oil and lemon juice, baba ganoush (eggplant puree), hummus (chick pea and tahini puree) and pita.
The main course was “Musakhan,” a Palestinian dish of roasted chicken and stewed onions cooked on taboon bread with sumac, all spice, saffron and pine nuts. Dessert was basbousa, a not too sweet coconut semolina cake soaked in simple syrup.
No one brought his own goblet.
Side Dishes Proof announced that its winter menu will focus exclusively on dishes of northern Spain and Adriatic Italy. Its monthly tasting menus will feature “molecular fun” in October, “Betty Crocker reconstructed” in November and “Big City dishes” (dishes associated with specific towns) in December… After being the only Italian place in town that made all its pasta from scratch, suddenly Café di Scala finds formidable competition coming from David Baruthio, who plans to be open in November on First Street in West Des Moines, and Jason Simon, who is shooting for January on Ingersoll. Both those pasta houses will also serve pizza. CVProof 1301 Locust St., 244-0655 Mon.-Fri. 11 a.m.-2 p.m., Wed.-Sat. 5-10 p.m.