November 4, 2009
Gluttons for Power
At least since the lavish dinners of the decadent Roman Republic, rulers and those who aspired to rule have frequently made a point of conspicuous consumption. Now, this isn’t always despicable; we expect those who represent legitimate authority on earth to express the dignity of their office. Even in the vigorous early days of our own Republic, Americans took pride in the fact that our White House maintained high standards of hospitality, entertaining visiting dignitaries in the style they expected. The dangerously populist Thomas Jefferson — safely across an ocean, he welcomed the French Revolution — made a point when he took office as president of hiring fine French chefs, who have set the tone for White House cooking ever since. A Catholic monarch I’ve praised before for Humility, Kaiser Franz Josef of Austria-Hungary, ate elaborate dinners with his guests off exquisite china. Court protocol dictated that whenever the emperor finished a course, the plate must be removed. Not wanting to leave anyone hungry, Kaiser Franz Josef made sure to eat slowly and never put down his fork till the last guest had finished.
And there was indeed something cringe-worthy about the canine eagerness with which former President Bill Clinton took each opportunity to chow down on greasy fast food. As his impeachment trial famously recorded, White House aide Betty Currie introduced Miss Monica Lewinksy to the president thusly: "The girl is here with the pizzas."
Throughout history, many more public figures have made a point of garishly consuming outlandishly costly items, in gorge-churning quantities, to vaunt their riches and impress, bribe, or bully their influential guests. The best example of such epicurean imperialism is Lucullus (118-57 B.C.), a Roman general who conquered much of Asia Minor — and brought back with him so much loot that his wealth became legendary. With the silver, gold, jewels, and slaves he’d taken from the hapless Minor Asians, Lucullus built ornate palaces, lavish gardens, and elaborate aquaria. He failed, however, to spread the wealth among the troops who’d done the fighting, and their resentment led to Lucullus’s eventual failure in politics.
Shorn of the leading role he’d hoped for in the Senate, Lucullus retired to enjoy his stupendous wealth and dazzle his old political rivals with the splendors of his table. According to the curmudgeonly historian Plutarch, with his "dyed coverlets, and beakers set with precious stones, and choruses and dramatic recitations, but also with his arrays of all sorts of meats and daintily prepared dishes, did [Lucullus] make himself the envy of the vulgar." Such meals included delicacies such as salted snails, raw clams, whole pigs stuffed with birds or sausages that spilt out when they were cut, brightly colored fish served as they slowly died in the sauce, and unborn or newborn rabbits. Pass the salt . . . the smelling salts.
Another famously outlandish monarch was England’s Henry VIII, who housed a diplomatic meeting with France’s François I in huge pavilions the size of the city of Norwich, woven from silk and gold (the stuff of which vestments are made) and bejeweled by precious ornaments and pricey hand-blown glass. Two fountains flowed with 40,000 gallons of fine red wine. A BBC historian reports that the food for the team of diplomats and nobles included "9,100 plaice, 7,836 whiting, 5,554 soles, 2,800 crayfish, 700 conger eels, three porpoises and a dolphin." And 1,200 capons.
As we know, King Henry’s outsized hunger also ran to monastic properties and wives, and linked disordered appetites recur in the lives of many rulers. Genghis Khan conquered most of the continent of Asia and all of Russia. A herdsman who scorned those who grew crops and lived indoors, Genghis poisoned millions of acres of farmland by sowing them with salt and massacred the populations of whole cities such as Baghdad, Samarkand, and Kiev. It is said that he only refrained from slaughtering every city-dweller in China when one of his aides pointed out that "live Chinese pay more taxes than dead ones." We know Genghis dined on the national dish of steak Tartar (bloody raw meat tenderized by riders who kept it under their saddles), though history doesn’t tell in what quantities. (He did impose the death penalty on commoners caught being gluttons; as a child when he caught an older brother stealing his fish, Genghis stabbed him to death.)
But we do have proof of another gargantuan Genghian appetite. According to National Geographic: "After a conquest, looting, pillaging, and rape were the spoils of war for all soldiers, but that Khan got first pick of the beautiful women." All that on top of some 500 wives and concubines. Still, it boggles the mind a bit to learn what genetic markers tell us: that the Khan today has some 16 million descendants.
No one in our time, thankfully, can hope to match Genghis Khan; but in his own way, one Western leader did his best to keep up the trappings of Oriental despotism in a modern, democratic setting — longtime French president François Mitterrand.
Mitterrand began life in right-wing circles. In his youth, he joined ultra-nationalist groups that dabbled in terrorism and abortive coups d’etat against the corrupt, anti-clerical Third Republic. A man who knew how to follow a trend — and the trend in the mid-1930s was distinctly skewing "fascist" — Mitterrand mixed with militaristic and anti-Semitic groups, joining the Volontaires Nationaux, a xenophobic militia modeled on Italy’s Blackshirts.
After serving in the army in 1940, Mitterrand escaped a POW camp and took a post with the collaborationist Vichy government — which he seems to have faithfully served until, in 1942, it became unclear who’d win the war. At that point, Mitterrand began making contacts in the Resistance, playing both sides of the fence until the Allied invasion in 1944 made the outcome obvious. Then he joined the Resistance fighters. While Mitterrand claimed later that he spent the whole war spying for the Free French, historians question this — citing his decades-long friendship after the war with convicted war criminal Rene Bousquet, a Vichy official who oversaw the deportation of thousands of Jews. (Ironically, while in power, Mitterrand kept close ties to the Hutu government that conducted the genocide in Rwanda.)
After meeting and marrying a Socialist in 1944, Mitterrand reinvented himself as a man of the Left. (It didn’t hurt that Charles de Gaulle, the center-right war hero who’d helped liberate France, detested Mitterrand and excluded him from leadership.) As early as 1965, Mitterrand ran for president, courting feminist voters by calling for the legalization of abortion (which would pass ten years later, with Mitterrand’s support). Women voters might have been a little less enthused had they known that Mitterrand kept two wives, and two sets of children — spending weeknights with one family, and weekends with the other.
Becoming president in 1981 (he would serve for 14 years), Mitterrand legalized millions of illegal immigrants from North Africa, laying the groundwork for the radical Arab ghettos that surround most major French cities. Mitterrand fought for passage of the Maastricht Treaty, which traded French sovereignty for a share of the power a small, unaccountable European Union oligarchy now wields all across Europe.
Despite his role in liquidating France’s past and compromising her future, Mitterrand craved the dignities once proper to France’s kings. He surrounded himself with sycophants, critics charged, and demanded the strictest deference protocol could require. He littered Paris with monuments to his ideology, including the ghastly glass Pyramid of the Louvre, and the eerie, funereal Monument to the Rights of Man and the Citizen. But his ultimate stab at attaining ersatz royalty came with Mitterrand’s last meal.
In late 1995, dying of prostate cancer — an illness he’d long lied about and hidden from voters — Mitterrand decided to end his life by dining like a king. In centuries past, French monarchs were privileged to one very special delicacy: a small song bird called the ortolan, which was drowned in Armagnac, then flambéed and eaten whole. Since the bird is now endangered, it’s strictly illegal to eat them in modern France — but Mitterrand didn’t wish to die in the modern France he had helped to make. So on New Year’s Eve, he organized a select group of his friends and enjoyed a royal menu — complete with lavish supplies of foie gras, 30 oysters for each diner, and ortolans. Each guest was allotted one of the birds, but according to The Independent (January 11, 1997):
After grabbing the last of 12 birds, the dying president disappeared for a second time behind the large, white napkin, which is ritually placed over the head of anyone about to indulge in the horrific act of eating a charred, but entire ortolan. "Those who had already been through the ordeal once, looked at each other in astonishment," wrote Mr. Benamou [a witness]. The table listened in embarrassment as the former president masticated the little bird to a paste behind the napkin, in the approved manner, before swallowing it. Then Mitterrand lay back in his chair, his face beaming in "ecstasy."
Mitterrand refused to eat after that. He suspended all treatment for his cancer and died just eight days later. He’d had his reward.