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by Dan Cherrington, Kansas City, Missouri

Throughout the history of our country we have enjoyed the abundance of wonderful foods which Mother Nature provides. From the time of the pilgrims celebrating Thanksgiving with the Native Americans, they shared food. Perhaps because of this, food has emerged as our greatest equalizer. It levels out the inadequacies of our capitalism and crosses over our racial barriers. Food, more than any one contributor, brings people together. We all need it. We all enjoy good food. Even those who must be helped to feed themselves share our emotions for food. There is just an innate good feeling about enjoying a meal.

Just think about the diversity of restaurants in Kansas City. People have come from all parts of the world with hope and ambition and the recognition that their ability to prepare food may be the key to a secure future. Americans revel in the ethnicity of our appetites. We frequent Italian and Chinese and Mexican restaurants with enthusiasm. Our own blend of backgrounds brings us Cajun, Pacific Rim, New England and even Barbeque. We avail ourselves to a little of the culture of the world each time we choose a place to eat. Many of the more fashionable restaurants today present "fusion" cooking weaving together the aspects of creativity and availability of products from different lands.

This brings me to our global awakening to many new and previously unavailable products. Just as the internet spreads around the world, so too does the accessibility to the foods of the world. We have reached beyond what we raise regionally to the point of finding many products in our supermarkets today that were certainly unavailable and possibly unheard of before. Our marketplaces have grown to offer not only the produce of the world, but in many cases the prepared product ready to consume. Packagers and marketers have paid attention too. We are given a wider variety of components and prepared meals from which to choose. The shortcuts to an enjoyable meal are endless. And we're buying this stuff up at a rate that boggles the mind.

I don't know if you've ever attended a food fair similar to the Kansas City Food Festival, but part of what amazes me is the cross-culture of the event. A Hispanic-American gnawing on a turkey leg, an African-American munching on an egg roll, a Mid-Westerner trying satay from Indonesia; everybody together having a good time with food as the common denominator. Even in times of disparity, human events will cause people in restaurants who were eating together to come together to share the moment. When they look around at each other, they might see that we're not so different from one another after all. Many of us are sheltered in our contact with persons of another race or society but if we were to look at it, food provides commonality.

I recently had the opportunity to judge at the American Royal Barbecue Contests and met people from all over the map. Some had direct food associations but many did not. The really neat thing was that we were all there with a single goal, to have fun and eat. Our economic backgrounds didn't matter. What we do for a living didn't matter. What part of the country, let alone what part of town, we come from didn't matter. The color of our skin didn't matter. Can you think of any other situation that is so blind to our prejudices? We had a million African-Americans marching on Washington; why not add a million Hispanic-Americans, a million Caucasian-Americans, and a million Asian-Americans and set up tables and let's discuss our problems rationally over a plate of food. We might actually accomplish something. At least, it would get all of us talking together and wouldn't that be a novel idea.

Not to be overlooked, we must consider the gender issue as well. The kitchen provides essentially a level playing field. As society has changed with more women in the work force, men have had to learn to fend for themselves to a certain extent when it comes to preparing meals. Men have always had the ability to cook, many of the finest Chefs of the world are men, but it is the combination of necessity and the acceptance of men in the kitchen that has changed our views. A friend of mine, a widower, now comes home from a day at the office and then soccer practice to, "Hey Dad! What's for dinner?". It is no longer the social taboo that a man should or could want to cook.

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I find it interesting that as our world has opened up to us, first through the airlines and now through the computer lines, we find reflections of that openness in our own kitchens. How many of you are old enough to remember when any self-respecting household would have at least one fondue pot? How about a Chinese wok? Who hasn't heard of Cajun "blackened" whatever by now? When was the last time you fixed your family a mess of tacos? Or a big bowl of spaghetti and sauce? These are just the first signs of change that will eventually find its way into all of our lives. Our openness to change is encouraging but we must pay closer attention to cultivate the real benefit. If we can get to know other people, their history and their differences, through food, we are one step closer to acceptance. The ignorance of the ages past can and must be overcome as we continue to fill the planet with more and more people.

As in Rwanda, Bosnia, Ethiopia, or the site of natural disaster like hurricane Andrew, we must acknowledge our brothers and sisters and keep the change alive through food. We can not allow people to go hungry! Not just because it's an unethical thing to do, rather because we must continue to grow as a global community. If we allow cultures to fade and die, we ultimately will pay the price for that passing by maybe missing something wonderful which that culture could have brought into our homes at a later time. Again the truth of food can be the door to better relations for all people. We must focus on those things which will bring us together, not further divide. They say the insights and radical nature of the children of the 60's has disappeared; I say look to food for its many possibilities.

Food in all of its forms offers opportunity. The farmers, breeders, and producers make up a large segment of our population. In some cases it can be an entire family effort, in others a secure job working for one of the food giants. It can encompass the resources of a retail chain operation to a pick-up loaded wit pumpkins. Food provides jobs at the base level for increasing numbers of young and old alike. Food provides a means to an end for all of those people who are really something else while they wait tables. For the ambitious and artistic, food provides the necessary outlet for expression. Students of food can learn to cook and create their own security and style. Volunteers can aid in the collection and dispersal of food. Food is forever, and as I heard one cook say, "I've never met a lonely Chef. Everyone loves someone who cooks."

We must prompt conversations at the dinner table about what's being served. Talk about the history of the people who brought this food to our attention. Talk about the purveyors of food and the suppliers of food products and how their efforts impact on what we eat. Encourage diversity in knowledge by experimentation in taste. Open your family's eyes to the world which may exist beyond a single dish on the table. Talk to other patrons in restaurants. Dining isn't a private thing. Don't you usually hate to have to eat by yourself? There's a reason, it's called community. Ask the folks at the next table what they're having and how it is. I had one of my best experiences by striking up a conversation with the people at the next table. Turns out they were in town from Texas and they were excited about the food. We shared some wine, we even shared some food, but what we really shared was ourselves with one another!

That's what I mean by Food - the Great Equalizer. It can bring us closer together. It can educate us. It can make us look at our similarities, as well as our differences. It can prompt thought. It can create change. It can fix an inequality and make everybody feel better for having done something. Food can truly be amazing, and it's good and good for you! Who could possibly ask for more than the individual empowerment which food gives each of us? We have the freedom of choice, we weigh our decisions, we calculate the cost, and, ultimately, we satisfy ourselves. Not a bad lesson in life.