Mao Zedong was wrong: Political power doesn’t come out of the barrel of a gun. Another late philosopher was closer to the truth: “Nothing is more political than food.”
That was Anthony Bourdain, whose 2017 declaration in a New Yorker podcast is cited in Alex Prud’homme’s Dinner with the Presidents: Food, Politics, and a History of Breaking Bread at the White House. The book explores the use of food in diplomacy, backroom hardball, social climbing and nation building from George Washington to Joe Biden. Another recent book, Witold Szablowski’s What’s Cooking in the Kremlin: From Rasputin to Putin, How Russia Built an Empire with a Knife and Fork, looks at how a succession of rulers from the last tsar to the current overlord marshalled the kitchen for the greater glory of the Motherland. Despite the unwieldy, colon-tethered titles, both books are revelatory examinations of cooking and food in the rough-and-tumble of imperium.
The allure of a dish at a state banquet or presidential picnic or an embassy soiree may seem ephemeral, but Machiavellian spice abounds. If you can’t stand the heat, that’s because the calculus of hard, sometimes vicious, power is at play.
Prud’homme — a friend and former colleague from my Time magazine days — begins his book with Thomas Jefferson’s intimate and finely choreographed June 20, 1790, dinner for sworn enemies Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. The success of the fledgling US depended on its many founding fathers getting along. Jefferson’s repast culminated in a detente that allowed the young nation to decide how to pay its debts and where it would build its new capital. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton immortalized the historic breakthrough with The Room Where It Happens — ominously rapped by Aaron Burr, who was envious about not being there and who eventually killed Hamilton in a duel.
In Russia, a meal was sometimes a weapon — though, famously, assassins took to bullets to finish off the monk Rasputin, the Romanovs’ eminence grise, when cyanide-laced tea and cakes couldn’t. On Dec. 26, 1936, Lavrentiy Beria, Stalin’s murderous bagman, invited a mentor turned rival to a let’s-be-friends-again dinner and served him poisoned wine. Beria then accompanied his victim to the opera, where he watched coldly as the man succumbed. Partly to guard against similar attacks, the Kremlin created an entire caste of personal cooks for the most powerful members of the regime. According to Szablowski, once the cooks were promoted to the ranks of lichniki, they were sworn to perpetual secrecy, prevented from leaving the country for the rest of their lives and, once their bosses retired or passed away, detailed to other types of work, never to cook again.
Indeed, if you prepare food for the most powerful family in the country, you know things the public isn’t privy to — say, when the US president gets up for breakfast, or what the first daughter likes to snack on. And you’re into the insider feuds. Franklin D. Roosevelt was a gourmet who couldn’t stand the cooking of the woman his wife Eleanor imposed on the kitchen — and his inability to fire that head cook was part of the first couple’s passive-aggressive conjugal relationship. What might the public fallout have been if details of their home life leaked to the press in the middle of World War II?
And so, though not enforced as in Russia, there is a code of silence for White House chefs, too — if only to keep themselves from being swept into the Washington scrum of political scandal and controversy. For example, Cristeta Comerford, who has been executive chef at the White House since 2005, chose not to participate with Prud’homme on his book.
Walter Scheib, who spent 11 years cooking for both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, discovered the consequences of going public when he told the press that First Lady Laura Bush had “fired” him. He was immediately persona non grata and received no letter of commendation. He did go on to write a book and achieve a measure of media celebrity — but nothing matched the prestige of working for the president. In June 2013, his body was found by rescue dogs in a drainage ditch in the Taos Ski Valley. Enemies of Hillary Clinton — hoping to derail her presidential ambitions — circulated rumors that Scheib’s death was linked to alleged misdeeds from her Arkansas years onward. The police, however, concluded that he died as a result of a flash flood that surprised him as he attempted to maneuver through a bedeviling canyon.
Prud’homme’s and Szablowski’s books are more salubrious than these cloak-and-dagger details I’ve picked out. Prud’homme — who is Julia Child’s great nephew and the eloquent guardian of her legacy — provides lovely details of the soft flattery of White House banquets, where subtle diplomacy goes hand-in-hand with culinary pyrotechnics to achieve national goals (or domestic ones, such as the new-in-town Reagans trying to rival Kennedy glamor with their Hollywood star-studded galas). The White House kitchen was also a microcosm of America’s racial divide, played out at the very top of the socio-political pyramid between Black cooks and the First Family, from slave-owner Thomas Jefferson to Lyndon Johnson, who signed the Civll Rights Act in 1964.
Szablowski — whose previous book How to Feed a Dictator was a terrifying romp through the kitchens of Saddam Hussein, Idi Amin and Pol Pot — gives us stirring and heartrending accounts of the brigades of cooks who risked their own lives to feed the besieged populace of Leningrad during the Nazi siege and the doomed firefighters battling the conflagration that could have made the Chernobyl meltdown even worse. (Szablowski also deals with Vladimir Putin’s association with cooks, especially the rebel-caterer Yevgeny Prigozhin, and tall tales that the Russian president’s grandfather was a prestigious chef — that he may even have cooked for Stalin. The Polish author dismisses Putin’s culinary ancestor as propaganda.)
Both books address the elevated realms of food policy. But even here, there are uncomfortable intimations of heartless realpolitik on both the Russian and American sides. Washington chose to concentrate much of US food production in the hands of a few giant corporations, leading to supply chains buckling when the Covid pandemic shut down immense chicken farms. Meanwhile, Moscow’s monopoly of agriculture became a means of coercion in the case of the Crimean Tatars, who were forced, in part by the government withholding food, to leave their homeland.
Food is the most intimate of weapons — for we do not live by bread alone but the ineffable joy that kitchens provide. Szablowski quotes a Russian cook in Afghanistan during Moscow’s ill-fated war. She sees each soldier as an individual: “Let him feel like someone cares about him, like someone took the trouble, like someone’s making an effort for him. That’s what cooking is all about, isn’t it? To make a person feel like someone cares about them.” That is a universal truth, from peasant to president. And there lies power.
Written by Howard Chua-Eoan, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion covering culture and business.