As an appetizer, a short brief on history, politics and food


This serial is based on the intriguing book “Diplomacy at the Table” by Croatian diplomat Hidajet Biščević, who reviewed and edited the original manuscript and selected the most interesting records, especially for our magazine.

From this issue, you will read many interesting stories from real diplomacy that was practiced at the tables covered by interesting food and surrounded by even more interesting world politicians and diplomats.

His Excellency, Mr. Biščević, is posted as the ambassador of the Republic of Croatia to Serbia. He lives with his family in Belgrade.

The politic of knives, forks, and plates

This is a story about politics and food told through descriptions of diplomatic meals, official dinners, cocktails, and other gastronomic forms of diplomatic socializing and political decision-making. Through notes and anecdotal records, the author describes numerous situations in which he found himself at diplomatic tables, with a knife and fork, looking at often unfamiliar dishes, in the middle of discussions about political crises, and often even in the middle of deciding the fate of states and peoples.

Apart from these fascinating stories and testimonies, the author warns us about a lesser-known story about the deep relationship between food and the political history of the world. When he asserts that “food is at the same time a need, history, and identity of man and people”, the author will show through historical examples how many revolutions were started due to lack of food, how many new territories and countries were discovered in search of food, how colonial era started over the tea and sugar and how much food has actually influenced the beginnings of revolutions and wars, ideologies, mass suffering… all in confirmation that food has an irreplaceable and powerful role in the history of politics and diplomacy. “Give me a good cook, you will get a good agreement“, Charles- Maurice de Talleyrand, probably the most famous French diplomat, exclaimed long ago. “Whoever controls the oil, controls the states, but who controls the food, controls the nations“, H. Kissinger will continue a couple of centuries later.

Food is the necessity, the history, and the identity of man and nations

Through the story of food, it is possible – unexpectedly to follow the creation and changes in human culture, in political and social life, in the very nature of the human race. Food is a biological imprint of human history, telling stories about wars and revolutions, shaping ideologies, or conquering new parts of the world.

At the same time, the story of food tells us a lot of political decision-making, and hence the incentive to explore the strong role and indispensable place of food in the history of politics and diplomacy through descriptions of diplomatic meals.

There is an incredible abundance of symbols and phenomena that connect the history of the human race, politics, and society with food.

Just think about Adam, Eve, and the Apple. Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper”, with that mysterious detail of the knife. Tables full of food for the Roman king Nero’s feasts. Abundant feasts of the Knights of the Round Table. The legendary court feasts and generous banquets of Henry VIII and his efforts to amaze the guests with magnificent feasts, sometimes so much “that the coffers used to remain empty”. So-called “Kitchen Cabinet” of the American President A. Jackson or, later, Golda Meir. Sumptuous lunches and dinners for Ottoman Sultan Abdul Aziz, so huge that he had a mirror placed in front of his bedroom door to make him slimmer, in Istanbul’s Dolmabahçe Palace, which also has a culinary note in its very name (dolma, Turkish: stuffed – slogan dolma, tomatoes dolma). Equally rich meals in the opulence of the Kremlin’s State Hall, where Russian emperors used to host up to three thousand guests. Napoleon’s unfortunate fate with General Kutuzov and the cunning indentation of French troops into increasingly cold Russian winter, leading hungry and frozen French soldiers to the defeat at the Battle of Borodino, for which the Russian side had prepared by way of every soldier having in his bag a half-kilo lump of black sourdough bread that was edible even after a month and which even today it is sold in every Russian bakery as the Borodino bread.

Think further: notorious abuse of food in the Borghese family. The indispensable role of food in the history of warfare, conquest, trade, and economy in general, as the book “Edible History of Mankind” amazingly describes. The Shanghai Declaration, announcing the end of the Vietnam War, was watered down with mai-tai, to the horror of Nixon and Kissinger who never tasted such a drink, and with a mocking expression on Chou En Lai’s face. Churchill’s inevitable cognac even in wartime conditions, including that occasion in Yalta when Stalin suggested that they “have something to eat first because the drink will fall on our cold stomachs”. Martini cocktails, the first original American contribution to gastro diplomacy. Dinners for celebrities in “Benjamin Franklin’s State Dining Room” in the White House. Hunger strikes of Gandhi or Mandela. Religious fastings. The history of great famines, from those, caused Lenin’s proclamation of the “war communism” to the Ukrainian pogrom or recent food shortages in North Korea. The US embargo on the supply of food to Cuba after the events in the Bay of Pigs. Food aids for Haiti and other forms of humanitarian actions that connected food and culture, along with rock and roll. China’s 150 billion dollars invested in food production in Africa. The political phrase “a food for thought”. The original meaning of the term companionship (eng. comradeship, the original meaning: sharing bread). Marie Antoinette’s famous comment about “the cakes” as bakeries were closed and there was no bread on the eve of the French Revolution. The statements announcing readiness “to eat grass if necessary”, by many of the communist leaders in the twilight of communism. The air bridge used by the Allies to deliver food and coal to the western part of Berlin, in the post-WW2 Soviet zone. “Bush’s drumsticks” that saved Yeltsin at the time of great threat of famine in Russia in 1992. The ancient Greek word for the peak of pleasure: “hepar” (liver). Khrushchev’s ill-fated call to “dognat i peregnat”, i.e. “catch up and overtake” America in wheat production. Ongoing wars among companies for artificial seeds. The renewing spirit of green natural products in the urban gardens of contemporary megacities…

Food remains the most precise biological imprint of human history

The history of the world is connected with food, even more deeply than these symbolic political events and phenomena tell us. Food is a person’s first contact with the world – a child feels mother’s milk even before it can see it. Food has influenced the formation of human communities and the formation of ideologies. Food, with its fundamental contradiction – namely, the simultaneity of enjoyment and destruction, as to eat in reality means that one is enjoying as the food is disappearing – almost eschatological mirrors the dialectic of human action, especially throughout the political history of mankind, cynically full of countless examples of incredible easiness, sometimes even morbid enjoyment in acts of destruction.

Food is primordially connected with the fate of the world.

In addition, almost all decisions that shaped the fate of religions, politics, and the world itself were made at the dinner table.

Since humanity stepped out of the two hundred and fifty thousand years of the dark stages of homo sapiens and entered the period of known and written history, and since, after the period of hunting and gathering, gradually transitioned to cultivation and production, it was food that shaped the emergence of human society, community relations, the development of male and female identities, the development of trade and travel infrastructure, division of labor in communities, development of social classes, formation of different cultures…

There is almost no historical event that in its roots is not related to food. Food shortages have caused more rebellions, upheavals, and revolutions than any ideological or political motive or cause. When almost two-thirds of a worker’s daily wage in Paris had to be spent for a kilo of bread, due to a two-year drought and rising wheat prices, it did not take long for the court and aristocracy’s lack of concern for the people to cook up the general anger of the Parisian proletariat, so the attack on the Bastille has been related to food, including the formation of a new political system and later on even forming a new system of relations between the European powers. Later, Franz Kafka would write that “if you have something to feed the people, you have temporarily solved all problems” – Louis XIV obviously did not care about the banality of such temporary solutions, so in the groundbreaking year 1789, with the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen”, the changes became permanent, more far-reaching than just constitutional and political changes in France, but leaving probably the strongest and most lasting traces in the political destiny of the world.

By the way, these changes also affected cooking and gastronomy – rejected runaway chefs of wasted aristocrats began to find their way by opening small kitchenette restaurants, where bakers, as civil servants at that point, not under police surveillance anymore, as before the Revolution, would bring baguettes and cheap boulanger soup was served, nutritious and hearty, which in the English translation (eng. restorative) will eventually lead to the term restaurant.

In another example, it is usually overlooked that the historic break of the American colonies with Great Britain, the very independence of the United States of America is also connected with food, namely with tea – the rebellion in the port of Boston, the Boston Tea Party, was, like in the case of French Revolution, also caused by an increase of taxes: no wonder that a number of French military leaders, including General Lafayette, participated in the American Revolution, they already knew what role the food can play in history.

Food shortages and agricultural backwardness influenced rebellions and demands for change in imperial Russia more than political ideologies or the later “post-October” disruption of revolutionary ferment by Lenin’s Bolsheviks. Deep in the war with the German and Austro-Hungarian empires – a war that, in another significant metaphor, regardless of serious formal causes such as imperialism, Bosnia, the assassination of Prince Ferdinand and Tzar Nicholas I’s siding with  Serbia – started after the famous “pig affairs”, whilst later imperial Russia could not cope with the increased food needs of its army, because compared to the European powers of the time, Russian agriculture was far behind, and transport routes to the front lines were very long, rare and unreliable. In sum, it mounted to the final demise of a tired empire which, after two attempts at peaceful changes, will be finished off by Lenin, sent in an armored wagon right from Germany. In the continuation of the role of food in those turning times, Lenin’s cruel “Decree on War Communism” will bring about the dramatic and tragic abduction of harvested crops, followed by the disappearance of the entire classes and mass starvations, which will take away more than five million people throughout Russia, especially throughout horrible Ukraine’s “Holodomor” years.

Mass famines have already had an indelible effect on the political and social history of the world. Few things have marked Ireland’s history and national identity as profoundly as the Great Famine in the mid-19th century, when an unknown disease destroyed potato production, on which a third of the population depended – in addition, the British administration prohibited Catholics to own land:  in total, over a million died and another two million fled to America, despite the British naval blockade established to prevent international humanitarian aid. Ireland was left without a quarter of its population, and the traces of these tragedies and divisions are still an essential part of the nation’s identity.

Almost all decisions that shaped the fate of religions, politics, and the world itself were made at the dinner table

Even just a simple listing of those mass famines causes nausea, but also warns of the roots of many later events, from the mass famine in Vietnam under Japanese occupation, which undeniably left its mark on national identity and strengthened combat resistance in later decades, when fighters in the anti-French and anti-American wars were also farmers at the same time.

In another Asian example, terrible floods and terrible politics in the mid-nineties starved and led to the death of nearly three million people in North Korea, and in subsequent negotiations and efforts to contain the ambitious isolated communist regime, food was often the “carrot” in negotiations in which humanitarian aid was offered in exchange for giving up the nuclear program.

In another Asian example and confirmation of the horrors of communist ideology, the “Great Leap Forward”, the Chinese party followed the model of Leninist war communism and turned to rapid industrialization, abolishing private ownership of land, or prescribing new “scientific-party” methods of sowing rice and other obscure measures that, in the end, claimed over forty million lives.

The fateful and sometimes improbable connection of food with the development of social conditions and political systems has rarely been so evident as in the era of colonialism. The very “ideology” of colonialism, its core and purpose, was the seizure of raw materials and the robbery of natural resources, in addition to food. European economies of the colonial period developed their capacities, from transport and maritime to military and social structures. Demand and food customs determined colonial production, whilst new cultural patterns and food habits often led to almost unbelievable global consequences and reciprocities.

Nothing confirms such a development more clearly than the fate of the world economy and social relations caused by the sudden and incredibly awakened passion of the ruling classes, and later of the working class and all strata of British society for – drinking tea! After the discovery of tea in India and other colonies, in a complex equation that would connect unlikely trading partners, the new British social habit led to the strengthening of trade with China, the largest producer of tea at the time, which has been paid for by large exports of precious sandalwood, which the British supplied mostly from Haiti, which further encouraged shipbuilding and related industries and crafts, and when Haiti was devastated, the new means of payment became opium, in the operations that would later grow into the global drug trade. As the demand for sugar increased with the mass consumption of tea, the establishment of large sugarcane farms began in America, which in turn required new labor, so tea and sugar led to the importation of African labor, thus to slavery, whereby the process of boarding ships and enduring transportation was facilitated by alcohol, as a distillate in the production of sugar, which was transported to the coast of West Africa by ships which, on the way back, transported drunken slaves in chains to the New World, where they would later, with a change in food habits and introduction of new products, serve in the cotton industry. Tea, wood, opium, sugar, cotton, slaves… an astonishing, certainly warning circle of connection of food with human history, with the development of economies, with social relations, and of course, with politics.

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