Polish journalist Witold Szabłowski saw a movie about army cooks that featured Branko Trbovic, the personal cook to Marshal Josip Broz Tito, “the absolute ruler of Yugoslavia” and describes it as being a lightbulb moment: “I started wondering what the people who cooked at key moments in history might have to say. What was bubbling in the saucepans while the world’s fortunes were in the balance?” If you also find yourself intrigued by that question, you’ll love this book.
But it’s a thorny question too, and could have any number of troubling implications. For one, even considering what some of these dictators were eating while the people of their countries were starving or severely deprived could have ended up inconsiderately handled. But Szabłowski ensures the storytelling of these dictators’ former employees is well placed in cultural and historical contexts and all to serve some purpose. And it’s a remarkable project: not only for allowing these people who were so close, often terrifyingly so, to such dangerous figures to describe what it was like in their own words, but to witness what their stories reveal about ordinary lives in dictatorships and the ripple effects of power and terror, even long after the regimes have ended and the dictators are no longer alive.
This book took almost four years to complete, in which time I crossed four continents, from a godforsaken village in the Kenyan savanna to the ruins of ancient babylon to the Cambodian jungle where the last of the Khmer Rouge were in hiding. I shut myself away in the kitchens of the world’s most unusual chefs. I cooked with them, drank rum with them, and played gin rummy with them.
Szabłowski is one of the preeminent Polish journalists working today in the Polish “reportage” genre. This special corner of literature is a bit difficult to define. It’s a little like investigative journalism but with a uniquely Polish twist . There’s some involvement of the author in the story and often a contemporary historical slant to the subject, as well as a focus on travel (think Ryszard Kapuściński, who’s really the cornerstone here). It’s a popular genre in Polish literature, and I love reading it in translation and wish more of it would be translated into English. I mention all this because I think the topic here could garner some criticism or even disgust, but part of Polish reportage involves forcing some light into uncomfortable areas of contemporary history, and this book is a perfect example of how it’s done, and very well.
Szabłowski interviews the personal cooks to Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, Uganda’s Idi Amin, Albania’s Enver Hoxha, Cuba’s Fidel Castro, and Cambodia’s Pol Pot, and through their stories and experiences provides insight into the regimes and the ordinary people who lived and worked under them. They’re allowed to speak in their own words, however edited by time or the desire for a revisionist history that may be in some cases, with Szabłowski providing context or commentary where necessary. Although generally the cooks are just quite frank — telling how they came to the job, what they saw, the pressure they were under.
Having absolutely loved his last book to make it into English, Dancing Bears, I was very enthusiastic about this one and it didn’t disappoint. Szabłowski has a tone all his own, serious and focused but often wry and humorous without losing his clever edge. The cooks are given considerable space to tell their stories in their own words, and Szabłowski can be credited for how at ease he must’ve made them feel to even get them to open up to this point. He also provides a great deal of context for understanding these histories and the associated dictators’ places within, which was very valuable especially if you only know basic outlines around some of these figures.
It was fascinating how many similarities there were among the cooks’ stories, across time and culture and countries. Sometimes in the culinary details, like that the dictators all favored fairly simple repasts. Almost all of the cooks were basically forced into their positions, perhaps unsurprisingly. Some still don’t want their real names used, and some are defensive, like Pol Pot’s chef who defends him relentlessly, with undertones of infatuation. Elsewhere they vehemently dispel some myths, like a persistent one that Idi Amin was a cannibal, which is more likely to have its roots in racism than reality.
Insightful and by far the most unique book around any food-related topic you’ll encounter this year. Not to mention its far-reaching resonance in the valuable social commentary it provides: “At a time when, according to a report issued by the American organization Freedom House, forty-nine countries are ruled by dictators, this is vital information. What’s more, the number keeps rising. Today’s climate favors dictators, and it’s worth knowing all we can about them.”
How to Feed a Dictator:
Saddam Hussein, Idi Amin, Enver Hoxha, Fidel Castro, and Pol Pot Through the Eyes of Their Cooks
by Witold Szabłowski
translated from Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
published April 28, 2020 by Penguin
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.