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For Good Food, Look to a War Zone

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Hummus, ubiquitous around the world, intersects cultures that have fought for centuries.

Anyone who’s ever eaten knows that food can bring people together. And as a core pillar of a culture, it can also drive people apart.

But when entire cultures intersect, big things start to happen. Lionel Beehner, a longtime foreign correspondent and policy expert has a compelling theory that internecine conflict generally results in a legacy of dynamic food. Think of the Middle East, which has cuisine elements from Jewish, Muslim, Ottoman, and Western European cultures. Or Georgia, which has been invaded by people from places as different as Mongolia, Turkey, and Iran. For the fusion of foods and cultures to work, invading people need to stick around, which explains why countries like Germany or Japan, central points of 20th century conflict, managed to retain pure forms of their culture.

The theory also shows why stability and peace usually breed culinary boredom. Take the United States, which hasn’t had a prolonged war on its soil since the 19th century. Before that, the only invading military was its culinary sibling, Britain. The result is America’s reputation as a melting pot of many cultures, where you can easily find cuisines from all over the world—though rarely do they unintentionally mix together outside of haute experiments like Korean tacos. Southern food is unique, you might say, but it hardly speaks for all of America.

So it’s reasonable that amid all the brutality of today’s most horrendous conflicts, one side effect might be a more diverse future. Syria’s harrowing civil war may eventually lead to elements of Russia, the U.S., and the Middle East combined. The Central African Republic, lodged in lengthy infighting, might one day incorporate the identities of its neighbors. If North Korea one day falls, the responding forces of Japan, China, the U.S., South Korea, and Western Europe will bring cultures that will inevitably blend.

Which is not to minimize the atrociousness of war, or to say that bloody conflict is required for cultural or culinary innovation. Just that in an unstable world with inevitable conflict, at least food diversity comes, at times, on the side.