This being what the Canadian government now calls Veterans’ Week, it seems a good time to note that the new documentary film “Cooking History” by Peter Kerekes just had its New York City premiere at the American Museum of Natural History. From the website,
What keeps the armies of the world going? Tanks, submarines, airplanes, bullets, bombs? Actually, bread. Bread and blinis and sausage and coq au vin, even “monkey meat” rations. As one cook puts it, without food, the army would be in a shambles. Taking a tour of 20th century battlefields, Peter Kerekes revisits its mess halls and field kitchens, asking the cooks to recreate the meals they served at the front. One Russian woman prepares blinis she once made for the soldiers fighting off the Germans outside Leningrad. Another hunts mushrooms in a Czechoslovakian forest. Hungarians slaughter a pig for kolbasz. A German sings a fight song while baking black bread for the soldiers who just took Poland. A French conscientious objector chases a cockerel for his dinner. Reliving the battles while they prepare the food, the cooks are proud of their roles in serving their countries yet remain haunted by the suffering.
You can watch the trailer at the AMNH website, too.
Proving the maxim “An army marches on its belly,” playful docu “Cooking History” inventively uses the field kitchen as a prism through which to view 20th-century European history. Slovak multihyphenate Peter Kerekes (“66 Seasons”) provides fascinating sociological insights via powerfully staged interviews with a baker’s dozen of military cooks, plus Marshal Tito’s personal taster. Already released in Austria, Slovakia and the Czech Republic and winner of the international feature prize at Hot Docs, this tasty morsel (including 10 recipes) should be gobbled up by niche arthouse distribs and broadcasters around the world.Structured as separate episodes that consider conflicts such as WWII; the Russian invasions of Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Chechnya; the Franco-Algerian war; and the Balkan bloodbaths, Kerekes lets his articulate (and mostly aged) subjects hold forth in monologues, prompted every now and then by his off-camera questions. Through their subjective recollections, food preparation becomes a metaphor for battle strategy.
Engrossing as the cooks’ personal histories are, the extraordinary nature of the docu lies in the theatrical way in which the monologues are staged. Never mere talking-head shots, they take place against clever and elaborate backgrounds; in some instances, the subjects play to the artifice of the helmer’s setup, deliciously adding to the stories they tell.
For instance, Peter Silbernagel, the only crew member to survive the sinking of the submarine Hai in 1963, talks about his experience while preparing schnitzel on a sandy beach in Sylt, Germany, as the tide slowly rolls in and floats his table away.
For a great many people 1929 was the end of Prosperity. For me it was the end of Gastronomy. I was drafted for eighteen months’ service into the Czechoslovak Army.
Military experts have called the old Czechoslovak Army a good army, but I’ve often wondered how far the army would have got if, following Napoleon’s celebrated dictum, it had had to march on its stomach.
At five in the morning — the hour when I’d gone to bed in my happier days of freedom — we had to queue up for something called, for lack of a more suitable word, “café.” This “café” came in large squares, which had the size of tombstones, the color of dehydrated mud, and the smell of asphalt. The squares were dumped into large containers of boiling water, where they dissolved instantaneously into a witches’ brew. It was always lukewarm when the cooks poured it inot our tin cans, though it might have been piping hot only a moment ago. “Café” and a piece of dry bread were the soldier’s breakfast. Fifteen years later, when I was drafted into another army — the Army of the United States — there used to be much griping at breakfast-time because the eggs were not sunny-side up or the milk wasn’t cold enough.
There were no such gripes in the Czechoslovak Army. There were no eggs. There was no milk. We hated the witches’ brew until the winter maneuvers started. After lying outdoors all night long in snow and ice, we were overjoyed at the sight of the field kitchen arriving through the misty dawn. Something miraculous had happened to the “café“: it was piping hot, had the color of fine Italian espresso, and tasted like an exquisite blend of Puerto Rican and Guatemalan coffees.