'Cooking History': Chefs On The Battlefield Director Peter Kerekes' new documentary, Cooking History, tells the story of war through the experiences of the military cooks. It features interviews with cooks who served in European conflicts from World War II to Chechnya.
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'Cooking History': Chefs On The Battlefield

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'Cooking History': Chefs On The Battlefield

'Cooking History': Chefs On The Battlefield

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Ask Napoleon about the importance of food after his disastrous Russian campaign of 1812. He is said to have observed that an army marches on its stomach. In director Peter Kerekes' new film, another military man, a cook, goes a step further to proclaim there is no war without food.

A picture titled "Cooking History" shows this week at Silverdocs, the documentary film festival at the AFI Silver Theater here in the Washington, D.C. area. It features interviews with cooks who served in European conflicts from the Second World War to Chechnya.

If you ever cooked for an army, we want to hear about war from your point of view. The phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our Web site, that's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

We meant metaphorically. If you cook for a navy or an air force, you can call too. Here's an example from the movie. Branko Trbovich, a former nutritionist and sometime cook for Yugoslavia's Josip Broz Tito, explains how food figured in the failed fight to keep Yugoslavia together. He describes a series of meetings after Tito's death, hosted in turn by the leaders of Croatia, Serbia, and Bosnia.

(Soundbite of movie, "Cooking History")

Mr. BRANKO TRBOVIC: (Speaking foreign language)

CONAN: And what he said there is, the menu itself shows how far they got with their negotiations. The director of "Cooking History," Peter Kerekes, joins us today here in Studio 3A.

Nice of you to be with us.

Mr. PETER KEREKES (Director, "Cooking History): Hello.

CONAN: And if you would explain how the menus at those meetings foretold the breakup of Yugoslavia.

Mr. KEREKES: Well, it was really showing how the food is very important and how the war metaphorically can start on food. The leaders, they - in every meeting in former Yugoslavia during Tito's life, it was a strictly federal menu.

So if the seven prime ministers of the seven Yugoslavian countries met, there was - their lunch was organized by seven types of national food. But after that...

CONAN: So they made sure that there was food from all over the country...

Mr. KEREKES: Yes.

CONAN: ...at every meeting?

Mr. KEREKES: Yes. But during the first meeting, it was in Croatia, and the Croatian leader served only Croatian food, which was very typical, typical Croatian. So of course the others were pretty like, they don't like it. And the negotiation went nowhere.

Then Branko Trbovic said very nice words like from action movie. During the negotiation in Belgrade, in Serbia, the Serbs strikes back.

(Soundbite of laughter)

And they cooked a typical Serbian food and there is a Serbian cutlet called cutlet of King Karadjordje, who was a big Serbian king. So it was like very rude, you know, to the Croatian, to the others. And it attended up in the meeting in Sarajevo with the Bosnian typical Ottoman style Turkish food. So this is illustrating how the negotiations went basically nowhere.

CONAN: And those, of course, is food at a very high level. Most of your film though concerns cooks who are - at a more a prosaic level were serving an army. There's another story I wanted to ask you about, a cook who served in the German army, I think in the Second World War, somewhere on the Eastern Front, in a very small, poor village.

And at the beginning of the interview, he tells you that he doesn't always follow the recipes that are printed in the army field manual. And you ask him, what's the difference between a recipe and following orders? And it's an interesting conversation because he then goes on to say, well, orders did not allow him one time working in the small village to give some sugar to a man whose daughter was dying. It was her last request to taste something sweet.

Mr. KEREKES: Yes. It was for me the most interesting interview. And for me this cook is one of the biggest hero of my movie. Because all of them, they are telling their personal stories how they could change with the cooking, the history. And all of them say stories when they are in the first person, like behaving nicely.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KEREKES: But this man told a very sad story, how he was following the rules. And because of the following of these rules and orders of the German army, he couldn't give a piece of sugar to a small girl who was dying, and this was her last wish. And so she died without fulfilling it. And he feels very bad about it.

It's not a big tragedy when somebody is responsible of the killing of thousands of people or genocide. It's a small human tragedy and - but for me, it's very important that he said it. And for me, he's really a big hero because sometimes it's more heroic to say something about myself or yourself when you regret it and when you are not behaving like a hero.

CONAN: Another military cook, this man from the former Czechoslovakia, talking about working with the Czechoslovak troops when the Soviet Union, the Warsaw Pact, invaded in 1968. And that there were - people in his own unit were shot. His own field hospital was blown up. His - excuse me - his field kitchen was blown up by Soviet forces. And then later, in many years, later, he was still a cook in the Czechoslovak army and was then asked to prepare protocol meals for visiting Soviet Marshals.

Mr. KEREKES: Yes. In the movie, I was trying to search people that were behaving different. We have 12 cooks and we have 12 recipes for food and also 12 recipes for life, let's say. And this is a recipe of collaborator, of somebody who would cook for, basically, anybody. But it has both sides, because at the end, he said it's not just because he was a typical collaborator, he just wanted to make (unintelligible). He said, you know, the soldier has to eat even he is German, French, Russian or American.

CONAN: Contrast it to a Jewish prisoner during the Second World War, a baker, who poisoned his loaves as some desperate means to strike back at the Germans who were murdering his people in huge numbers.

Mr. KEREKES: Yes. This was for me the most interesting part during the shooting and also during the researching because we found out that after the Second World War, there was a small Jewish revenge group and they were survivors from concentration camp. And they saw that the prisoners, German prisoners of war in American camps, they live quite a comfortable life comparing to the concentration camp. And they saw that it's not good. And they wanted to make revenge, and they decided to poison 1,000 breads.

And until now, basically, nobody knows how many people really died because the Americans, they didn't want to make a big scandal of it.

CONAN: And you say in the film, 300 were poisoned. We don't know how many of those died?

Mr. KEREKES: Yes, because the statistic was not so precise. Unfortunately, after the war, there was a lot of other diseases, and the Americans, they didn't write down, you know, he died because of the poisoning, because it would make a big scandal in the occupied Germany.

CONAN: We want to talk with people who've been military cooks and about war from their point of view. Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.

And Steve(ph) is on the line. Steve calling from Cincinnati.

STEVE (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi, Steve.

STEVE: Yes. My dad was a cook in the Korean war, and then I signed up. And I was a cook for Desert Storm, and I'm still in the Reserves. And I was in Iraq last year as a cook. But a lot of the cooking duties are performed by third world country people now, and the cooks are doing other jobs, like guard duty and water duty and stuff like that.

CONAN: During Desert Storm, as you were cooking, it must have been very difficult just to…

STEVE: Yeah. That was a lot different. They weren't set up like they are now, so everything was a rush over there. And they were feeding people by the thousands as they came through the camps. And it's just - push, push, push.

CONAN: I was there during Desert Storm, Steve, and one of the things I remember is how difficult it was to keep anything clean once the sand started blowing.

STEVE: Oh, our sanitation was - that was a major fault right there, sanitation. And I've seen something on the military station on TV about sanitation, and that's what kills most of the soldiers back in World War II. And, you know, when England was fighting, World War II, was a sanitation problem. You just got to keep everything clean.

CONAN: And, Steve, what do you do as a cook in the Reserves now?

STEVE: I'm a staff sergeant. I'm in charge of a reserve unit. And we got drill this weekend, and we'll feed a couple hundred soldiers.

CONAN: That's a special skill. It's a special skill. It's a special skill to serve 200 soldiers.

STEVE: You know, when I first joined, I wanted to be the gung-ho guy. But now, I'm - I like cooking, you know? I think about maybe opening up a restaurant someday.

CONAN: Steve, thanks very much for the call and good luck.

STEVE: Yes, that's right. Thanks for your service, sir.

CONAN: Okay. Bye-bye. I - just to point - I was a reporter, I was not in the military during Desert Storm, but I had to rub sand out of my tape recorder and my eyes in awful lot as well.

But let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Bob(ph). Bob calling us from Tucson.

BOB (Caller): Hi. This is Bob Yager(ph) from Tucson, Arizona.

CONAN: Yeah?

BOB: I just want to share one little observation. My experiences weren't as profound as that documentary. I served '55 through '78. And for the first three years, I was an apprentice cook. And GIs love SOS in the morning.

CONAN: Ah, chipped beef.

BOB: Yeah. No, it wasn't chipped. It was ground beef. But what they don't realize is the night before, they probably had spaghetti with meat sauce. And what we would do is we would wash the meat sauce off, put in the refrigerator, and next morning, mixed it with creams so it could go on the toast.

CONAN: And so, the soldiers' favorite breakfast - they didn't realize it was also one of their least favorite dinners.

BOB: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BOB: The other thing that it taught me in regard to supporting the troops is that we didn't get the greatest quality of beef because it came from contractors. They taught me how to wet cook. And we would use everything from Sprite, Fresca, Coca-Cola in the meats to tenderized it.

CONAN: That's what you mean by wet cook, tenderize it with soda pop.

BOB: Yeah. It was - anything we had there that could give it some flavor, some sweetness or whatever, we kind of used.

CONAN: Bob, thanks for…

BOB: That was a great experience.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.

BOB: You're welcome. Bye-bye.

CONAN: We're talking today with Peter Kerekes, the director of a new documentary called "Cooking History," which is showing at this year's Silverdocs Festival in Silver Spring, Maryland.

And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION coming to you from NPR News.

And let me ask you, Peter, have you got - there are scenes - these are military chefs you're talking about and it should come as no shock to anybody that from time to time in the field, animals are appropriated and used to feed the troops. Have you gotten any criticism, I wonder, for showing scenes of animals being killed and slaughtered and butchered?

Mr. KEREKES: Yes, I got some criticism. But I think this part of the movie was very important for the - also for the audience to feel the pain, basically, what's going on. Because we found out that if we use archives, you just take it like it's something very ordinary. You just see in TV plenty of people dying every day. And if you want to make some emotional context with the audience, you must - well, we had to show suffering the animal, which was not staged just for us, you know, that animals would die anyway like they were prepared to be cooked.

CONAN: They were raised to be…

Mr. KEREKES: Yeah.

CONAN: …food animals. Yeah.

Mr. KEREKES: Of course, yeah.

CONAN: And the criticism obviously is, well, these poor animals have suffered for our enjoyment and I think your retort would be it's not for our enjoyment.

Mr. KEREKES: Yeah, of course. They were raised just to - for this anyway, and for us, for the movie, was - it's important that it will have this emotional impact.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in. And this is Chris(ph). Chris with us from Balaton in Minnesota.

CHRIS (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Go ahead, Chris.

CHRIS: Well, I used to cook for the Navy. I was on submarines.

CONAN: And what kind of submarines?

CHRIS: I was on the fast attack.

CONAN: Nuclear submarine SSN?

CHRIS: Yeah.

CONAN: And what was that like?

CHRIS: Well, it was kind of fun, actually. You had, like, mainly three main cooks that cook, like, one cook would do lunch and breakfast - or breakfast and lunch, and then one would do, like, mid-rat and dinner. And - but every Friday, if we we're out at sea, we'd always have steak and lobster to help keep up the morale if you're, you know, you're underwater, you just kind of - you just got to have food, you know?

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Anybody who's ever spent any time on a Navy - U.S. Navy ship just smiled when they heard the word mid-rats, of course, midnight rations, you know?

CHRIS: Yeah. A lot of times, there was pizza. That's what we did…

CONAN: And lots…

CHRIS: …where you had leftover dinner.

CONAN: Peter?

Mr. KEREKES: Just - I had an interview - it's not in the movie, but I had an interview with a Russian cook from a Soviet nuclear submarine. So maybe if you can leave a contact, I can contact you and you can cook something together, the Russian and the American nuclear submarine cooks.

CHRIS: Sounds good to me.

CONAN: All right. Let me put you on hold and we'll see if we can get you guys in touch.

And I did want to ask you, there is a submarine cook who was interviewed in your movie and, in fact, it's quite an interesting setting. Describe it for us. You have him set up on a card table on a beach as the tide is coming in.

Mr. KEREKES: Yes, we found a cook who was serving on a submarine high(ph) in 1962. It was a German submarine, and it sank. And unfortunately, all his 19 colleagues die. And he was - the cook from the submarine who was the only one who survived it. And we are thinking how to stage and how to show it to the audience. And basically, it was not my idea but his idea, to put the table, basically to the - well, not to the water. Well…

CONAN: At the water's edge.

Mr. KEREKES: Yes. And just wait until the tide will go up. And he was cooking meanwhile and we are filming it. And during these three hours, the water basically nearly covers him. And during this time, he's telling the story of the sinking of the submarine. And it's basically the same how he was feeling when the water was coming in and the fear was coming back to him. And it's how we filmed it. It's a very strong scene.

CONAN: There is a device you use in the movie. At the end of that scene, you give the recipe for wiener schnitzel, which is what he was cooking, schnitzel for 19 drowned comrades. And you tell us the ingredients throughout the film -you used this device - the ingredients for a blini, Russian blini, for 20 million dead Soviets.

Mr. KEREKES: Yes. For me, it was very important to put somehow these small military cooks to the context. Because we had a, for example, a German baker who's a very nice 92 years old man and he's speaking about his memories from the Second World War and you see a wonderful, old grandfather telling funny stories on basically - the war was very easy if you just watch this. And I wanted to put it to the real context. And after his interview, we just put the recipe for 18 million German soldiers, bread for 18 million soldiers. And you see how many million tons of flour and yeast and water you need for it.

CONAN: Each one says, and a pinch of salt…

Mr. KEREKES: And a pinch of salt, yeah. This is the joke at the end. But then you see, okay, this one small baker was a part of the big army occupying Europe.

CONAN: Peter Kerekes, thank you for your time today and good luck with your film.

Mr. KEREKES: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Peter Kerekes' movie is called "Cooking History." He joined us today in Studio 3A.

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