Food Fight
Jeff Reichert on Cooking History

Viewers of Slovak filmmaker Péter Kerekes’s rather banally titled documentary Cooking History may be pleasantly surprised to find not an orderly history of cooking, moving methodically, dish by dish, from past to present, but rather an attempt to actually cook history via cinematic slicing, dicing, stirring, and simmering. The film’s focus is a very particular nexus of food and history: wartime cooking. A treatise on this subject would seem more the provenance of a lugubrious coffee-table tome or a stuffy television special (Morgan Freeman, forte: “And so Adolf Hitler sat down to prepared schnitzel while the bombs rained around him...”). Kerekes instead pops from one ingenious, self-contained sequence to the next, investigating conflicts and the foods that powered them. What’s revealed through often quite funny interviews, conducted across Europe and in over a half-dozen languages, is a comic, tragic, gastronomic history of the 20th century post–World War II as related by the cooks who fed the soldiers at the front lines.

We eat because we must, but those safe in the comfort of their homes have the luxury of choice. What of soldiers who can only eat what’s handed them in brief minutes of downtime from training and combat? And what happens, as it so often does in war, when the food runs out? Kerekes poses these questions to a series of well-selected interviewees: we spend time with a Russian baker who made bread for Soviet fighters in WWII (she’s smartly intercut with her German counterpart), Marshal Tito’s food taster, a sausage maker who watched Hungary succumb to invading Russian forces, a former cook during the French occupation of Algeria, Czech refugees who foraged for wild mushrooms as the Soviets advanced. Kerekes’s interview subjects (where did he find all these people?) are often placed in bright outdoor tableaux, allowing the subjects comfortable room to unspool their recollections, while cooking occurs around them—the slaughter of a cow, the butchering of a pig, the grinding and stuffing of sausage all take place au naturale in scenarios that would make the U.S. FDA blanch. Surprisingly, each sequence is capped by a recipe for the meal or menu item under discussion via title cards, and Kerekes, an able practitioner of that singularly droll brand of Eastern European humor, inflates each to the level of the absurd. We’re told thousands of pounds of potatoes and beef are required to feed an army, tons of flour required to bake enough bread—these figures make sense. Yet, strangely enough, no recipe calls for more than a single pinch of salt.

Though the subject might seem tailor made for the small screen, early on Cooking History stakes a claim for itself as a film worthy of theatrical viewing. There’s another, somewhat more famous, movie out there that scored shots of marauding attack helicopters with Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, but only Kerekes is brave and wry enough to attach a portable military kitchen to his chopper and open with a Wagner-set flight. Is cooking heroism? (Or is eating?) Yet, for all its humor, Cooking History finds elegiac lyricism—in the preparation of a breaded pork cutlet (both real and imaginary recipes) by a submarine officer who saw all of his comrades drown, in the memorializing of Holocaust victims via tastefully selected archival footage—and it turns abruptly dark with the tale of a concentration camp survivor who baked arsenic-laced bread for his SS captors. Contemporary documentary seems increasingly interested in dryly assembling litanies of abuse to score political points or forcing their subjects into clear-cut narratives to mimic the movements of fiction features; Cooking History, on the other hand, is content to just sit back, bounce through the tonal spectrum and merely be its odd self. The film’s not formless per se, yet each of its sequences isn’t bound to the next by chronological or culinary progression. Their link is geographic: these are stories of nation states rubbing elbows uncomfortably in a cramped continent as told through the preparation and consumption of food.

We all know we need to eat, but we rarely consider that what we eat says quite a lot about us politically. Food nationalism generally revolves around stereotype: Italians and pasta, the French and cheese, dumplings for Poland, borscht for Russia, America and its hamburgers. These all may be true, but the manner in which nationalist politics direct our dinner selections and define us as different from those of other nations is fertile ground for deeper examination. In Cooking History’s best sequence, Kerekes diagrams the breakdown of Yugoslavia into warring factions by tracking the national-pride foods served at various tense summits between the different parties. Food then, is something we all share, but specific tastes can drive us apart. Balkan regional cuisines feed into partisanship and, later, war—a grand point that emerges organically from Kerekes’s interviews. Less successful are moments when Kerekes goads his subjects: a question about whether or not recipes are like military orders is met unenthusiastically, a rare moment of conversational reticence in a film made up of casual chatting that touches the profound.

One might quibble with the exclusive focus on Europe (one can easily imagine sequels in South and East Asia, the Americas), but this is Kerekes’s home. His life has been affected to varying degrees by all the conflicts he documents, and he’s probably eaten more than a few of the foods for which he’s presented recipes. Traveling too far afield would have only blunted his examination—one of Cooking History’s quiet themes is how odd (and terribly human) it is that such varying recipes and cuisines evolved in countries that share borders and often languages. Food documentaries too often adopt a holier-than-thou doomsday approach, dictating what we should and should not eat and what ecological catastrophe is about to befall our favorite food source. These films have only surface value, as they seek to inform and outrage without inviting us to understand, and most will fade from memory long before many of their dire predictions come to pass. And, of course, they generally end up less satisfying and flavorful than a curious, historically literate work like Cooking History.