When a Despot Is at the Dinner Table, How Do You Keep Him Happy?

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- In a run-down brick shack, Otonde Odera prepares a small feast. As he seasons a fillet of fish, he consciously oversalts it—just the way his former boss liked it. That would be Idi Amin, dictator of Uganda from 1971 to 1979, who allegedly consumed the blood and liver of his enemies. Odera was his chef.

Now in his 80s, Odera lives in Kisumu, Kenya’s third-­largest city, in a kind of genteel poverty—occasionally reminiscing about his days in neighboring Uganda. Amin was good to him: He almost tripled Odera’s salary to compete with the best hotels in Kampala, gave him a Mercedes and gifts of cash—and recommended three of his four wives. Almost all of that is gone now, vanished even before Amin was overthrown.

When a Despot Is at the Dinner Table, How Do You Keep Him Happy?

Odera is among the six cooks whom the Polish journalist and author Witold Szablowski has tracked down for How to Feed a Dictator (out April 28), a piquant food travelogue with dimensions that are both comic and Faulknerian, with court intrigue and betrayal so sudden that the book may as well have been titled In the Kitchen With Machiavelli. The half-dozen subjects served food to power and, by assuaging the culinary cravings and hunger of tyrants, perhaps influenced the fate of nations.

Szablowski travels to Baghdad to find Abu Ali, Saddam Hussein’s cook, and learns the recipe for the Iraqi dictator’s favorite dish (it was called “thieves’ fish soup,” supposedly a specialty of robbers in Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit). He also hears details of the murderous family dynamic: In a fit of temper, the eldest son, Uday, once took a metal rod to the head of one of his father’s favorites—the man who’d hired Ali—and killed him. Saddam wept.

Szablowski discovers Fidel Castro’s two chefs along divergent paths: first, Erasmo Hernández, who now runs a thriving restaurant in Havana, and then a man called simply Flores, who’s gone mad and rambles on about El Comandante, with no one knowing whether what he’s saying is true or false. In Albania the author encounters the man who cooked for Enver Hoxha and his wife and political partner, Nexhmije. The chef only wants to give his name as “Mr. K,” because he’s tired of explaining what he used to do for a living. After all, it isn’t pleasant for contemporary Albanians to be reminded of Hoxha’s four decades in power—and the countless number of people he had shot or sent to prison camps.

And then there’s Auntie Mouen in Cambodia. Szablowski teases out her smiling personality, following her from jungle cook for Pol Pot’s rebel army to the wife of the country’s ambassador to China. Her relationship with the tyrant who turned Cambodia into the “killing fields”—with as many as 2.5 million people murdered—makes for a chilling story. In Szablowski’s telling, Auntie Mouen not only cooks for the man—whose eerie nickname is Comrade Pouk, meaning “mattress,” because he made everyone comfortable—but she’s in love with him.

When a Despot Is at the Dinner Table, How Do You Keep Him Happy?

The author’s previous book was Dancing Bears, an account of people in former dictatorships who are nostalgic for life under tyranny. And that theme continues through this volume. Even mad Flores, abandoned to poverty by what has become of the Cuban revolution, says that if Castro “came here today and said, ‘Flores, I need your hand,’ I’d cut off my hand and give it to him.” In varying degrees, all the cooks in How to Feed a Dictator retain a certain loyalty to the tyrant they nourished—though most admit their own life was threatened by the conspiracies of the day. (Odera had to flee to Kenya when a friend betrayed him; Auntie Mouen was fortuitously in China when her name came up on a purge list.)

When Szablowski confronts Odera with the allegations of Amin’s cannibalism, he breaks down crying. “No. It never happened,” Odera says. “I never saw meat of unfamiliar origin, or that I hadn’t bought myself.” After describing the tears dripping from Odera’s face, Szablowski writes, “He’s staring at me, as if wanting to make sure I believe him. … As if he weren’t capable of imagining that the man … whom he fed as a mother feeds her child, and whose good mood and well-being he looked after for many years—that this man could have eaten the livers of other human beings.” It’s the kind of moral ambiguity that is both the fascination and the horror of the book.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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