THE COURSE OF HISTORY

TEN MEALS THAT CHANGED THE WORLD

Struan Stevenson

 

There is an old Spanish proverb that says: “The belly rules the brain.” This is a clinically proven fact. Food is the original mind-controlling drug. Every time you eat a good meal you bombard your brain with a feast of chemicals, some of which are known to make you more receptive to persuasion. This is why lobbyists invite politicians to receptions, lunches and dinners. It is why business deals are often discussed over a good meal and it is why State occasions almost always involve a lavish banquet. It was what Churchill referred to as “dining diplomacy”, or the way of influencing people and winning arguments at the dinner table, a skill that has been deployed for centuries.

When Prince Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord, the French Foreign Minister was asked by King Louis XVIII what he required to win the arguments for France at the Vienna Congress in 1814, he said: “Sire, I need saucepans more than instructions. Let me do my work and count on Carême.” He was referring to Paris-born Marie-Antoine Carême, first of the internationally renowned celebrity chefs. Despite France’s defeat, as the victors met in Vienna to divide up the spoils of the exiled Napoleon, Talleyrand’s adroit deployment of Carême’s culinary skills enabled him to take command of the conference.

Thomas Jefferson also learned the art of dining diplomacy. Having served as America’s Minister to France from 1785 to 1789, he had fallen in love with the food and wine of France and Italy. When George Washington appointed him America’s first Secretary of State in 1790, he and his close friend James Madison, the Leader of the House of Representatives, had crossed swords with the young and pugnacious Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, over the settling of debt from the Revolutionary War and the locus of the new capital. Hamilton wanted the debt shared evenly among all the US states. Jefferson and Madison believed that would be unfair to the poorer southern states.

Jefferson’s solution was to invite the pair to a private supper in his apartment in New York. Over capon stuffed with Virginia ham, boeuf à la mode and a dish that would come to be known as baked Alaska, he and Madison persuaded their archenemy to agree to a compromise. Dinner was washed down with vintage French wines from Tain l’Hermitage, Graves and Gevrey-Chambertin and a Vino Nobile di Montepulciano from Tuscany. In return for support for a federal ‘assumption’ of the debt, with special discounts for southern states, Hamilton said he would agree to the new capital being located in the south, on the banks of the Potomac River. His proviso was that it be delayed for ten years, during which time Philadelphia, which had been promised the accolade, would take on the role of temporary capital. With the future of Washington DC secured, Jefferson filled three balloon glasses with fine French cognac to clinch the deal.

The persuasive power of good food and wine was perhaps never so fateful as on the evening of 27th June 1914, when Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie attended a dinner in the Hotel Bosna in the village of Ilidža, near Sarajevo. The Archduke had completed his inspection of the Austro-Hungarian military, which had been the primary focus of his visit to Bosnia. Several senior officials had told him that there were rumours of a planned attempt on his life, so when he arrived at the dinner he announced that he had decided not to visit Sarajevo the next morning. Instead he would return to Vienna.

But his advisers warned him that if he skipped the visit to Sarajevo it would be seen as an insult and Austrian prestige in Bosnia would be seriously undermined. They claimed that the Sunday programme would consist only of a brief visit to the City Hall, a stop off at the museum and lunch at the Governor’s mansion. It could be argued that nine extravagant courses and six opulent wines may have helped to weaken Franz Ferdinand’s resolve. Against his better judgment the Archduke gave in.

The next morning, two bullets fired by a skinny, 19 year-old student in a Sarajevo street, killed Franz Ferdinand and Sophie, setting in motion a train of events that shaped the world we live in today. World War One, World War Two, the partition of Europe and even the Cold War and its conclusion, can be traced back to their assassination. One can only wonder if history would have been markedly different had the royal pair dined quietly together on the Saturday evening and having listened to the sage advice from local officials, agreed to cancel their intended Sunday morning visit to Sarajevo.

Sometimes wine may have influenced historic decisions more than food. Alcohol was almost certainly a contributory factor to Bonnie Prince Charlie’s crushing defeat by the Hanoverian army at the Battle of Culloden on 16th April 1746.

Only 36 hours previously, at a lavish dinner in nearby Culloden House, the Young Pretender had toasted his loyal commanders in gallons of claret and whisky as they talked of their coming victory. They feasted on lamb, cheese and cream crowdie while their foot soldiers starved. A series of false alarms and abortive, exhausting manoeuvres over the following hours was to spell disaster for the Jacobite army.

Reeling from fatigue, the young Prince and his troops prepared to meet the Hanoverian army. The battle lasted less than an hour. The Duke of Cumberland’s Hanoverian army lost just fifty men, while the kilted, bloodstained bodies of more than 1200 Jacobites lay scattered on the boggy moor. The Jacobite dream lay dead in the mud and with it a Royal Stuart era that had lasted for more than four hundred years. The Young Pretender escaped to France. In 1788 Bonnie Prince Charlie died in Rome of liver failure caused by years of excessive drinking. His final Culloden dinner may have set the seal on his fate in more ways than one.

As a lifelong politician, I have witnessed ‘dining diplomacy’ at first hand, sharing meals with royalty, presidents, diplomats and business leaders across the globe. I began to explore how food and wine had transcended its primal role as life-giving sustenance to become a weapon of unimaginable power, used throughout history as a potent motivator. The ten momentous meals in The Course of History have revealed how food, far from being an intriguing historical footnote, has always played a central role in epoch-making decisions. The menus and dinner discussions offer a unique insight into the minds (and appetites) of some of history’s most famous or notorious characters. And what better way to step into the shoes of these historical figures than to taste the meals they ate for yourself. This is why I have collaborated with one of the UK’s foremost chefs, Tony Singh MBE, to refashion each recipe into an accessibly modern style, so that readers of the book can bring history to life in their own kitchens. If you so wish, it is now possible to replicate Carême’s Vienna banquet in your own home.

It is also fascinating how many of the key negotiations over Brexit seem to take place at the dinner table in Brussels or Downing Street. Repeated leaks of these talks have appeared in the German press, fuelling suspicions that Jean-Claude Junker’s German Chef de Cabinet – Martin Selmayr – is being less than tight-lipped following sumptuous meals accompanied by Europe’s finest wines. There may be meaty revelations that merit a chapter in Volume II – ‘The Second Course of History’ – already stewing!

The Course of History: Ten Meals that Changed the World by Struan Stevenson with recipes by Tony Singh is published this week by Birlinn (£16.99, hardback) www.birlinn.co.uk