I hope you’re feeling safe and well and loved and whole. I wanted to use this month’s read to talk about power, food, and hunger. It seemed appropriate, what with important geopolitical events like my birthday about to take place. Stay safe, keep fighting for what is good and right, you know the drill.
How to Feed a Dictator, Witold Szablowski (trans. Antonia Lloyd-Jones)
“Food is power,” Otonde Odera says in this fascinating series of interviews with people who cooked for infamous dictators around the world. Odera “learned that from cooking for presidents” including Milton Obote and Idi Amin. There was a lot of hoopla around Bon Appetit’s statement that “food is political” earlier this summer as a sanitized, non-response to the deep faultlines of inequity in food and media (“a false shorthand for social justice,” as Alicia Kennedy put it in one of her excellent essays). “Food is power” is more to the point—rather than obscuring its import behind a fraught, polysemic word like ‘political,’ it’s a starting point for exploring how that power is wielded in myriad ways.
One of the most literal ways to do that, of course, is to look at the dictators Saddam Hussein, Idi Amin, Enver Hoxha, Fidel Castro, and Pol Pot “through the eyes of their cooks.” Szablowski foregrounds each cook’s first-person narrative, using his research journey and the history of each regime to frame and contextualize the stories. He lays out the conflicts inherent in retellings of history while offering each speaker the chance to speak for themselves: “I decided that a person has a right to tell their own life story the way they remember it (or want to remember it) years later…if I spotted inconsistencies, I asked about them. But if the interviewee decided that the truth was what they were telling me at that particular moment, I accepted it as such.” I appreciated that Szablowski wasn’t looking to draw a moral conclusion from his interest, but rather to understand and relate how many of the cooks lived in fear, how some saw their dictator with love, and how all of them managed to survive.
The promotion around this book has naturally highlighted the elements of backstairs gossip, but it’s so much more than a salacious dishing about who had a picky palate and who liked to show off (read: threaten to murder people) at the table. It’s about how tastes, cuisines, and cooks relate to larger systems of control. This book makes clear that hunger is an instrument of power, whether it’s imposed as a punishment or wielded as a form of protest. Among other egregious tactics used by Pol Pot’s regime in Cambodia, “hunger helped them maintain discipline.” Starvation tactics contrast sharply with the wealth of food provided to sedate the cronies of a given regime. The kinds of cuisines each dictator chose to serve or ignore are telling, too.
However, the control of food and hunger is most often only an illusion of power. The idea that we can control others’ hunger, or even our own, provides a temporary sense of comfort or strength. But eventually it must shatter. Control, whether individual or systematic, is brittle by nature. Power is always changing and malleable—and ultimately, elusive.
Siobhan Watters explained in a recent Vittles newsletter how freedom is reliant on food: “Food is our first need…a person must be fed if she is to be free.” But our need for food, including the need to work for it, also keeps us within its sway. Full freedom is an illusion, because we’re all beholden to the needs of our bodies and the economic system that we live in. Until we can overhaul that system (leaving aside the limits of biology), it’s worth thinking about how we can be more free and equal within it. About how food can nourish and unite us instead of being used to divide, control, and repress. If food is power, how do we use it well?
Paying attention to how governments use food to keep people down or lift them up is a start. These power dynamics are in everything from food deserts (what/where are your closest food sources?) to supply chains (what can you buy/afford/import?) to which foodways get privileged or ignored. Szablowski’s book is an excellent glimpse into one aspect of food as power: the dynamic between those who make it—sometimes under duress—and those who consume it. My only complaint is that I left the table wanting more. So if you can recommend more reads about food as societal power, please send them my way.
If you like it:
Culinary historian Michael Twitty’s The Cooking Gene traces the roots of slavery, food history, and his personal genealogy to explore the power of food in the American South. It’s well worth reading to better understand how Black foodways have been preserved, consumed, subsumed, and marginalized.
If you don’t:
If you’re in the mood for a more epicurean story (very much where I’m at these days), I recommend the quiet beauty of Kitchen, a novella by Banana Yoshimoto. She explores home, family, and the inheritance of cooking, feeding, and nurturing in transcendent prose. I’m always a fan of M.F.K. Fisher’s writing as comfort food, too.
Things I’ve written lately:
Why Photographers Need Their Own Bill of Rights, Hyperallergic (aka a very important effort to get freelance visual workers the rights and protections they need)
Token gestures—the jewellery of long-distance love, Apollo (aka any excuse to write about eye miniatures and symbolic objects)
Mini book club announcement: Rupert Everett just released a memoir that’s basically about his attempt to become Oscar Wilde, so obviously I have to read it. Email me if you want in on this virtual book club/delightful distraction too.
If you’re enjoying these postcards, feel free to forward to someone else who likes musing book mail!