Opening Shot: Top-rated pastry chef Frederic Cyr from the world renowned Fairmont-Frontenac Hotel created a camera ready version of the American pecan-rum cake. Photo courtesy of the Fairmont-Frontenac Hotel
By Melanie Zimmerman
The Romans made peace with their enemies by sharing a meal. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield famously rendered Louisiana “gumbo diplomacy” by sharing it with foreign presidents. The Department of State launched its own diplomatic culinary partnership by sending American chefs to locations around the world, and by bringing international chefs to America through the International Visitor Leadership Program. Embassy Paris opened the ambassador’s kitchen on the beautiful Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré to MasterChef France. The U.S. Consulate General in Québec City, in its own way, proudly carried on this tradition of bringing people together with food.
Over nearly 18 months, strict but necessary Québec government restrictions hampered or altogether halted most conventional diplomatic outreach efforts. What had quickly become traditional breakfast meetings at the scenic consulate residence—perched high-up in Old Québec—or coffee and cookie get-togethers were now forbidden. This included restrictions on human contact outside immediate family bubbles. With cruise travel halted, tourists disappeared almost instantaneously, emptying hotels and making Québec City a virtual ghost town. The picturesque and usually busy wooden boardwalk at the heart of the old city was now completely deserted.
In a territory as vast as ConGen Québec City’s (the largest U.S. consular district in the world by perimeter, roughly the size of Alaska and Texas combined), reaching remote populations inside the locked-down Arctic (more than 1,800 miles away), distant Gaspésie, or Côte-Nord at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River was a real challenge. One delicious option, however, remained: pursuing and intensifying the post’s existing culinary diplomacy initiatives.
In May 2021, wanting to honor Québec, Canadian, and American national celebrations all occurring within days of each other, and in compliance with local health guidelines, ConGen Québec City launched three culinary diplomacy initiatives called “Desserts with Diplomats.”
The first initiative was called MasterChef “à la québécoise”, and featured the Lieutenant Governor and his wife as the VIP judges. The event was held in the kitchen-classroom at the Grand Marché with five teams made-up of Québecers with roots in Senegal, France, Chile, Mexico, Algeria, Lebanon, Cameroon, Haiti, and the U.S.
The second initiative featured an exchange of desserts and a Facebook Live tasting and chat between Consul General Melanie Zimmerman and Québec’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Nadine Girault. The minister sent strawberry-basil cupcakes and local rosé wine to Zimmerman, and Zimmerman shared a rum-pecan-apple cake and California sparkling wine with Girault.
The third initiative was a socially distanced bake-your-cake-at-home community event, which was the biggest success in the “Desserts with Diplomats” series of events. It consisted of sending baking kits to more than a dozen close contacts, each representing a specific underrepresented demographic group living in Québec City. Participants were asked to snap a photograph of themselves baking the cake resulting in an impressive mosaic of diversity. The event demonstrated, in a concrete and tasty way, how varied and strong consulate ties to the different communities are. Overall, the most sought after dessert for each of these events was a delicious American pecan-rum cake, made with locally produced Québec rum.
All three “Desserts with Diplomats” events reached large audiences and garnered very positive feedback from attendees. Attending the “Cake in the Box” event included Florent Tchatchoua, a journalist from the African (Cameroonian) diaspora; Megda Belkacemi, a Muslim lawyer whose father was murdered in the 2017 Québec City Mosque massacre; Boufeldja Adbdallah, a wise Algerian-born agronomist and Mosque spokesperson, and his Lebanese wife Nadia Ben Adbdallah, a professor; Marie-Emilie Lacroix, a Mashteuiatsh Innu who is a midwife, healer, and teacher; Guylaine Demers, a professor and LGBTQI+ advocate; and Bruce Myers, an Anglophone Anglican bishop. Grassroots community activists Cindy-Lee McKenzie and her young daughters also put their baking skills to the test as did the deputy consul general from Montreal. The consulate team even got cheeky and asked their neighbor, the world renowned, iconic Fairmont-Frontenac Hotel to join in the fun, with their top-rated pastry chef Frederic Cyr making a delectable—and camera ready—version of the American pecan-rum cake.
Consulate General Québec City’s initiative of connecting people and communities through food happily coincided with the Mayor of Québec’s push for a harmonious social cohesion that allowed for cultural, religious, and ethnic plurality within a largely homogeneous Québec society. When baking the now famous American pecan-rum cake, the consulate’s community bakers demonstrated this very plurality by showcasing and adapting the basic recipe and ingredients to their faith, culture, and individual taste. A nod to the Maghreb, orange blossom syrup replaced rum, local berries prized by the Innu were folded in, and the consul general drizzled American whiskey into the batter. The result was a stunning symphony of original cakes and a delicious example of how culinary diplomacy, with a little help from the American consulate, can bring diverse Québec communities together.
Keeping with the culinary diplomacy theme during the holiday season, dozens and dozens of bright, homemade American cookie boxes—supplemented with the obligatory candy canes and Hershey kisses—were shipped to the four corners of Québec and Nunavut, tastily making their way onto the tables and desks of provincial and territorial premiers, members of the national assembly, government ministers, indigenous and religious leaders, economic actors, community activists, and more. The consulate cookie box became an edible symbol of their enduring ties and a sweet manifestation of American friendship.
In order to palliate the prohibition on gatherings and de facto kibosh on traditional diplomatic Fourth of July parties, a number of consulates throughout Mission Canada brought celebrations directly into Canadian living rooms by delivering fun “Independence Day Party in a Box” care packages. They were filled with typical American snacks, drinks, flags, and other party supplies to allow for safe, in-home family celebrations. In Québec City, the consulate team married-up the province-wide obsession with camping and an iconic American outdoor summer dessert: s’mores. For days the consulate staff hunted for guimauve (marshmallows), Hershey’s chocolate bars, and graham crackers—which was no easy feat in a French-culinary focused culture. The team drafted “How to make s’mores” instructions in French (“Les j’en veux plus”), and finally delivered their culinary diplomatic missives to more than 50 contacts. Since Québec City also covers the Arctic region of Nunavik and the territory of Nunavut, they included their Inuit friends, sending boxes as far north as the Arctic circle near Iqaluit.
Diplomacy comes in many shapes and sizes and can be effective in so many unique and different ways. During the lengthy pandemic lock-down, the ConGen Québec City team found that culinary diplomacy was a constructive, powerful, and delicious way to continue to stay in touch and build bridges with their Québec, Arctic, and Canadian friends, partners, and allies.
Melanie Zimmerman is consul general at the U.S. Consulate General in Québec City.