Calamitous Cookies: Food as a Force in Politics and History



Photo by Dan Smith, via Wikimedia Commons

If you are not familiar with Stranger Than Fiction, a 2006 Marc Foster film starring Will Ferrell and Maggie Gyllenhaal, you might at least be able to identify with the sentiment expressed by Gyllenhaal’s character, the anti-establishment baker and former Harvard law student Ana Pascal, as she serves auditor Harold Crick, portrayed by Ferrell, warm chocolate chip cookies fresh from the oven:

“If I was going to make the world a better place, I’d do it with cookies.”

Though rarely acknowledged, Miss Pascal’s sentiment rings true.  We often regard food as a merely routine aspect of our lives, and even the function of food as sustenance gets lost in the flurry of everyday life.  But the state of the world has often been altered by cookies. Despite our disregard of the prominent role food plays in our lives and in our social structure, food has acted and continues to act as an all-consuming force of change in life, history, and literature.

Why does food have such power as an instrument of change?  Perhaps it is simply because of its life-sustaining abilities.  Or maybe its source of influence is its historical association with mortality; Carolin C. Young argues in Apples of Gold in Settings of Silver that the Surrealists’ relationship to food, for example, was largely based on the alignment of food with death.  The Surrealists weren’t quite as shocking and original as they thought.  The conception of a connection between death and food has existed since at least the time of the ancient Greeks.  Food has been used in celebratory situations throughout history and occupies a central position in religion and ritual.  Food embodies an innate sensuality and has an enormous ability to comfort and conjure memory.  These are only possible answers to the enigma of food’s power, but, regardless of why, food is undeniably a powerful agent of change.

Food and dining occupy an obvious place as a source of entertainment in the political and diplomatic arena, but the amount of weight food actually carries in both internal and international affairs is a fact little acknowledged.  Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord, Chief Foreign Minister of the Directory and the Consulate (and later Grand Chamberlain to Napoleon), toppled governments and climbed the diplomatic ladder of the Empire just by holding dinner parties. Talleyrand was so dedicated to food as a mode of political influence that someone, probably himself a frequenter of Talleyrand’s parties, once remarked that brie, Talleyrand’s “king of cheese,” was “the only king [Talleyrand] did not betray.”  At his 1798 supper and ball in honor of Napoleon’s wife, Josephine, Talleyrand was able to introduce the future Emperor to Paris in an elegant environment that was in direct contrast to the drab and corrupt Directorate. In the midst of the luxury of Talleyrand’s ball at the Hôtel Galiffet, Napoleon appeared an appropriate and even glorious alternative to the reigning French government, and the extravagance of the party represented a possibility of a restoration of the former glory of France; this was Talleyrand’s exact intention. The following year, with the help of the Foreign Minister, Napoleon had gained sufficient popularity to march into Paris and successfully stage his coup d’état.

However, Talleyrand’s epicurean prowess was not only good for sailing ships of state. Indeed, he was equally talented at sinking them. Employing another series of elaborate dinners and parties, Talleyrand secretly allied Russia and Austria and allied himself with them both by entertaining Czar Alexander I and Metternich at the Convention of Erfurt in 1808.  Following the forging of these foreign alliances, Talleyrand made an internal alliance that would prove devastating to the Emperor.  Talleyrand’s former enemy, Minister of Police Joseph Fouché, received a grand reception at one of Talleyrand’s parties, and the two remained inseparable for the evening, making a grand tour and whispering in a very public corner to ensure that they were seen together.  The garish display of friendship was a public declaration of war against a common enemy: the Emperor.  These alliances, all forged at dinner, sank the Empire, and the captain, the Emperor Napoleon, went down with his ship.  Alexander I, the allies, and the exiled monarchists took Paris in March of 1814 at Talleyrand’s personal invitation, resulting in the continuation of the monarchy by Louis XVIII.  As President of the provisional government, Talleyrand continued to dominate international affairs with dinners until the return of Napoleon to Paris in 1815.

Others, however, have tried to emulate Talleyrand’s tactics using food as a force of political change and failed. Nicolas Fouquet, Superintendent of Finance to Louis XIV, was far from successful when he attempted to impress the king with an elaborate dinner party at his Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte.  Fouquet was arrested for treason and embezzlement three weeks after the party.  He probably had it coming; Fouquet had rewarded himself lavishly for his services to the French government, and he had also flirted with the king’s mistress.  But the opulent dinner at Vaux had been too successful, and Fouquet’s success was the ultimate proof of his embezzlement.  Louis XIV was also ragingly jealous of the grandeur at Vaux, and he did not take kindly to being outdone.  Louis got his revenge, though.  He built Versailles, copy-catting and outdoing Vaux every step of the way.

A lack of food can cause at least as much damage as too much.  Far from successful or too successful, the coronation of Charles I in 1626 simply had no food, and look what happened to him.  Charles I, a devout Anglican, chose to do away with the decidedly “pagan” Coronation Feast in Westminster Hall.  By neglecting the time-honored ritual of the feast, Charles got off on the wrong foot with his people by failing to garner their support.  In past British reigns, the feast acted as a cultural marker for the people and provided a spectacle of wealth, particularly for peasants, that affirmed the capability of the newly coronated monarch to provide for and rule his subjects. Charles failed to acknowledge that, while his sovereignty may have been bestowed upon him by Divine Right, his subjects confirmed his legitimacy as king.  The feast allowed the king’s subjects to peripherally participate, for possibly the only time during the monarch’s sovereignty, in the sensory experience of the reign. The people gathered around Westminster Hall could likely catch a glimpse of the king, hear the feast in progress, and possibly even smell the mass quantities of food being served.  By eliminating the ritual of the Coronation Feast, Charles deprived his subjects of the experience of interacting with the monarch in one of the only avenues available to them. Charles’s detached behavior toward his subjects at the beginning of his reign set the tone for the rest of his rule.  Charles I was beheaded in 1649 after being charged as “a tyrant, traitor, murderer, and public enemy.” Because of food, Charles became the only British monarch in history to be executed by his people.

Food (or a lack thereof) can make or break a political career.  Food can boost a diplomat to a position of unmitigated power or kill a king. Food can topple governments or result in a prison sentence for life. Though often only acknowledged as a side dish, complementary sauce, or an especially fine wine to accompany the course of history, food has often acted as the historical main dish.  Food has turned the circumstances of history like suckling pig en galantine on a decorated lard base undoubtedly turned heads at one of Talleyrand’s dinners.  Cookies change the world every day, and food is the king of history by Divine Right.  No wonder Charles was executed for treason.

One thought on “Calamitous Cookies: Food as a Force in Politics and History

  1. I’ve wondered if the American love of Chinese food (or what we think of as Chinese food) has mitigated our aggression towards that country, and whether the best thing for world peace is more Middle Eastern restaurants.

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