Szablowski tracked down the cooks who baked birthday cakes and roasted goats for a rogues’ gallery of tyrants.
He got them to talk about everything from Saddam Hussein’s favorite soup (simmer together fish, tomatoes, apricots and almonds, season with turmeric) to whether they ever feared for their lives. Through the eyes of cooks, we glimpse notorious evildoers playing practical jokes with Tabasco sauce and complaining about oversalted omelets, worrying about their health, avoiding wives and longing for the foods of their childhood. The cooks themselves are just as interesting as they tell their life stories and reckon with — or refuse to reckon with — the role they might have played, however small, in abetting tyranny.
Of course, not all of them think they worked for tyrants. Szablowski interviews two of Fidel Castro’s former cooks who offer a single, benign criticism of the Cuban leader: He was a know-it-all. In a ramshackle house furnished with a nonfunctioning television and swarming with cockroaches “the size of a grown man’s thumb,” Szablowski meets the addled Flores. As he does with all his subjects, Szablowski lets Flores speak at length in his own idiosyncratic voice: “I love el Comandante as if he were my father, as if he were my brother; if he came here today and said, ‘Flores, I need your hand,’ I’d cut off my hand and give it to him.”
The only other dictator who inspires such loyalty is Pol Pot. Szablowski travels to a lakeside town popular with Khmer Rouge die-hards to interview Yong Moeun, a merry woman who once made snake soup for Pol Pot but now spends her days watching European football on TV. “There’s a soccer player I like who has the same gentle smile as Pol Pot,” Moeun says. “What’s his name? I can’t remember. Show me the famous soccer players and I’ll tell you. Oh, it’s this one. Messi . . . ”
Moeun gushes about the despot who was responsible for the death of 2 million Cambodians like a schoolgirl with a crush: “The first time I saw Brother Pol Pot, I was at a loss for words. I was sitting in his bamboo hut in the middle of the jungle gazing at him. And I was thinking: what a beautiful man!” She reminisces about their mutual attraction, his sense of humor (“he was like a clown, he really was”), the stomachaches that kept him up, and the solicitude with which she cooked foods that helped him sleep. It’s a chilling read, and Szablowski’s description of Moeun’s laughter, “infectious as polio,” makes it all the more so.
The other cooks in this collection are more clear-eyed about “their” dictators. When Abu Ali was offered a job in Hussein’s kitchen, he knew it was actually an order: “Could I have refused Saddam? I don’t know, but I preferred not to try.” His description of the volatile leader is nonetheless tinged with warmth. He recalls Hussein weeping at the funeral of a friend and making silly jokes. When he was happy, Hussein wanted everyone else to be happy and would give away suits, cars, wads of dinars. Mr. K., chef for Albanian strongman Enver Hoxha, is proud of the sugar-free desserts he concocted for his diabetic boss, and describes them in tender detail. “I knew how to improve his temper,” Mr. K recalls. “Quite often he’d sit down at the table feeling agitated and get up in a good mood, joking even. Who knows how many people’s lives I saved that way?”
The most anguished character is Otonde Odera, cook for Idi Amin. The day Amin seized power in Uganda, Odera had goat pilaf waiting on the table when he entered the palace. “If I made something special, he gave me an envelope full of extra money and thanked me for the food five times over,” says Odera, a rueful 80-year-old patriarch who was appalled by Amin but also got along pretty well with him.
In the most moving passage in the book, Szablowski brings up Amin’s alleged cannibalism. “I’ve very often been asked if I ever cooked human flesh for him,” Odera says. “But no. It never happened. I never saw any meat of unfamiliar origin, or that I hadn’t bought myself, in the fridges and cold stores under my charge.” As he speaks, Szablowski tells us: “The tears drip down his chin and onto his checked shirt. He’s staring at me, as if wanting to make sure I believe him.” Moments like this reveal the complicated web of feelings (and morals) involved in cooking for a despot: For some of these chefs, it was hard to see their employers as anything but ordinary human beings, however flawed, until it was too late. Maybe you can’t see monstrosity in its full monstrousness when you’re making breakfast for it every day.
Jennifer Reese is the author of “Make the Bread, Buy the Butter.”
HOW TO FEED A DICTATOR
Saddam Hussein, Idi Amin, Enver Hoxha, Fidel Castro, and Pol Pot Through the Eyes of Their Cooks
By Witold Szablowski
Penguin Books. 288 pp. Paperback, $16.99