December 4 was World Turkish Coffee Day. This international recognition of Turkey’s iconic caffeinated brew is due in no small part to the efforts of one woman, Gizem Salcigil White. From getting Turkish coffee elevated to the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) list of intangible cultural heritage foods to her public relations coup in New York Times Square to celebrate this event two years ago, White has played a central role in efforts to elevate her country’s brew.
White may not realize it, but her efforts to promote her nation’s eponymous coffee is a quintessential example of gastrodiplomacy, a form of public diplomacy that promotes food as culture.
White, also known as the Turkish Coffee Lady, is a one-woman ambassador, a gastrodiplomat who has become her country’s greatest promoter of its coffee culture.
GIZEM WHITE’S STORY
White’s story began in 2008 when she came from her native Turkey to study for a master’s degree at Emerson College in Boston. In graduate school, she decided that her life’s vocation would be to use Turkish coffee to brand the country and draw positive attention to its cuisine.
Back then, the concept of gastrodiplomacy in Turkey was non-existent. But this ambitious young entrepreneur began a nation-branding campaign, building on the Turkish saying that “a cup of coffee is remembered for 40 years.” Like all good practitioners of gastrodiplomacy, her goal was to create a food memory that evoked a positive impression of her nation.
What started as a dream of promoting Turkish coffee outside of her homeland transformed into full-time employment branding the famous brew worldwide. Working for the Turkish Embassy, Turkish Airlines, and the World Bank, White pursued her dream of expanding coffee culture outside of Turkey, a unique part of its culinary legacy.
When she started using a food truck to promote Turkish coffee, she traveled throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe. The Turkish diaspora communities rallied in support of her efforts. White became known as the Turkish Coffee Lady — and the name stuck. In 2015 she created the Turkish Lady Foundation to build a community among neighbors and to support other women entrepreneurs.
TURKISH COFFEE AS A TOOL OF GASTRODIPLOMACY
White’s efforts to promote Turkish coffee are part of a growing global trend that recognizes the potential of food to build bridges and promote understanding. It is a tool of peacebuilding, a good vehicle for learning about the diversity of cuisines and people, the nation’s history, and a way to open conversation. Unlike other dishes associated with Turkish culinary culture, where there are regional conflicts about the origin of these foods, coffee may be the moderating factor to start building a national identity around Turkish cuisine.
Food has proven to be another valuable tool of statecraft that can leave a more positive image of a place. Dining together is another way that food builds trust. In Turkey, there is an abundance of culinary goodwill that has been a central part of the country’s attraction to tourists. White’s work using Turkish coffee is also important in helping Turkey’s image around the world.
Food has proven to be another valuable tool of statecraft that can leave a more positive image of a place. Dining together is another way that food builds trust.
“Gastrodiplomacy” is a new term in the culinary lexicon. It is the citizen equivalent of culinary diplomacy. Just as diplomats use food to persuade or show a country’s power through an elaborate meal, individual citizens do the same by opening restaurants featuring the foods of their ancestors. It is a form of what social scientists call “soft power.” Specifically, when we talk about gastrodiplomacy, we understand that food can promote a country’s image for economic benefit — getting products known on a global market and promoting food tourism. The most famous programs started in the early 21st century, with Thailand, Japan, Korea, and Peru leading the way.
Political leaders also consider food a good way to construct a national self-image that can help overcome other geopolitical problems. Middle powers like Turkey like to stand out in a crowd, and what better way to do this than by promoting something as basic as a cup of Turkish coffee? Gastrodiplomacy experts note that “food washing” to overcome a bad reputation can be among the least controversial forms of public diplomacy. For example, in the 1990s, after the end of a decade-long civil war in Peru with the guerilla group, Sendero Luminoso and the Ministry of Tourism created a food campaign called “Mucho Gusto Peru” to entice international tourism and promote a positive image of the country. Mexico also launched a successful branding effort, “Ven a Comer,” to promote the country as a food destination rather than a place where food could make you sick.
Finally, using food as a tool for conflict resolution and peacebuilding is a growing trend. One danger, however, is that using food to support political identity can result in greater polarization when different communities take sides on who “owns” a particular dish. “Gastronativism,” the ideological use of food in politics to advance ideas about who belongs to a community and who does not, can create problems and political polarization, according to Fabio Parasecoli, an Italian food scholar. Aside from coffee, regional competition in Turkey over specific dishes has become a source of these divisions in recent years. For instance, stuffed grape leaves, a staple of the Levant, have also become a source of conflict between Turkey and Azerbaijan.
But why is the tradition of coffee drinking in Turkey so tied to our understanding of gastrodiplomacy? It’s because coffee consumption in Turkey dates to the 16th century when the Turkish Governor of Yemen Ozdemir Pasha introduced it and brought it to the attention of the Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent. The sultan’s staff decided to try a new method for preparing the drink. They used mortars to finely grind the coffee and then brewed it using a special pot called an Ibrik. It was immediately a big hit in the palace and became an integral part of Turkish history and culture.
But coffee can also be political. In 1656, the Ottoman Grand Vizier Koprulu issued laws to shut down the coffee houses. They were believed to be meeting places for discussing politics and even ways to take down the sultan. Those in power viewed the coffee houses as a threat and tried to snuff out the flames of rebellion preemptively.
Because the tradition of preparing and drinking Turkish coffee is symbolic of friendship, entertainment, and hospitality, it is also a form of non-verbal communication, a key element in food diplomacy. The act of preparing and drinking coffee is full of symbolism. It conveys trust and friendship. According to the diary of Mehmet Efendi, the sultan’s ambassador to France in the 18th century, he was accompanied by a person whose sole job was to prepare Turkish coffee.
Today, the reaches of what was once the Ottoman Empire are evident as coffee is brewed in a wide swath of Europe, the Middle East, and Central Asia. What we call Turkish coffee is the prevalent brew in the Balkans, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Israel, Palestine, Ukraine, and Armenia, to mention just a few places.
Coffee nationalism can be a source of conflict if you dare to misname the brew. When Turkey invaded Cyprus, what was once called Greek coffee was rebranded as Turkish coffee. A similar experience occurred in the Greek province of Smyrna during the Greco-Turkey War (1919-1922) when Turkey captured what is now known as the city of Izmir. Along with this victory came the renaming of coffee. There exists a deep-seated nationalism about Turkish coffee. This is less about gastrodiplomacy and more about gastronativism.
WORLD TURKISH COFFEE DAY 2022
This year, White hosted a celebration of Turkish culture, including a sampling of the different regional coffee brews, at the Masonic Temple in Alexandria, Virginia. More than just a gathering, the afternoon featured various aspects of Turkish culture and the work that White has done to educate Americans about her coffee brew. A congressional decree honoring the day and a local declaration by the city of Alexandria reinforced the international reach of her efforts.
So, what is next for Turkish Coffee Lady? She is forging ahead with new ways to highlight her passion for coffee, focusing her work on women entrepreneurs and teaching people that to share a cup of coffee is to share a lifetime. But White is shooting for the stars. On a recent visit to Los Angeles, where she was promoting a documentary she made about Turkish coffee, she posted a picture on her Instagram page. It featured White and her team admiring a new star on the famous Hollywood walk of stars for The Turkish Coffee Lady. When I saw this photo, I called her to see whether this was true. She confessed the photo was not real, but now that she is the star of a documentary promoting Turkish coffee, she does not doubt that she will achieve her next mission in gastrodiplomacy in 2023.
As a close observer of Turkey’s culinary scene and co-owner of Culinary Backstreets, Yigal Schleifer, noted, “There is only so much we can ask food to do when it comes to bridging divides. It cannot help you cross the bridge.” Yet, if anyone can help Turkey rebuild its international image, White will lead the way with her velvety brew of Turkish coffee.
Johanna Mendelson Forman is an Adjunct Professor at American University’s School of International Service, where she teaches about food, war, and diaspora communities. She is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Stimson Center, Washington, DC.