Lunchtime for Hitler

Dictators’ Dinners: A Bad Taste Guide to Entertaining Tyrants BY Melissa Scott Victoria Clark. Gilgamesh Publishing. . $23.

The cover of Dictators’ Dinners: A Bad Taste Guide to Entertaining Tyrants

It is bracing, in a way I could never have anticipated six months ago, to read a book that chronicles the exploits of dictators who rose to power in the twentieth century alongside descriptions of the food they liked to eat. Dictators' Dinners: A Bad Taste Guide to Entertaining Tyrants (Gilgamesh Publishing, $23) is filled with photos and food-related anecdotes from this most exclusive club—all male, of course, though a few infamous wives, like Imelda Marcos and Elena Ceauşescu, make cameos—as well as a recipe for each despot. These days, it feels a little less like a lighthearted romp through years gone by (all but one of the dictators here are dead) and more like a book that could continue to expand in subsequent editions. It's not hard to imagine Vladimir Putin in the mix (borscht?), or Rodrigo Duterte (adobo?), or Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (dolmas?). Here at home, while Trump may not yet have officially trampled the Constitution, he certainly leans that way. And we know quite a bit about what he enjoys eating—like the men in Dictators' Dinners, his taste in food has been well-documented.

Some of the details come directly from the source; Trump's infamous Cinco de Mayo taco-bowl tweet will no doubt live on long after his presidency has met whatever ignoble end lies in store for it. But much of our information comes from the endlessly inquisitive press, which likes to report on Trump's culinary preferences almost as much as they did on Hillary Clinton's e-mail server. They even covered the food at an otherwise entirely off-the-record cocktail party at Mar-a-Lago in December, where the Donald wooed his would-be enemies in the media with a very Trumpian combination of cold roast-beef sandwiches, Lay's potato chips in the little bags kids take to school, and Trump-brand Champagne. If you can't report anything Trump said about China or Russia or climate change, posting Instagram shots of the cold buffet he served is clearly the way to go.

One could easily argue that, especially right now, there are many more critical things for the press to cover; Trump's taste in food is hardly interesting, much less unique. So why do we care so much? Brillat-Savarin had an answer for this, of course, in his famous pronouncement: "Tell me what you eat and I shall tell you what you are." The food we associate with people helps us imagine their inner lives. When it comes to our enemies, we use it as a way of affirming that we have nothing in common with them, examining their palates so that we can proclaim our utter repulsion not just at everything they say and do, but everything they eat as well.

In the case of Stalin, a devotee of his native Georgian cuisine, this also extends to the way he ate. He weaponized the very process of dining through extremely long meals (frequently cooked, it should be noted, by his favorite chef, Spiridon Putin, grandfather of that other Putin mentioned above). "Delicious Georgian meals were ideal settings for the sort of lethal power-play that sustained him in power. A Georgian toastmaker . . . at first controls his fellow diners' access to alcohol by the length of his opening speech, and thereafter by ensuring that more and more is drunk to avoid injury to the host's pride." His victims were all formidable in their own ways, and yet none could match him at the dinner table: "Yugoslavia's Tito wound up vomiting into his jacket sleeve and Czechoslovakia's Klement Gottwald found himself begging Stalin to allow his country to join the USSR. Khrushchev himself wet his bed after one marathon dinner." Reading about this, a certain, similarly humiliating political dinner at Jean-Georges last November comes to mind, does it not?

Kim Jong-Il inspecting an ear of corn at the Tongbong Cooperative Farm, North Korea, 2009. EPA/KCNA
Kim Jong-Il inspecting an ear of corn at the Tongbong Cooperative Farm, North Korea, 2009. EPA/KCNA

You may now recall that after the frog's-legs appetizer, Donald Trump (and his sidekick Reince Priebus) ate sirloin steak with citrus-glazed carrots. Poor Mitt Romney ordered lamb chops with a mushroom Bolognese sauce. These delights were followed by three identical orders of chocolate cake, a show of solidarity that counted for nothing when it came time to offer someone the secretary-of-state job. Deals are apparently not sealed by baked goods alone.

Somehow, even before Twitter and BuzzFeed and the Huffington Post, word leaked out about what and how leaders ate with enough regularity to fill a book. Mussolini seems to have placed a premium on family dinner, much as those of us with children have been conditioned to obsess over it. "However pressing affairs of state or extramarital love," we learn, the Italian tyrant "ate his meals at home, with [his wife] Rachele and their five children . . . . He encouraged stimulating discussion and the airing of opinions." There's something kind of touching, if disorienting, about the image of him playing paterfamilias while discussing "the geographical origins of tomatoes" with his offspring on a school night. On the other hand, he didn't like pasta. It "interested him only in so far as it was made from wheat, the production of which needed boosting in the mid 1920s. The battle for bigger wheat harvests was an early fascist success; production went up by a third. Using the Latin word for soldier, [Mussolini] motivated all farmers growing wheat by granting them all the ancient Roman-sounding title, velites." In other words, he saw his country's iconic dish not in terms of its culinary possibilities but as a labor problem to be solved by using martial techniques. Only such a man could have created the Fascist Party in 1919 and aligned Italy with the Nazis and the imperial Japanese. For every culture denier, there's a dictator who embraces culture in a perverse manner. Like Mussolini, Idi Amin took little interest in the food traditions of his home country, preferring instead to adopt the cuisine of the colonists who wreaked havoc on his native Uganda. As the nation's third president—a job he assumed after staging a military coup—Amin loved a full afternoon tea with scones and cucumber sandwiches. It's the perfect embodiment of his vexed position—right down to the fact that one journalist who shared it with him did so "as compensation for being accidentally punched by one of his body guards."

Meanwhile, in Asia, as North Koreans struggled through years of famine, Kim Jong-il treated them with utter disregard, taking an interest in them only when they could help foster his insane culinary expectations: "Hundreds of his luckless people were recruited to the project of preserving his health and vigor by way of his diet. A small army of women was employed to see that every grain of rice destined for his plate was uniform in size, shape and colour. It then had to be cooked over a fire using only trees cut from a mountain peak near the Chinese border." This hyper-artisanal-rice dish is not, I feel compelled to mention, the recipe included in the book. That spot is given to Shark's Fin Soup, made with the real, perilously overfished thing for the North Korean leader but presented here with imitation fins.

Of course, when you're talking about autocrats, paranoia goes with the territory, and here, too, we see how dictators' relations to their food tells us much about what they thought of themselves and their hold over the people they ruled; many of these men were obsessed with the threat of being poisoned. Hitler had a team of fifteen food tasters and didn't eat a thing until forty-five minutes had elapsed without anyone dropping dead. Tito, when he wasn't falling down drunk after a night with Stalin, had a Russian-trained lab technician analyze all of his food. Saddam Hussein had his nuclear scientists check everything he ate, and Nicolae Ceaus,escu traveled with a team of chefs who prepared all of his meals, which were then brought to him and Elena "in a sealed trolley with a lock whose combination was changed daily and known only to a valet." When he was forced to sit at someone else's table, his general practice was to dump his plate on the floor and kick the food away demonstratively.

I haven't said much about the recipes in this book, which look, for the most part, delicious. (I might make an exception for the dried mopani worms preferred by Hastings Kamuzu Banda, who named himself "President for Life" of Malawi in 1971. Something about the note that "the worms will excrete a brown liquid when making contact with human flesh" put me off just a little bit.) But I can't imagine making any of them, freighted as they are with villainy. Whenever these meals were served for the men who demanded them, they were cooked by people whose lives, along with many others, were being ruthlessly crushed by the rulers on the other side of the kitchen door.

This is a truth that Tina Nguyen's recent Vanity Fair review of Trump Grill (or is it Grille?) hinted at (under the subhead "It reveals everything you need to know about our next president"). Though the food was dreadful, ultimately Nguyen's thoughts turned to the people on the line, cranking out the wretched steaks and salads, and those who serve this second-rate fare to customers. "It's written into my contract that I have to vote for Trump," one waiter told the reporter, a mordant joke followed by a not entirely convincing "I'm kidding." Dictators' Dinners aims to convey "just how thin the line between man and monster can be." Often, that line is not visible until it's too late.

Melanie Rehak is the author of Eating for Beginners (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010).