The premise behind How to Feed a Dictator, by Polish journalist, Witold Szablowski, a meme that circulates around the internet saying: “Who knew that the hardest part of being an adult is figuring out what to cook for dinner, every single night of your life, until you die.” Add to that the idea that a bad meal could result in you being executed, and you have a neat summary of the book’s topic.
How to Feed a Dictator is one of those interesting and unexpected finds that you come across when searching through bookstore discount sections. A couple of weeks ago I went up to McNally Robinson to pick up a book I had on pre-order. While there, I wandered around the store. I look through the Mystery and Food Writing sections. As always, I also visited the discount book section, which was where I found How to Feed a Dictator.
Meet the Dictators and Cooks:
How to Feed a Dictator delves into the experiences of the cooks for five different dictators: Saddam Hussein, Idi Amin(Milton Obote), Enver Hoxha, Fidel Castro, and Pol Pot.
While these dictators may have had other cooks during their lifetimes, the book focuses on seven. Listed in order of the dictators above: Abu Ali (Hussein), Otonde Odera(Amin/Obote). Mr. K.(Hoxha), Erasmo & Flores(Castro), and Auntie Moeun(Pot).
How to Feed a Dictator Review
In the introduction, Szablowski writes about how working in kitchens, dreaming about being a cook, and a movie about army cooks(including Branko Trebovic cook to Josip Tito), lead him to start thinking about this project.
Over the next several years he made the time and effort to get into touch with people who had served as cooks for dictators. This is hard work. He employs many intermediaries to assist him as he researches How to Cook for a Dictator. Not surprisingly many of the conversations leading up to the ones recounted in the book took place over meals, or in the kitchen.
Even though all of the dictators listed are dead, there often lingers a fear of retribution for speaking about them. As well, the cooks tended to shelter themselves from the political actions of their employers. As one reads the stories about life cooking for a dictator, this is isn’t surprising.
Although each of the cooks has their own story, there are some commonalities. One is that each of the chefs was specially recruited. This generally involves a testing of their skills. More importantly it involves background checks. These may involve loyalty to the cause. Or, finding out whether or not their family contains dissidents.
One thing that is different among the cooks profiled in How to Feed a Dictator is the road they took to becoming cook for the dictator. Some, like Erasmo, started off in a different role. Erasmo was Castro’s bodyguard. Auntie Moeun had never even cooked before Pol Pot asked her to cook for him. Abu Ali was a soldier, but thought it would be better for his health and safety if he let it be known he had been a cook before joining the army.
Fear is one of the greatest weapons in a dictator’s arsenal. Knowing that you can be dismissed, imprisoned, or even killed at a moments notice, keeps the cook on edge. Reading the moods of the dictator is a very important skill for a cook to possess. Along with that skill all the cooks need to know what dishes will enhance a good mood, or improve a bad mood(the latter being more important for the cook’s wellbeing).
One story that captures the absurd reality of this fear concerns one of Idi Amin’s sons. The son ate too much, took sick and Otonde Odera, the cook, took him to the hospital. While the doctor was working on the son, a phone call arrived from Amin. He had one of the other cooks in his office, a gun to his head.
Just in time, the son farted, and said he felt better. At that Amin felt relieved, and for weeks joked about the fart. Stories like this run through How to Feed a Dictator. However, Otonde later had to flee Uganda after he was betrayed. The betrayal was by a man named Osore, who Otonde thought was a friend. Osore told Amin that Otonde was trying to kill Amin, and Otonde barely escaped with his life.
Perhaps the least known dictator profiled in How to Feed a Dictator is Enver Hoxha, long time ruler of Albania. He had been dead for over 30 years by the time Szabloski started working on this book. Yet his cook only is willing to be identified with the letter K. So deep is the fear and paranoia he instilled in his people.
Jealousy, Loyalty and Love
Jealousy is also a theme that runs throughout the book. Sometimes it is other officials being jealous of the closeness that the cook may share with the dictator. Other times the dictator may be jealous of the relationship between the cook and his spouse. In all cases the cook has to worry about other people exploiting these jealousies to their own ends.
Although fear and jealousy run through How to Feed a Dictator, love and loyalty also run through the book. While the cooks feared their employers, they also felt great loyalty to them. Because they knew the dictator’s favourite foods and how to prepare them in the right way, they often prospered through their role as cooks.
This is most pronounced in the story of Auntie Moeun, Pol Pot’s cook. While she is coy on the subject, she was also most likely at one time, Pot’s lover as well. This love and loyalty, mixed in with the fear, means that most of the cooks hesitate when it comes to talking about atrocities committed by their employers.
It is also evident in the response of Otende, when asked about the rumours that Amin liked to eat human flesh. He feels a great personal pain that he even has to answer that question. He also categorically denies it.
Each tale of a cook features a dish that was a favourite of the dictator that they cooked for. This adds an element of humanity to the tyrants that we read about. A humanizing element you may or may not appreciate.
If you simply read the accounts that the cooks share, you might be led to believe that the dictators profiled were simply misunderstood or misrepresented. To keep How to Feed a Dictator from slanting in that direction, Szablowski employs two other narrative elements.
The first is that he intersperses the stories that the cooks are telling with journalistic accounts of how the dictators were behaving on the national and international stages. Second, the intermediaries I mentioned above, have their own stories of what the rule of the dictators was like.
Another item that comes out in these stories, is that even while they posed as champions of the people, the dictator generally eats much better than the people they supposedly champion. To the extent that the leaders of the Khmer Rouge actually disliked the food of the Khmer people.
How to Feed a Dictator covers an interesting time in the latter part of the 20th century. As we face a rise in authoritarianism in the world, How to Feed a Dictator reminds us of how capricious, callous, and murderous such leaders can be. Even if they treat their cooks well.