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John Kerry’s Polarizing Turkey Shawarma

The world cries ‘fowl’ about his culinarily curious choice of grub

Adam Chandler
May 24, 2013

Yesterday, word spread high and low (or primarily on Twitter) about Secretary of State John Kerry’s decision to order a turkey shawarma during his trip to Ramallah. Was Kerry living in fear of Michelle Obama’s eat healthy initiative or was this the clumsy culinary equivalent of windsurfing?

Over at Commentary, the turkey shawarma took on symbolic form, where it came to represent the general meaninglessness of Kerry’s trip to the Levant:

At least that’s how Kerry’s trip will seem to those in the region, who probably watched in utter confusion as Kerry made a big deal out of his trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories but spent his time in classic Kerry fashion: mumbling opaque and equivocal platitudes that could have been issued from Washington, just without the shawarma.

Though it’s probably worth pointing out that Kerry reportedly ate turkey shawarma, which of course isn’t shawarma at all but rather a ludicrous shawarma impostor whose proliferation is a terrifying sign of impending total civilizational collapse, and thus Kerry didn’t even accomplish that one goal.

I’m not sure how any secretary of state’s attempt show American investment in the peace process is ever a bad thing, but clearly the shawarma touched a nerve. First, as Blake Hounshell pointed out, there was confusion:

Foreign Policy has confirmed that John Kerry did, in fact, have a turkey shawarma sandwich. But they called it chicken.

Earlier today, Tom Gara added:

Outrage about turkey shawerma ignores the broader point that for shawerma purists, chicken shawerma itself is a recent inauthentic impostor.

I spoke to Tablet’s culinary-revisionist-in-residence Liel Leibovitz about the phenomenon of turkey shawarma. Here’s what he had to say:

“There’s nothing inherently evil about the turkey shawarma. It’s not an unacceptable choice. But one would expect any leader of men who doesn’t feast on shawarma frequently to take the symbolic route, order the lamb, and ask for as much of the fat bit up top, which is how you eat it.”

Ron Kampeas, however, might have made the most sense of it all.

In this case, Kerry might have bridged a cultural divide rather than fell into one. Shawarma, absolutely, is Palestinian. Making it from turkey, though, is an Israeli innovation, stemming from the country’s austere first decades, when lamb and beef were barely available.

This utterly sensible practice (turkey also is healthier) spread to the West Bank, and has persisted there despite the apparent collapse of any other signs of Israeli-Palestinian agreement.

So just as there is turkey, there will always be turkey shawarma. We all have our own guilty pleasures. (Amba is the color of my energy.)

Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.