Szabłowski’s ambitious encounter with vastly different countries and culinary cultures is, however, more successful as an intriguing idea than as a finished work. The book, sensitively translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, is enjoyable, but uneven and often inaccurate, too diffuse and superficial to offer the kind of concentrated insights found in Szabłowski’s portrait of contemporary Turkey, The Assassin from Apricot City (2013). Much is made, for example, of the cook Yong Moeun’s marvelling at Pol Pot’s gentle, radiant smile. But one would be hard pressed to find an account of Pol Pot that did not mention his distinctive smile: there is even a book entitled Pol Pot’s Smile (2006), and smiles are a well-documented feature of Cambodian culture. The cooks, set in sketchy cultural context, rarely rise above the level of anecdote – albeit often fascinating anecdote. It is chilling to learn that, in the cook Abu Ali’s view, Saddam Hussein’s family was so violent that “I don’t know how he survived among them”. Saddam, the founder of the Ba’ath Party’s secret police, “was the only good person” in the family. It’s like being told that the only good Plantagenet was Richard III.
How to Feed a Dictator is not without flaws. Some of the material is exceptionally juicy, some of it expendable gristle; the translation from the Polish has the odd hiccup; and the jumpy narration will get up some readers’ noses. But it’s a small price to pay for such memorable vignettes. I am grateful, for instance, to know Amin’s banquets featured whole roasted goat, which arrived at the table in a standing position with its beard stuck back on “as a finishing touch”, but I’m even more grateful that I didn’t have to be there.
Throughout, the chefs are rendered as compelling and complex characters. Szablowski’s skill is to hang back from judgment; moments of humour and honest reckoning are mixed in with the caprices of pride and success. The book that originally sought to shed light on the private interiors of iconic dictators ends up posing more universal questions about collusion and responsibility. Otonde Odera has found religion and forgiveness in his retirement. “You ask how I could cook for such a monster,” he says, before offering a response that is dispiritingly familiar among those who served the bad guys of history: “Well, I had four wives and five children. Amin had tied me to him so that I couldn’t leave. I didn’t even notice it happening.”
But Szablowski’s dogged pursuit across continents was rewarded. He found Otonde Odera, a Kenyan from the same tribe as Barack Obama, who was Idi Amin’s trusted head chef. In Cambodia he met Pol Pot’s cook of many years, Yong Moeun, and was perplexed to find himself laughing with the woman who had catered for her master in the jungle amid genocide. Two Cuban chefs, known only as Erasmo and Flores, bring Fidel Castro’s dining table to life, and Abu Ali, the private chef of the paranoid Saddam Hussein, tells of food-tasters, and describes the despot’s favourite ‘thieves’ fish soup.
Szablowski allows them to tell their stories in their own words and takes each account as he finds it. You can believe what you want, but the details they provide add to the authenticity. Was Amin a cannibal? No, says Odera: ‘I swear to God I never saw such a thing... I never saw any meat of unfamiliar origin, or that I had not bought myself.’
Unfortunately, since dictators were generally fond of their chefs, the memories are unsettlingly positive. Idi Amin’s chef remembers his old boss chiefly as the man who tripled his salary and found him three new wives. He swears he has no memory of cooking human flesh. Abu Ali, Saddam Hussein’s cook, was awarded a new car every year. “Pol Pot was not a murderer. Pol Pot was a man with a dream,” Pol Pot’s chef explains with characteristic inattention to the big picture. The limitations of Szablowski’s book are summarised by Ali, who tells him: “A cook isn’t involved in politics. There’s no country where the president asks his cook if he can start a war.”