People have connected over food and used meals for political ends for centuries. There are good reasons for this. Historically, the dining table has been considered a neutral space where weapons are put aside, frank conversations held, consensus built, and agreements brokered. Egyptian pharaohs, Greek and Roman leaders, Chinese emperors and Russian czars used the lure of food to expand their reach. Jackie Kennedy drew inspiration for her soirees from those of Louis XIV of France. And food-savvy presidents such as Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and Barack Obama used dinners to touch political bases, gather information and promote their agendas.

As the New Testament reminds us, it’s a lot harder to disagree once we have broken bread together. Or as Anthony Bourdain put it, “Food may not be the answer to world peace, but it’s a start.”

Today, the term “culinary diplomacy” is used to describe how global leaders use state dinners and other official meals to communicate in a more personal way. And “gastrodiplomacy” describes the way nations are using their cuisines to market themselves to foreign nations, and promote trade and tourism. Both approaches further soft-power statecraft, as opposed to hard military power, and both have proved to be effective tools of persuasion.

Yet in this time of sharp partisan divisions at home and spiraling violence abroad, people are forgetting, or ignoring, those fundamental lessons of history. The number of connections and deals made over lunch in the Senate Dining Room or at Washington cocktail parties has waned; critics have questioned the value of traditional state dinners in the 21st century; and gastrodiplomacy has been attacked as wasteful and soft.

But such caviling flies in the face of history, common sense and even human biology. The detractors have lost sight of a basic fact: Everyone has to eat.

At our deepest level, we are “biologically engineered for human interaction,” said Robin Dunbar, an emeritus professor of evolutionary psychology at Oxford University. And we seem to need to eat together, even when we don’t agree with one another. We don’t know why this is so, Dr. Dunbar said, but his theory is that communal eating stimulates endorphins, our bodies’ naturally occurring opioids that reinforce good behaviors. Even our closest primate relatives, like chimpanzees and bonobos, don’t eat communally as we do. It is a defining human trait that has ensured our survival — and at times our sanity, as the isolated days of the coronavirus pandemic reminded us.

In the United States, the president is our First Host and state dinners are among the most important events held at the White House. Today, these parties celebrate the conclusion of sometimes tense negotiations with visiting heads of state and are symbolically important. They project American bounty and power, showcase the best of our food and entertainment, and confer honor on guest nations.

The first state dinner for a foreign leader was held in December 1874, when Ulysses Grant hosted King David Kalakaua of the Hawaiian Islands. King Kalakaua had sugar to sell but faced stiff U.S. tariffs, so he traveled to Washington in search of relief. He was welcomed with a state dinner featuring the Marine Band, elaborate decorations in the State Dining Room and a sumptuous meal cooked by Valentino Melah, whose vegetable soups were said in an 1873 book about Washington to be “a little smoother than Peacock’s brains, but not quite so exquisitely flavored as a dish of Nightingale’s tongues.” A month later, President Grant agreed to allow Hawaiian agricultural products, including sugar, to be imported to the United States without tariffs in exchange for various economic privileges. The deal presaged the annexation of Hawaii, which was named our 50th state in 1959, and Grant’s party created a template for state dinners that has changed only a little in a century and a half.

Every president has his own hosting style, of course. When Jimmy Carter brought Menachem Begin of Israel and Anwar el-Sadat of Egypt to Camp David in 1978, he was warned that peace between the blood enemies was nearly impossible. As he shuttled awkwardly between the combatants, Rosalynn Carter arranged platters of food in different areas — cheese fondue here, strawberries dipped in chocolate there, drinks on the patio — hoping the states’ junior delegates would mingle. It worked. If the delegates could break bread and talk peacefully together, “Why couldn’t their leaders?,” she wondered in her memoir, “First Lady From Plains.” Eventually they did, and the Camp David Accords were initialed. “The impossible had been made possible,” the first lady marveled. In March 1979, the Carters hosted Mr. Begin, Mr. Sadat and 1,340 guests at a dinner on the South Lawn.

The Reagans understood instinctively that politics is a form of show business, and in 1985 they engineered a spectacular coup de théâtre by hosting Prince Charles and Princess Diana to a dinner at which John Travolta famously danced with the princess. In 1987, the Reagans hosted a more somber, heartfelt dinner for the Gorbachevs after the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty signaled a thaw in the Cold War. Jack Matlock, a Soviet specialist, noted that the president and the general secretary developed their détente over a series of meals: “It becomes a lot harder to achieve your common goal if you’re not being friendly.”

Lately, skeptics have wondered if state dinners have simply become costly, ritualized anachronisms. Donald Trump held just two state dinners before the pandemic intervened, though he didn’t seem to mind. On the campaign trail in 2016 he said that “we shouldn’t have state dinners at all. We should be eating a hamburger on a conference table, and we should make better deals with China and others.” A like-minded columnist opined in The Philadelphia Inquirer that state dinners “epitomize the isolated, insulated, clubby, elite, bubble world of Washington.”

But gastrodiplomacy is the opposite of isolationism. In February, the Biden administration and the James Beard Foundation launched the American Culinary Corps, which uses our gloriously polyglot cuisine to promote good will. Under the program, which was created in 2012 during the Obama administration and lapsed in 2016, more than 80 chefs and culinary professionals — including José Andrés, Padma Lakshmi, Grace Young, Sean Sherman and Carla Hall — have agreed to serve as “citizen diplomats.” So far about 30 percent of these culinary ambassadors have fanned out across the country and around the world to spread the good word about American cookery.

At the James Beard Foundation award ceremony in June, Secretary of State Antony Blinken observed that American food is “a vital part of how we connect to the world.” He added that sharing a meal “often leads to new conversations and connections that could only happen around a dining table, not a conference table.” In reviving the American Culinary Corps, the State Department said its objective was to add food to its “public diplomacy tool kit.”

Critics pounced. Social media users condemned the initiative as “stupid” and “a terrible use of taxpayer $$.” Richard Grenell, Mr. Trump’s former acting director of national intelligence, added: “No, no, no. Diplomacy does not begin with good food. Stop! Foreign Service Officers should be furious with this type of messaging that emphasizes a weak State Department interested in food & travel.”

But to remove such a proven tool from our diplomatic kit would be self-defeating. Food is more than sustenance: It is identity, history, a universal language. State dinners and the American Culinary Corps burnish America’s profile, national security and foreign policy. They are good investments but perhaps most important, such initiatives encourage leaders and citizens to get to know one another as individual humans, rather than as cardboard symbols.

When Julia Child attended Lyndon Johnson’s 1967 state dinner for Prime Minister Eisaku Sato of Japan, an important ally during the Vietnam War, she noted on a television documentary about the dinner that the two leaders “seem relaxed, friendly and happy together — and that’s the point of this whole affair.”

It’s this face-to-face, plate-to-plate, human aspect that makes culinary diplomacy effective and vital in our increasingly atomized, siloed, virtual world. Food is a trendy and tender subject, and rather than ignore that fact, we should embrace it. After all, breaking bread together is a biological imperative.

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