Great Food, Lingering Bitterness

At Pittsburgh's Conflict Kitchen, takeout is served with a side of irony: The art project–cum-restaurant–cum political message serves food only from countries that the U.S. is battling.

Conflict's first iteration, which opened Saturday, is the Kubideh Kitchen. It serves kubideh, Iranian ground grilled meat, on flatbread with slices of onion, plus mint and basil leaves, for $5. Sammich looks delicious, as do the gorgeous wrappers that feature commentary on such subjects as bread, tea, and the green movement in Iran from Iranian people living in Pittsburgh and Iran. The menu served by the restaurant will change every four months.

The idea for the shop took hold at a fascinating Pittsburgh institution, the Waffle Shop, a restaurant that serves waffles and runs a live, streaming talk show featuring its customers. Three Waffle Shop insiders, Carnegie Mellon assistant professor Jon Rubin and Pittsburgh artists Dawn Weleski and John Peña, were wondering how best to fill a blank storefront next to the Waffle Shop, and hit upon the idea of serving food from nations the U.S. has a beef with.

"Wars, conflicts, embargoes, general political differences," notes Weleski.

Kubideh's opening party Saturday was a free-to-the-public dinner party with tables pulled up to a projection screen. On the screen was a live image of people having the exact same dinner in a Tehran gallery. The dinner guests in Pittsburgh and Iran could see each other, "and have the same kind of dinner conversation you'd have with strangers," says Weleski. "The conversation ranged from food to film to politics. Two of the guests were young fashion designers who were commiserating with each other over not being able to find work doing what they'd gone to college for, so it was interesting, finding that connection."

Kubideh uses halal meat, as well as nonhalal meat from a local farmer. "We're on our second cow now," notes Weleski. The wheat for the bread is from a local gristmill, and Weleski grows the basil and mint in her backyard. Like most art project/restaurants, Kubideh is not expected to turn a profit, but so far the storefront is breaking even after only a few days, despite being staffed by employees, not volunteers.

Next up: probably Afghan food. "There are a lot of hot stews with rice, butter tea, hot goat's milk—we're looking at that stuff now," says Weleski, who explains that the trio decides what to cook based on economics as well as the recommendations from members of the ethnic community interviewed for the Conflict wrappers, which will also change every four months. "For instance, Jon had an Iranian friend, and his mom's recipe for kubideh is the one we use," says Weleski. Conflict's facade, made of plywood and not attached to the building itself, will also change: "What looks like tile is actually just a sticker on the outside of the plywood," says Weleski. "When we open the next Conflict, we'll put a new sticker up, and the ghost of the last iteration is retained in some way."

Hey! I think there's a deeper meaning there!

Image source: Flickr member More Gardens Less Cars under Creative Commons