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Herb Rothschild: Peace begins at the table

The first TV cooking show I can remember featured Lena Richards, an African American woman who owned Lena Richard’s Gumbo Shop in New Orleans. The show seemed completely removed from the pervasive racism of the society in which I grew up. Only now does it occur to me that Ms. Richards was the only black person to make regular appearances on our local TV back then. I guess our devotion to food trumped everything, even our bigotry.

When the Food Network started on cable TV in 1993, I enjoyed watching its programs. The format was simple: One or two people would talk to us as they prepared a meal. The shows were instructive, but equally important, they were friendly. I liked being in the kitchen with Rachael Ray or Ina Garten or Mario Batali. I wanted to sit down with them after the show and get to know them over the food they had prepared.

Such civility couldn’t last. Starting with “Iron Chef,” the kitchen has become a battlefield or, to use the title of a show that debuted last year, “Cutthroat Kitchen.” People are pitted against each other and subjected to harsh criticism. Losers are interviewed after being “chopped.”

Americans’ ability to turn just about anything into belligerence seems boundless. We’ve had “Bride Wars,” “Parking Wars,” “Shipping Wars,” “Storage Wars,” “Whale Wars.” But “Cupcake Wars”? Gimme a break.

Does this inclination induce our nation to go to war with abnormal frequency, or do our incessant wars validate and exaggerate what would otherwise be a normal amount of psychic aggression? On the fundamental question of how attitude and behavior are related, I hold that behavior shapes attitude more than vice versa. We are malleable beings, and quickly adapt to our cultural situations.

Certainly in practice it’s easier to change a culture than to convince individuals who must function within it to change their attitudes. If the end of legal segregation in the land of my birth had depended on a widespread change of heart by white Southerners, there’d still be separate drinking fountains. Racism remains, but I doubt if the Old Confederacy would vote to reinstate Jim Crow. You can’t win national championships now with whites-only football teams.

We must de-militarize our foreign policy before we can de-militarize our national psyche. In part that change may come because war isn’t working for us any more. But it also will require creating sub-cultures of peace in which individuals experience the joy of sharing and mutual fulfillment.

What better place to begin than at the dinner table? Historically and trans-culturally, the meal has been the occasion for experiencing community. In early Christian practice, the meal was central. “They knew him in the breaking of the bread.”

But we must enlarge our dinner tables, figuratively if not literally. A major way that Jesus offended the religious establishment of his time was to keep an open table, one at which outsiders were welcome. That seemed to be his way of modeling the “Kingdom,” a cultural space in which the Beloved Community forms.

Peace House spends a lot of its energy opposing U.S. militarism. It also hosts a community meal every Tuesday called Uncle Foods Diner to which all Ashland, especially its poorest residents, are invited. When I first connected with Peace House, I didn’t understand why a social change organization was running what seemed to be a social service project. I finally understood. Such a meal is social change.

Maybe we can get it on the Food Network.

Herb Rothschild Jr. is chairman of the board of Peace House, an Ashland-based nonprofit group promoting public advocacy, nonviolence and cooperation among similar organizations.