A new food truck serves Iraqi food and employs U.S. veterans of the Iraq war. Now that’s something to chew on.
Wed Feb 8 2012
Photograph: Martha Williams
We’ve seen them sell cupcakes to a clamoring line, 200 deep. We’ve seen them peddling Naan-wiches and Meatyballs and gourmet mac and cheese. Hell, we’ve even seen tamales handed out of a spaceship-inspired rig manned by masked luchadores. But one thing we’ve yet to see is a food truck selling Iraqi staples, staffed by American veterans of the Iraq War. The juxtaposition of veterans and Iraqi food—and the conversation that it could spark—is exactly what artist Michael Rakowitz was counting on when he began to assemble the players for the Enemy Kitchen food truck, which debuts as part of the Smart Museum’s upcoming show “Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art,” but will roll on as an actual working food truck thereafter.
One of Rakowitz’s key players is Aaron Hughes, an artist and Iraq War vet. Hughes will work the typical service positions on Enemy Kitchen, but he’ll also conduct a performance titled “Tea,” in which each evening at sunset he’ll unfurl an Iraqi prayer rug, fire up a hot plate and begin the time-consuming double-boiler method of traditional Iraqi tea service. When he’s done, he’ll hand passersby cardamom-scented black tea in Styrofoam cups adorned with hand-doodled arabesque flowers.
“In Guantanamo Bay, the only object detainees are allowed to have in their cell are Styrofoam cups for tea, so they draw all over them,” Hughes says. “They never write anything, they always just draw flowers.” Hughes was a soldier in the Illinois Army National Guard 1244th Transportation Company. He was stationed in Kuwait, and drove supply trucks in and out of Iraq daily. “We’d pull into these bases as the sun was setting, and the third-world nationals that are contracted to essentially be indentured servants to soldiers would roll out their prayer rugs, warm tea and offer it to us,” he remembers. “Every night, I would refuse.”
“They were from Pakistan or Bangladesh or other third [world] countries and it was ingrained in us that these individuals—we called them hajis just as we did the Iraqis—could not be trusted,” Hughes continues. “Everything was racialized in war.”
Hughes returned to Chicago in 2006 and found a similar sentiment here, which prompted him to form the Chicago chapter of the Iraq Veterans Against the War. That same year, Rakowitz was leading a group of New York City high-school kids through an after-school program he dubbed Enemy Kitchen. In the utilitarian kitchen of Manhattan’s Hudson Community Guild Center, Rakowitz shared stories about his grandfather, who was exiled from Iraq in 1946; his mother, who lamented the lack of Iraqi restaurants in New York; and his grandmother, who still waxed poetic over their country’s prized dates. As he spoke, the students formed patties of ground lamb and bulgur for the Rakowitz family recipe for kubbe. Inevitably, talk turned to the war.
“A few sessions in, this Puerto Rican girl came in and said ‘I’m sick and tired of making this food. This food is nasty and they blow up our soldiers every day and they knocked down the Twin Towers,’ ” Rakowitz recalls. “And then this one kid Hashim, whose family is from the Caribbean, says, ‘No, the Iraqis didn’t knock down the Twin Towers, it was bin Laden,’ while this other kid, whose family is from Mexico, goes, ‘It wasn’t bin Laden, it was our own government.’ So all of a sudden you have this snapshot of everything, from the misinformation out there and mainstream beliefs to conspiracy theory. I really loved them being able to express this, because I didn’t want to do Enemy Kitchen with an art audience standing around saying ‘Oh, I feel like you’…there’s no friction, no dialogue fueled by a certain sense of opposition.”
Now living in Chicago, teaching at Northwestern’s Department of Art Theory & Practice, Rakowitz has resurrected Enemy Kitchen as a repurposed ’60s-era ice-cream truck. And while that truck will be staffed by veterans of the Iraq War, the food will be cooked by Jawher Shaer and his two sons, who own and run Milo’s Pita Place in Rogers Park. The Shaer men were raised cooking Iraqi specialties such as masgûf, a special grilled fish that is the national dish of Iraq; shish kebab of chicken and lamb; tomatoey stews served over rice; grape leaves stuffed with sautéed zucchini and eggplant; and pacha, an all-day dish in which sheep’s head and trotters are simmered with its stomach, which has been filled with seasoned rice and ground meat then stitched up like a football about to burst in broth.
Their kubbe, shish kebab, stews and salads are among the items that will travel well and fit within the current food truck regulations of being precooked and wrapped, but at the restaurant these classics are tucked away on a menu as deliberately Mediterranean as the restaurant’s logo (a Greek column) and its name (the nickname of one of Jawher’s sons, Milad, but conveniently also a famous Greek island). Milad admits that certain business decisions were made to “put us on the road to success,” and acknowledges an anti-Iraqi sentiment in recent years.
Then again, he and his family did just sign on to back a food truck dubbed Enemy Kitchen, serving exclusively Iraqi food and staffed by Iraq War veterans such as Hughes, Alejandro Villatoro, Ash Woolson, Greg Broseus and Crystal Colon, who are very publicly bringing issues to the table. “We were born in Iraq, we do Iraqi food, and we have a lot of respect for the veterans who fought there, so we are happy to be involved in this project, which we find very interesting,” Milad says. “For instance, Mike [Rakowitz] says Aaron [Hughes] makes great Iraqi tea and he will do this at the truck, which to us is surprising that he would have any interest. For us, tea is mandatory, in every house, after every meal. It is our custom. Now, to have an American soldier make us Iraqi tea? I’m dying to have some.”
Enemy Kitchen will debut at 7pm on Wednesday 15 at the Smart Museum of Art (5550 S Greenwood Ave, 773-702-0200) as part of “Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art.” Beyond that it will operate on Sundays and Mondays throughout Chicago. Check Twitter (@enemykitchen) for locations and times.