This article is taken from the November issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.
In what might now be reclassified as the first Great British Bake Off, King Alfred demonstrated his qualifications for kingship by an act of culinary desecration. Lambert Simnel was reputedly a “scullion” whose kitchen experience stamped him as an unacceptable aspirant to power.
Theresa May’s 150 cookery books failed to give her a recipe for government. She seems seriously to have picked up a skillet only when she laid down her last red box. Even then, reliance on recipes and torpor in mastering them — she vowed to learn one a week — showed why she could never compete on the continent.
We all know what happened to the only professional foodie to play at British politics: posthumous disgrace befell Sir Clement Freud, who was guilty of advising airlines on their abominable fodder long before we knew of his other sins.
How strange that no cook has ever ruled in England! The stove-side is the ideal spot in which to learn the principles of order, management, economy, harmony, balance between warring ingredients, creative extemporisation and tranquillity under pressure.
Even in more enlightened food cultures than England’s I can think of only one chef who was promoted from controlling his kitchen to controlling his country.
At the dawn of China’s Shang dynasty, Yi Yin asked his father’s advice about how best to become rich. No commerce or profession could contend for revenues, Daddy replied, with ruling the state and garnering the taxes.
Yi’s route to supremacy lay through his talent for concocting irresistible dishes. The emperor requested his services. Yi upped his allure by refusing five times.
According to the annals of Lü Buwei, who summarised the ancient learning of China for the Qin emperor, the famous chef’s arrival at court was celebrated with a dismissal of demons and a butchering of boar.
The next day the ruler summoned Yi for a menu-planning session. The shopping-list of ingredients Yi required covered several exotic pages. Some items were attainable, albeit with horrendous difficulty: bluebirds, liquorice, gorillas’ lips, badgers’ feet, swallows’ tails, yaks’ waists (“the best flesh in the world,” Yi averred), and six-legged turtles with green, pearly scales.
Routine items, such as water, salt, millet, fish, birds’ eggs, minced sturgeon, duckweed, leaves, celery, leeks, bamboo-shoots and fruit had to come from distant shores and mountains. Should the emperor not feel suitably humbled by Yi’s ambition, the cook demanded phoenix eggs from a mythical horizon. In any case, the regions that yielded the best produce had first to be conquered.
Then “anyone who wants to taste all these wonderful things must use the best horses — named ‘Green Dragon’ or ‘Flying Wind’ — to transport them.” Yi was as fussy about provenance and as flowery in his prose as any tasting-notes writer from Madison Avenue.
He literally promised gastronomic magic: rationally unfathomable transmutations of ingredients into banquets. His recipes elevated cookery to the level of aristocratic arts.
“Changes of flavour taking place inside a cauldron are as subtle as archery or horsemanship. They require co-operation of Yin and Yang. They cannot be explained with words, nor can they be sensed by insight.”
Menu-planning provides perfect occasions for gaining access to a ruler’s ear. Yi devised the emperor’s policies, masterminded his conquests, succeeded him as regent, and seized supreme authority. Along the way he found time to lay down the fundamentals of Chinese cuisine: juggling sweet, sour, bitter, hot and salty seasonings, while manipulating fire and water harmoniously.
I love the prospect of cooks as politicians. But the fear that politicians might become cooks appalls me. Between them, I suppose, Donald Trump and Joe Biden might manage an omelette. Biden could lay eggs and Trump break them. Under the undomesticable Boris Johnson a kitchen would be unappetisingly slovenly. Sir Keir Starmer’s meals would be slow-cooked and carefully balanced to the point of insipidity.
Rishi Sunak would keep a bare larder: he’s too thin to be credible as a foodie. Priti Patel’s offerings would be unpalatable for want of imported ingredients. No one else in the British cabinet is imaginable in the kitchen, except Michael Gove, who could surely contrive a sharp sauce. The unflappable Jacob Rees-Mogg might do something old-fashioned with bread and wine.
For any aspiring politician who may wish to emulate Yi Yin’s methods, “roes of the Eastern Sea” are among his more accessible recommendations. Fry cods’ roes gently in olive oil with plenty of garlic. With the juice of half a lemon, abundant parsley, some capers and a splash of amontillado in the pan juices just before serving, they make a meal fit for a usurper.
Verb sap: the last record of Yi’s life is scratched on an oracle bone, narrating his punishment when the extruded ruler, Emperor Tia Ja, returned from exile to claim his inheritance. The cook who tasted power found it fatally indigestible.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5Subscribe