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Thursday, May 17, 2012 01:45 pm

Weapons of mass deliciousness


Michael Rakowitz serving Iraqi cuisine from the Enemy Kitchen Food Truck.

It’s performance art. It’s more than a little quirky. It’s fun but also somewhat disconcerting – something that makes you think. And, above all, it’s delicious.

It’s the Enemy Food Truck, the inspiration of Chicago-based artist Michael Rakowitz.

 The Enemy Food Truck is just one element of a current exhibition at the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum. The Smart Museum’s name always makes me smile: Although its name came from the philanthropists David and Alfred Smart who initially funded the museum, it’s almost too appropriate a moniker for a museum in a university that’s home to some of the world’s biggest brains and most innovative thinkers.

The exhibition, called Feast, showcases the works of more than 30 artists and artistic groups. Their mission is to transform the [shared] meal into a compelling artistic and experiential medium. The exhibition’s promotional materials state:

“Since the 1930s, numerous artists have used the simple act of sharing food and drink to advance esthetic goals and to foster critical engagement with the culture of their moment. These artistic-orchestrated meals can offer a radical form of hospitality that punctures everyday experience, using the meal as a means to shift perceptions and spark encounters that aren’t always possible in a fast-moving and segmented society.”

While that may sound over-the-top esoteric, the reality of a guided tour of the exhibit is less so. Visitors are initially offered a spoonful of homemade strawberry preserves on a large silver tray. The strawberry preserves have been handmade by the artist, Ana Prvacki, and then sealed into pint-sized jars. It’s a traditional Serbian custom to offer a spoonful of the preserves, called Slatko, (It’s sometimes made with other fruits, such as blueberry, plum or cherry, but strawberry is most common.) and a glass of water when guests enter the home. According to Pravacki, “The idea is that the guest takes a teaspoon [of the preserves] that will sweeten your visit and sweeten your tongue, and have like a congenial experience.” While that might seem an innocuous folksy gesture, Smart Museum deputy director and chief curator Stephanie Smith says there’s a darker side to this seemingly benign custom: “The idea in Serbia was that if you let your enemy drink from your well or fountain and give him something sweet, they were less likely to engage you in actual battle.”

Although part of Feast’s exhibit is on display at the Smart Museum, there’s lots more to it, including interactive events that will be taking place in and around Chicago during its run. “Throughout its run, Feast will feature lectures, workshops, cocktails, music, conversations, meals and many other activities, all focused on different aspects and manners of sharing food and drink.”

Cuisine from the Enemy Kitchen Food Truck is served on paper reproductions of Saddam Hussein’s palace china.

Even with such sure-to-please participatory exhibits as “The Act of Drinking Beer With Friends is the Highest Form of Art,” most of the buzz about Feast centers on The Enemy Food Truck, the creation of artist Michael Rakowitz. Actually, it’s just his latest effort in an ongoing project that began in 2004, Enemy Kitchen.

Initially his performance art project consisted of cooking with a group of middle and high school students, some of whom had family members stationed in Iraq. According to Rakowitz’s website, “In preparing and then consuming the food, [the recipes for which came from Rakowitz’s Iraqi-Jewish mother] it opened up another topic through which the word ‘Iraq’ could be discussed – in this case, attached to food, as a representative of culture and not as a stream [of images] of a war-torn place.”

“On one occasion, a student…said, ‘Why are we making this nasty food? They (the Iraqis) blow up our soldiers every day and they knocked down the Twin Towers.’ [Another]student said, “The Iraqis didn’t destroy the Twin Towers, bin Laden did.’ Another said, ‘It wasn’t bin Laden, it was our government.’ In this way, Rakowitz says, “the project provided a space where the opinions, myths and facts that are perpetuated in a country during wartime could be communicated and discussed. [It] functioned as a social sculpture: while cooking and eating, the students engaged each other on the topic of war and drew parallels with their own lives, at times making comparisons with bullies in relation to how they perceive the conflict.”

Feast offered Rakowitz the opportunity to take his project on the road. “Initially I thought it might be the first Iraqi restaurant in Chicago,” he says. “What I didn’t know is that Chicago has one of largest Iraqi expat communities. I thought what would be best would be to do something to celebrate that presence and work with it. I thought that they needed a flag.”

And so Rakowitz designed a flag that’s essentially the Chicago flag, but with Iraqi colors. The truck, a decades-old renovated ice cream truck, was in some ways similar to those that Colin Powell told everybody were [supposedly] carrying weapons of mass destruction. “But here we’ll have weapons of mass deliciousness,” Rakowitz says.

To get the Enemy Food Truck moving, Rakowitz needed help. Chicago’s food truck regulations (among the most restrictive in America) require that the food be prepared off-site in a certified kitchen. He found that help at Milo’s Pita Place, a restaurant in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood.

Milo’s is a family place. Milad Shaer is the chef, but he gets lots of help from his father, brother and other family members. The Shaer family hails from northern Iraq, part of the Christian minority that suffered horribly under Saddam Hussein’s rule. The Enemy Food Truck is also staffed by Iraqi war veterans, some of whom are involved in Iraqi Veterans Against the War.

Rakowitz’s goal for his Enemy Food Truck/Kitchen – to initiate and enable conversations about the Iraq war – has its sober side. But he’s included more than a little whimsy that makes it easy to start the discussion. The food is served on paper plate reproductions of Saddam Hussein’s state china (Rakowitz bought original plates on ebay). A stainless steel soap dispenser, engraved with the very symbol that was on Saddam’s silverware, is bolted to the truck’s outside. But instead of soap, it contains rosewater, something that’s traditionally sprinkled on guests’ hair and hands after they’ve enjoyed a good meal and conversation.

Beverages are served in plain white Styrofoam cups that have been hand-decorated with stylized flowers. Aaron Hughes, an Iraqi veteran who helps serve at the Enemy Food Truck, said in a Time Out Chicago magazine interview, “In Guantanamo Bay, the only object detainees are allowed to have in their cells are Styrofoam cups for tea, so they draw all over them.”

Rakowitz says, “For me it becomes very important for the customer to understand the provenance of the recipe – that it comes from Iraq – but also the hands that are making your food – the handwork that went into it is coming from hands on both sides of the conflict.

So what are Rakowitz’s plans for the Enemy Kitchen/food truck after the Smart Museum exhibition closes? He’s developing a cooking show for public access television and the Internet, as well as a series of lessons for public school cafeteria chefs that will help them serve Iraqi food on their everyday menus.

“I love the idea that this is something that could be sustainable,” Rakowitz says.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.

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