14ymedio, Rosa Pascual, Madrid, September 18, 2021 — “I love the comandante as though he were my father, as though he were my brother. If he showed up here today and told me, ’Flores, I need your hand,’ I would cut off my hand and give it to him. If he told me, ’Flores, I need your heart,’ I would give him my heart …”
Fidel Castro’s cook has lost his mind. He no longer knows how to count to ten and lives in a dilapidated house in Havana that has almost no furniture. He has little to put in his mouth but tobacco. He is sure of only two things: he adores his comandante and he is afraid. Of what, we do not know.
Flores is one of the late president’s two former cooks who were tracked down by journalist Witold Szablowski for his book How to Feed a Dictator, published by Oberon. The other is Erasmo Hernandez, owner of a Havana restaurant, Vieja Mama Ines, and resident of a world a thousand light years away. This is the world of Cuba’s nouveau riche, where lobster is on the menu (and served) every night. The thread that connects Flores with Erasmo is not exactly Fidel Castro himself but the devotion they both feel for him.
It is not unlike the thread (spaghetti, if you like) that connects the world’s evildoers. Szablowski has tracked down the people who fed five of the last century’s most cruel dictators. He approaches the task like an explorer, relying mainly on the pick-and-shovel work of persuading his subjects to talk to him. To a greater or lesser degree, almost all the cooks profess a certain enthusiasm for those whose stomachs they filled. Not surprisingly, in certain ways they took on the roles of the dictators’ mothers.
This was literally the case with Enver Hoxha, a five-foot-eleven diabetic and leader of Albania for forty-one years whom Mr. K — the only cook who did not want to give his name — had the difficult task of feeding. K lived in terror during the years he was forced to cook for a man who ordered the executions of 6,000 people. He got the job after two of his predecessors died. To keep Hoxha and his stomach happy, the modest chef had the brilliant idea of asking the dictator’s sister to teach him how to cook dishes just like their mother had. The effort had the desired effect on Hoxha’s mood. “Who knows how many people’s lives I saved that way?” K wonders.
The lives of these men all depended on keeping the supreme leader and his family in good health. Perhaps the clearest example in the book is provided by Otonde Odera, who cooked for the fearsome Idi Amin. One night Odera had prepared a rich, sweet dish that Moses Amin, the dictator’s 13-year-old, ate until he vomited. Alarmed by the boy’s intense stomach pain and terrified by the crazed father screaming that Odera had poisoned the boy, the chef ran to the hospital. Medical staff explained that it was nothing more than indigestion, which he promptly reported to his boss. “Later I would find out that he was holding the phone with one hand and pointing [a gun] at the head of one of the cooks with the other,” Odera recalls.
Sadam Hussein, who used to make his cooks pay for dishes he did not like, became obsessed with security after the Gulf War. At a time when economic sanctions limited food shipments into the country, he had multiple luxurious palaces built in which food was being constantly prepared.
The idea was that no one should know for sure where the dictator was at any given moment, so his presence was feigned at different residences. Tons of food ended up being thrown away. Why wasn’t it given away? “It was the president’s food, prepared only for him. No one else was allowed to touch it.”
His cook, Abu Ali, knew how much food the Iraqi dictator wasted but still admires him. He is grateful to Sadam for everything he was given. (He escaped the stresses of the palace when he was allowed to take a job as a cook in a luxury hotel.) Moreover, he considers Sadam to be, by far, the best member of his family: “Of the entire Al-Tikriti clan, Sadam was the only good person. I really don’t know how he could have grown up with them,” Ali says.
But let’s move on to dinner. The book is divided into five parts, each corresponding to one the five meals of the day. This chapter, one of the most important, is dedicated to Fidel Castro. The comandante was, as is well known, crazy about dairy products, particularly yogurt, cheese and ice cream. Of the latter, he could eat anywhere from a relatively sensible six scoops to as many as twenty, according to hyperbolic accounts by the senile Flores.
What did Castro eat? His favored vegetable dishes. (He was crazy about Erasmus’ vegetable soup, telephoning the chef even in his retirement years to order it.) Though he did not much like meat, he would eat it under certain conditions. Lamb with honey or coconut milk and roast suckling pig marinated in mojo criollo were his favorites. He did not mind fish either: a ceviche, some eels and fish in mango sauce. There was lobster, of course. “Fidel eats a W-H-O-L-E lobster by himself. Everything else is for sharing. He’s like that. He always shares everything,” says Flores.
Both cooks report that Castro was not very demanding when it came to food. He was satisfied with simple dishes and cooked his own spaghetti, which he learned to make in prison and which he would not allow anyone else to prepare for him. This is because — and it will come as a surprise to no one — Fidel was a know-it-all. So much so that the ever-faithful Erasmus acknowledges it was “the only defect” he had.
“Once he went to visit a former teacher. He went straight into the kitchen and instructed the cook on how to fry plantains,” recounts Erasmo. “As president he often ate at the Havana Libre, the best hotel in Havana. He told the cooks how to prepare red snapper, lobster, duck confit…”
Castro does not fare badly compared to others in the book. Szablowski looks beyond the personal stories of these individual cooks. All are extremely complex characters, whom he portrays in full chiaroscuro. They saw and experienced the horrors up close and kept their mouths shut. For the sake of their own lives. And their own pockets. In the course of his research, the author, (he himself briefly worked as a cook as a young man) found his subjects’ fates reflected in those of the common people and the reprisals they suffered.
The stories are truly horrifying, although in the Cuban version the subjects were not confronted with the execution of a family member but rather with the pain of exile. Julia Jimenez, a Florida-based physician, left the island as a teenager. Her aunt now runs a private guest house in Matanzas which Szablowski visited to experience the local cuisine. There, the Polish author feeds on authentic dishes prepared by Juanita. “My aunt is from the Nitza [Villapol]* school,” Jimenez explains.
Here the thread leads to the Special Period and the hunger that drove her family from the island. “I lost twelve kilos, seven of those in the first year after the fall of the Soviet Union,” says Jimenez. “It was then that my father decided he couldn’t wait for Fidel to come up with a solution.”
But Erasmo sees the past differently. “Fidel can be criticized for a lot of things but he was very upfront about the things he did,” he says. “People often ask, ’Didn’t he expropriate land?’ He expropriated his family’s land too. ’Didn’t he force people to leave the country?’ He didn’t force them. He said if anyone wanted to leave, they could because he was building a country where you couldn’t dine on lobster every day. What are you saying, Witold? That I serve lobster in my restaurant every night. Look, you’d better not say that. Come, let’s go to the kitchen and make something else.”
The book ends with dessert, which is none other than Pol Pot, the only brutal dictator in the book who employed a cook so loyal to the party that she held diplomatic posts. Yung Moeun’s anecdotes about the genocidal Cambodian ruler are sprinkled throughout the book like appetizers until her experiences become the focus of the last chapter. Her final statement is chilling: “You ask if I loved him. After listening to everything I’ve told you, I will answer you this way: How could you not love him?”
*Translator’s note: a Cuban cookbook author and TV personality often referred to as the Cuban Julia Child. Villapol hosted a cooking show on Cuban television from 1948 to 1997 in which she showed viewers how to prepare traditional Cuban dishes using the limited supplies available on the island.
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