Blog: MCA DNA

Fueling the Enemy Kitchen

By Nash Hott

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On the evening of June 21, I was copied on an urgent email from Chicago-based artist Michael Rakowitz. Someone had broken into his Enemy Kitchen food truck, which was conceived as part of a larger project connecting Iraqi food and culture with the American public—bringing issues to the table and challenging the idea of who an enemy is through the communal ritual of eating. The truck was parked behind Babylon Bistro on Peterson Avenue, and after finding nothing of value in the truck, the assailant broke into the restaurant. The truck had been attracting negative attention ever since it was permanently parked behind the restaurant in 2012, and, now that it was inciting further property damage and theft, it had to go. Michael was having it towed the next day.

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The museum had hoped to refurbish the truck and bring this project to the museum as part of his exhibition opening in September and documenting the damage was the perfect visual to use as part of the campaign to fix the truck. So, the next morning I was in a cab with our staff videographer, camera gear in tow, driving up Lake Shore Drive and through Edgewater to the West Ridge neighborhood, on Chicago’s far North Side.

Babylon Bistro looked empty, so we headed out back to find the truck. As we turned the corner, there it was, the unmistakable upcycled ice cream truck (circa 1960) painted army green.

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In its glory days, the Enemy Kitchen food truck was iconic—with its imposing golden eagle, borrowed from an engraving on Saddam Hussein’s silverware, on its side and a flag raised high, Iraqi or Kurdish depending on who was running the kitchen. But now, the truck that I had heard so much about was run-down, unremarkable—nothing like the original. What was once a proud symbol of acceptance and hospitality was defeated. The proud eagle decals had been scraped away, leaving phantom images of their former shape.

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We weren’t there for long before a tow truck pulled into the alley, and that’s when the restaurant came to life. The crew inside Babylon poured out the rear entrance. They wanted to know why a tow truck was there and why I was there with a cameraman. As soon as we explained the situation, they began to assist by moving their cars so we could take better photos of the food truck and so the tow truck could access it.

The tow truck driver asked if I had the keys. Nope. We couldn’t tow the truck if it wasn’t in neutral. At that moment, Michael strolled up, appearing out of nowhere with impeccable timing. He didn’t have the keys either. In fact, no one had seen the keys in some time. We improvised. The tow truck driver slid open the ordering window and slipped inside legs first, maneuvered the gear shift into neutral, and let himself out the passenger door. After fiddling with the pneumatic levers, the truck was hoisted. Its axel swayed loosely. Michael took one last inspection of the truck, looking at its exposed undercarriage. With a lurch the trucks were on their way, around the corner, and down Peterson toward Shadi & Son’s auto shop.

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I left the back alley of Babylon’s with mixed feelings. It was a little bit disheartening to see the once important artwork and community engagement piece so disrespected with tags. But they were validations that this truck, and the conversations it attempts to provoke, are still very necessary. I am hopeful that we will see this truck transformed. With the help of our Kickstarter campaign, the public can take that which was once a nuisance and again turn it into a living, breathing work of art.

Donate to the campaign today through August 31 and join us on September 16 and 29 and October 22, when the Enemy Kitchen food truck activates the MCA Plaza.