February 23rd, 2011
06:00 AM ET
By Gabe LaMonica, CNN
It was the hot dogs that broke down religious barriers.
Megachurch pastor Phil Hotsenpiller and his wife, Tammy, invited their Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist neighbors over to their Southern California home for an interfaith, multicultural meal.
But not just any meal: This one was being filmed as a pilot for a reality TV show based on Tammy Hotsenpiller’s book, “Taste of Humanity" – which she described as an attempt to “bring cultures together through cuisine.”
“I had everyone bring something from their country,” Tammy Hotsenpiller recalled, “and I thought, ‘Well what is America known for? I mean, apple pie and hot dogs.’ So I brought apple pie and hot dogs. We did a hot dog bar with all the condiments and everything else."
Their neighbors hadn’t gotten together in 20 years.
“And the first thing [our guests] asked was, ‘Was it kosher? Are they beef? Are they pork?’
"So it gave us an opportunity to talk about their conviction and why they don’t eat pork and what that means, and it really opened up some great opportunities of dialogue and conversation – just really over cuisine – all of us sitting down and talking about what our beliefs are."
The Hotsenpillers won’t say which networks they’re pitching the reality show to. Ashley Williams, who has worked as a segment producer for ABC's "The Bachelor," filmed the pilot. In 30 minute episodes, the Hotsenpilles say, the program would showcase dinners held in the homes of people from neighborhoods across America.
They’ve also shot two international pilots in Ethiopia and India.
Because of changing U.S. demographics, American food is defined less by hot dogs and apple pie and more by the cuisines of a multitude of cultures.
As Phil Hotsenpiller notes, “There’s no atheist food."
“I have friends that are atheists,” he said. “I can dialogue with them – we don’t agree – but it’s a whole lot easier to sit down and talk to someone of a different belief or non-belief system if we’ve got a piece of food in our hand and a fork in our hand and we’re trying to break down some barriers and build some understanding.
“I’m not going to become a Muslim, but that doesn’t mean I can’t eat with a Muslim, respect a Muslim, dialogue with a Muslim, and try to understand their perspective,” he said.
The Hotsenpillers are well traveled. In December they were in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where they attended a dinner with representatives of more than two dozen embassies.
"As we sat next to each other filling our plates with one another’s cuisine – our plates were so beautiful – you could taste the culture through the basic food groups," Tammy Hotsenpiller said. "[Despite] the wars and prejudice and all kinds of issues [that] were going on in each of these people’s countries, cuisine was a way we could sit down and really bridge that.
"Most of us use the same basic ingredients in every culture – it’s just how we use the ingredients," she said.
"Just trying each other’s cuisine, not being afraid to try something new, will hopefully then open doors to conversation."
Hotsenpiller, who calls herself a “culture coach,” said, “Most people are intimidated by each other until you can sit down and really taste each other’s culture, through cuisine, conversation, costume, customs, so that’s really what the reality show is based on: merging into one another’s culture by sitting down and tasting humanity.”
In terms of their beliefs, Phil Hotsenpiller said, “We’re both of the Christian faith and we believe Christ is our savior and the Bible is our guide. At the same time we hold a really strong belief that we live in a world that we have to live together, and we want to find ways to respect people and honor people and the way they live their life and live with the freedom to choose and to thrive.”
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.