The poverty epidemic in Greece

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek

“They may have the money, but we have each other,” insists the cook who feeds Athens’ poor. “This is not philanthropy, this is the natural human state.”

"»Hey, that smells delicious! This guy can really cook!" Konstantinos Polychronopolous, founder of Society Kitchen.  ©Boštjan Videmšek

“»Hey, that smells delicious! This guy can really cook!”
Konstantinos Polychronopolous, founder of Society Kitchen.
©Boštjan Videmšek

Monday 13 July 2015

Last Wednesday afternoon, the Monastiraki Square in Athens saw the formation of a long and silent line of people. In many ways, they were as varied a bunch as one could imagine, but they all had one thing in common: their tired faces, slowly blistering under the merciless summer sun, were etched with profound anxiety.

A cloud of demoralised silence enveloped the scene, the sort of silence one imagined would be almost impossible to interrupt. Yet this was exactly what happened as the spell was broken by a cry from one of the men waiting for free lunch.

IMG_4429“Hey, that smells delicious! This guy can really cook!”

For most of the people forming the queue, it was their only meal for the day. The entire square smelled of coriander, the refreshing condiment the Greeks like to add to almost every dish they make. In a gigantic pot next to his stall in the middle of one of Athens’ busiest squares, 50-year-old Konstantinos Polychronopolous was brewing a sort of goulash. After losing his top-level job in tourism marketing four years ago, Polychronopolous went on to establish the Society Kitchen initiative. On that afternoon at the Monastiraki Square, he had with him enough supplies to feed some 300 souls.

“When I lost my job, I didn’t know what to do. For a while, I tried getting another one, but it was useless. So I finally decided to quit this entire system,” he explains. “I could only watch as the living conditions here in Athens and all over Greece drastically deteriorated.”

Soon, a moment of awakening would shake him. “One day, I went to the marketplace and saw two little boys fighting for a piece of fruit… The next thing I realised was that I was the only one there shocked by the sight. And then I knew what I had to do. I decided I’d open up a stall for the poor who could not afford to eat and cook the food myself,” this bearded benefactor explained while deftly stirring the pot.

During our conversation, people approached him to give him a warm hug, shake his hand and mutter a few simple words of gratitude. Polychronopolous greeted each one with a wide ear-to-ear grin and a friendly joke or two. On an otherwise unremarkable morning four years ago, he set off for the marketplace and worked his way around every stall there was. He had €3 in his pocket and a simple plan in his head. He asked each vendor for a single potato, explaining his aim was to prepare a meal for the poor. Some of them may have stared at him in amazement, but the very first one gave him 30 potatoes, and the next one in line handed him 20 aubergines. Pretty much all of them were eager to help. That was the day Konstantinos prepared his first stew for the poor and started distributing it to the people passing by. Not long after, he was completely committed to his new mission, a paradigm shift in his entire philosophy of life.

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Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

“It’s not only about the food… I think it is almost as important that we simply spend some time together as friends and equals,” he points out. “For many of these poor people, it is extremely hard to admit they don’t have the money to buy lunch – they sometimes can’t even admit it to themselves. And so they’re suffering from a deep sense of shame. For a long time, our poverty was something of a taboo.”

But the time for pretense is long gone. “Now we can no longer pretend. Our destitution has become our only reality,” describes Polychronopolous. “And my wish is to help these people by making them fell a little happier than before. My main values are solidarity, respect, equality and peace. That is what our initiative is really all about,” he informed me with a smile. Over the last few years, a number of volunteers have joined him on the streets of Athens and other Greek cities to help distribute the meals. Some of them got tired, he told me, some got jobs, and some of them are still going strong right by his side.

It is clear that this empathic, streetwise chef is in a perfect position to gauge the effects of the devastating austerity measures unleashed on the populace and wrecking many lives. Slightly more than a quarter of the men and women of Greece are living below the poverty line. In many of the capital’s formerly thriving quarters, the poverty is nothing short of an epidemic. “In 2011, I prepared let’s say 50 or maybe 60 meals per day. That was enough,” Konstantinos calculates. “Now, everywhere I go I have to cook for 300. Each month, we distribute food to around 5,000 people.”

The demography of the hungry is also changing. “In the beginning, most of the lines were 80% immigrants and 20% Greeks. Now those two numbers are just about reversed. The situation has rapidly deteriorated, but the world refuses to notice,” Polychronopolous remarks.

By this time, the goulash was almost ready. As a pair of female volunteers added pasta to the mix, the long line of people stood patiently awaiting their portion. This is now a daily reality for thousands of people in numerous locations all over Athens. On this day, exhausted pensioners, Syrian refugees, African immigrants, drug addicts, invalids, homeless people, pregnant woman, street urchins and quite a number of garden-variety unemployed stood patiently in the queue – the sort of unemployed Greek citizens who, until quite recently, led perfectly respectable and even cozy lives.

Since the beginning of the crisis, Athens saw a sixfold increase in the number of the homeless. After the leftist Syriza came to power, their lives haven’t improved one bit. They are still entirely dependent on the kindness of strangers – the sort of people like Konstantinos Polychronopolous who literally come to meet them halfway.

 “This is not philanthropy, this is the natural human state!”

Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Along with their bowl of steaming goulash, almost everyone standing in line got a warm hug and a few kind words. Polychronopolous’ reserves of energy seemed inexhaustible. His policy, he winked at me, is to always say no to the politicians and yes to the people. “My philosophy is very simple. What we are doing here is an act of solidarity, and solidarity is our people’s only means of fighting the opponent and the system,” he elaborates. “They may have the money, but we have each other. And this is why it is extremely important we understand all the ways in which they’re trying to divide us.”

Polychronopolous seeks to inject a sense of hope in an otherwise desperate situation. “Our aim here is to give hope to the people. Without hope there is no life,” he emphasises. “We want our initiative to help motivate others to follow our example. We don’t think of ourselves as philanthropists, we’re simply living our lives in the best way we can. I repeat, this is not philanthropy, this is the natural human state.”

Apart from a number of food stalls all over the capital, this generous man also helped set up his home as an “open house”. The broken and the destitute are warmly encouraged to drop by any time and spend the night. At his house, he regularly organizes workshops for poverty-stricken children. For him, helping others has become a way of life.

“I’m so grateful to Kostas. He’s a good man. And such a wonderful cook. I often come here to eat lunch. I sometimes go to other stalls, but this one here is the nicest one of all,” enthused Mihalos, 67, after he carefully put the food in a plastic bag and returned to his spot in the shade. For a number of years, this gallant and still reasonably well-groomed man has been one of the capital’s homeless, moving from one stopgap solution to the next. At the time, he was living in an abandoned apartment he fixed up to suit his basic needs. Not meeting the basic requirements for retirement, he gets no aid at all from the state. Like almost a quarter of the Greek population – nearly 3 million people – he also has no basic health insurance. Like many others, his hand-to-mouth existence has become the norm.

“I got throat cancer and lost my job. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get another one. Everything collapsed. I have been living like this for quite a few years. It is a miserable existence,” he maintains. “You know, I’m often grateful that I don’t have any children. I’d hate for them to see me like this…. It’s easier to be alone when you’ve been defeated,” believed thisquiet and well-spoken man wearing a very elegant hat and a pair of shoes that were clearly much too large for his feet.

____

In the early evening, after Konstantinos Polychronopolous had handed out the last few chunks of bread and sweets, he concluded his day’s work with a happy grin. He informed the people still lingering around the stall of where he planned to set it up the next day. Then, visibly exhausted, he sank down to the pavement to sit with the African immigrants who couldn’t stop praising his cooking skills. He took a deep breath and lit a well-earned cigarette.

In this place of constant desperate struggle, he nodded, in this place where so many lives have been turned into an endless chain of OXIs, of NOs, there can be no room for politics.

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Putting Palestine on the culinary map

 
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By Raya Al Jadir

The most delicious way to a society’s soul is through its stomach, believes the creator of Palestine on a Plate.

Freekeh soup. Photo: ©Joudie Kalla

Freekeh soup. Photo: ©Joudie Kalla

Monday 29 June 2015

JoudieConflict Kitchen is an eatery in Pittsburgh with a political message: uniting people through food. It serves food primarily from countries which are in conflict with the United States, hence its name.

One recent guest chef at Conflict Kitchen was Joudie Kalla, who was born to Palestinian parents but has spent most of her life in London.

The acclaimed Palestinian chef also has her own personal project which aims to reclaim Palestinian identity by spreading its cuisine. Palestine on a Plate is a cookery application that has been making gradual but noticeable progress over the past few months, already clocking up 12,000 likes on Facebook. The app offers food lovers the chance to taste the beauty of Palestine through its best-known dishes.

Kalla says her love for food was ignited when, at the tender age of four, she would sit in the kitchen with her three sisters and watch her mother cook several dishes at a time. “I loved baking cakes with her and bread stuffed with different fillings. I knew then that I wanted to be a chef,” she says.

Like many little girls, Kalla’s obsession was with Barbie dolls but food came a close second. When she started school, she chose to study home economics which is “sadly not offered to children these days,” she says. She used to rush home from class to see what was for dinner and to see if she could help in any way to prepare the food. Kalla admits it made her a little anti-social, as she loved to be behind the stove more than with other people. “All I wanted to know is if someone liked my food. I felt comfortable in the kitchen and really blossomed there,” she confesses.

Although Kalla has a degree in art, architecture and design and holds a master’s degree in French culture and civilisation, she changed her direction at the age of 21. Her father did not fully approve of her decision to become a professional chef because he was “exceptionally difficult to please… but he was tough on me for a reason. He wanted me to be the best I could be and true to myself.”

In contrast, her mother was very supportive and encouraged her. “She really felt and feels that I am living on through her with my food, which is actually true,” explains Kalla. Cooking for Kalla is a combination of a hobby, a profession and a lifestyle: “It makes me happy. Happy to cook and happy to feed.”

Zaatar chicken: ©Joudie Kalla

Zaatar chicken: ©Joudie Kalla

Kalla goes on to describe how food evokes the taste and aroma of nostalgia, reminding you of “home”. Food is sometimes a practical way of connecting you to your past and to your identity. “My recipes were a way to become closer to [my mother], as I felt very far away when I moved out of London and went to France. I had never left home and being away made me miss all of my comforts,” Kalla recalls.  Intrigued by the creativity of the kitchen, Kalla explains that cooking “allows me to paint on a plate, so to speak. My mind goes into a totally different world as it closes off to everything else and frees me to just focus on what I wanted. I love creating things and finding a way to put my feelings on a plate.”

As a Palestinian woman striving to be a chef, Kalla had her work cut out. She often found herself to be the only woman in the kitchen, making it harder to be taken seriously by her male peers. The only time she felt like she was offered any real guidance was at her last job: “My chef guided me in the right direction to find my way and begin my own catering company and then later to open my own place. You really need support in this field to keep motivated when times are tough.”

Kalla went to Leiths School of Food and Wine, a prestigious cookery school in London. She has worked in Pengelly’s, a Gordon Ramsay restaurant, Daphne’s and Papillon, with Michelin-starred chef David Duverger.

After closing her deli at the end of 2014, Kalla took some time off but many of her old customers called and e-mailed her asking for recipes for dishes such as makloubeh, fattet djaj and sayyadiyeh. This inspired Kalla to document the recipes and Palestine on a Plate was conceived.

The application began its life with the help of Kalla’s friend Steph Ansari, also of Palestinian heritage, who helped build it. Kalla describes the venture as “a labour of love and it still is as it needs constant nurturing”.

Sumac tomatoes. Photo: ©Joudie Kalla.

Sumac tomatoes. Photo: ©Joudie Kalla.

She says she feels a special bond to the application not just because it is her own venture but she believes it has “benefited me because it made me learn more about my background and investigate my history. It has made my mother and I even closer and made me more proud to be, not only an Arab, but specifically a Palestinian.”

Palestine On a Plate has received generally positive reactions. Many have expressed their appreciation of the photos and ideas for the recipes, as well as Kalla’s own personal twists to classic dishes. It is not just the ordinary public who have given it the thumbs up but Kalla has received encouraging comments from culinary experts such as Loyd Grossman, Tony Kitous  and Ian Pengelley, who described her as “the foremost expert in Palestinian food and is by far the biggest contributor to making Palestinian cooking the popular cuisine that it is today”.

Politically, Kalla has been slandered by some Israelis and she has been asked whether she stuffs the food with explosives, yet this has not deterred her from continuing the path she started. “If it angers people, then maybe I am doing something right… I would have thought that food is something that would unite people, but sometimes it can divide too.”

The kitchen has become one battleground in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “If someone wants to try and claim our food, I can’t stop them but I can try to set the facts straight,” says Kalla. “Our food is sensational, who would not want to claim it as their own?”

But Kalla has also received very positive reactions in Israel, such as a flattering feature about her career and app which recently appeared in Haaretz.

Palestine on a Plate covers recipes from all over historic Palestine and is not focused on one area in particular. Kalla is concerned that Palestinians are losing their identity. “People don’t see our food as Palestinian food anymore, they see it as Israeli or Jewish food,” she says. “We need to own this again and empower our culture with our history and background. Not lose it [to] propaganda and the media.”

M'tabak. Photo: ©Joudie Kalla.

M’tabak. Photo: ©Joudie Kalla.

This is the challenge that Kalla has set for herself: to educated people about Palestinian cuisine. “We have enough Italian, French and Chinese restaurants out there, but not many Palestinian restaurants,” she says.

Kalla’s passion for food and Palestine are the main force behind her determination. “I believe in this 100%. I love it and people love it too,” she says, pointing to the +12,000 followers Palestine on a Plate has on Instagram. “It makes it all worth it. I was worried that not all markets would understand the title, because let’s face it, not many people acknowledge Palestine, but I am not going to hide the most important part of me.”

The most popular dish featured on the application, Kalla says, is m’tabak which her mother only recently taught her to make. It is a flaky pastry filled with halloumi and ricotta baked at a high heat and then drizzled with lemon-sugar syrup, topped off with dried roses and pistachios. ““It is sensational… Incredible and simple,” enthuses Kalla. “My own personal favourite Palestinian dish is makloubeh. The combination of lamb, cinnamon scented rice and fried aubergines with yoghurt is a marriage made in heaven. Always a crowd pleaser.”

Kalla’s ambition for the future is to see Palestine on a Plate turn into a cook book, a small deli, and supper clubs throughout the year teaching people how to cook Palestinian food.

“We have so much to offer as a people and as a country,” believes Kalla. “I hope to shed light on that and many other wonders of our homeland.”

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Syria and the scent of nostalgia

 
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By Raya Al-Jadir

In Oh My Sweet Land, the kitchen acts as the stage where events in Syria are played out, people’s fates are sealed and political plots are cooked up. 

Oh my sweet land Friday 9 May 2014

Going to the theatre has always been an event that got my mind, emotions, and senses racing, but never before has a play enabled me to ‘smell’ the atmosphere and plot. This  all changed during the one-woman show Oh My Sweet Land which introduces a new format of war reporting through an hour-long monologue by the vibrant yet nameless half-German, half-Syrian woman who informs the audience that she will cook a traditional Syrian dish of kubah the way her grandmother’s used to, which was her only connection with Syria.

Although she admits that this is her first stab at the recipe, she narrates, while cooking, how her journey began in Paris in search of her married lover, Ashraf, continued to Lebanon, Jordan and eventually Syria, meeting refugees along the way with their various tales. Oh My Sweet Land is directed by the Palestinian theatre-maker Amir Nizar Zuabi and conceived and performed by Syrian-German actress Corinne Jaber, who explore the Syrian civil war through words, as the audience is encouraged to imagine the stories that are being narrated: the brutal bombings, the killings, the torture, the escape and the endless tears.

The kitchen where the play is set acts as the world stage where events are played out, people’s fates are sealed and political plots are, quite literally, cooked up. We hear about Ashraf, the narrator’s love interest who had fled Syria out of fear of what the security and intelligence services would do to him, but when things back home got worse, he opted to return and be near his people rather than watch helplessly from a distance.  As Ashraf’s tracks grow cold, the narrator is gripped by the urge to travel to Syria to find him. She heads off in search of her lost lover, only to encounter thousands of Syrian refugees who are suffering far greater losses: each one has either lost a home, family member, friends, a part of their body, or, Syria, their country lost in civil war.

This technically rich and powerful play reveals that Zubai’s intention is to focus on the humanitarian crisis rather than the political situation. The Syrian people are the symbolic “meat” in the fridge that is being cooked and shaped to the chef’s will, like the kubah and if the kubah does not turn out as it was intended, then it is chucked into the bin, because there is plenty more meat in the fridge. The scent of the chopped onion or simmering meat, which at one point is burnt, gives the audience the chance to experience the ‘smell’ of war through the meat that is no longer usable.

Being an Arab who has followed the Syrian situation from the start, the play failed to shock me or reveal anything new, maybe because our world is dominated by visual media and the conflict in Syria has a guaranteed daily news slot. In addition, very few if any actors can manage a whole show by themselves. Although Jaber’s performance was exceptional as she progresses through her emotional journey, 35 minutes into the play, your attention starts to slip away and all you are left with are the olfactory stimuli and the question of what will happen to the food that is left onstage.

Jaber’s own transformation is one of the more positive aspects of the play, as we observe her grow gradually more connected with Syria, a place she’d had no real longing towards, apart from the nostalgic memory of her grandmother. Her relationship with Ashraf changes this to passion, and her travels turn it into love and regret for a revolution that was hijacked by outsiders.  In that one hour, we witness a slow transformation, from a naïve, half-Syrian expatriate who is clueless about Syria and its revolution, to a more experienced and bitter woman. When the play ended, one lady in the audience commented that it deserved a wider audience, as the theatre was only half full. The ideas contained in Oh My Sweet Land are quite challenging and so might not be appreciated by the masses.

Zubai and Jaber were successful in bringing back the old simple way of ‘reporting’ the solo narrative voice of someone retelling the stories they were told without being an actual witness to them, symbolising the reality of Syria’s situation: everyone has an opinion and everyone thinks they know best, yet no one is really fully aware, nor are they all blameless.

“They call it a civil war but there is nothing civil about it,” says the narrator in anger, which makes you question the role of the people as well as the ones in power. This is echoed further through one of the encountered refugees who wonders if one day we will forgive one another, maybe God will forgive us. We, the audience, are left pondering that same notion: can Syria return to its glory with people forgiving one another to coexist once again in a united country?

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Bugging the culinary operating system

 
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By  Ray O’Reilly

Elevating food to celebrity status has turned the theory of motivation upside down. It’s time to stick one up the foodies.

14 September 2009

Celebrity chefs, uppity restaurant critics, food-fetishists… all overcooked ingredients in a grubby concoction that passes as entertainment – debased media feeding off basic human behaviour. It’s time to put a bug in the culinary operating system.

The BBC’s newest food celebrity Levi Roots takes the proverbial cake. For starters, he seems a rough and ready cook. For mains, yes he’s likable and cool, but does that mean I should entrust my stomach to him? For dessert, all this cool bravado is a little too Jaimie Oliver in dreads for my liking.

The Beeb’s blurb for the new series (and accompanying book) Caribbean Food Made Easy partly acknowledges the man’s dubious food cred: “…passionate food enthusiast Levi Roots travels around Jamaica and across the UK showing how to bring sunshine flavours to your kitchen”. Okay thanks for that.

This crafty bit of CV-shaping is up there with MasterChef (also BBC) presenter Greg Wallace’s bio which effectively went from a “successful vegetable grower” in the early series to “food expert and TV presenter” as a self-fulfilling prophecy in later episodes.

Elsewhere on the BBC and on other channels around the world, foul-mouthed chefs berate co-workers solely for entertainment, so-called celebrity cooks race the clock preparing trumped-up grub for daytime TV, and hopeful restaurateurs face humiliation while the world watches on.

And the press does its bit churning out reviews of these programmes, ego-soaked write-ups about eateries of any ilk, and helping to promote endless branded kitchen utensils for an audience that can no longer cook.

Is there any way to claw our way back from this culinary brink?

We have to eat, sleep, breathe and a few other things to live. These “physiological needs” control us in fairly basic ways, according to Abraham Maslow who baked up a tantalising new theory on human motivation in the 1940s, called the hierarchy or pyramid of needs – read his paper ‘A Theory of Human Motivation’ published in the Psychological Review (50, pp370-396).

Personal growth, he posited, is possible only when basic physiological and safety needs are met first – the cake base, you could say. The need for love and to belong is the next layer of the cake, and our sense of esteem and confidence the icing. A sprinkling of characteristics – creativity, morality, problem solving, etc. – which satisfy our need for “self-actualisation” are the final decorative touches.

But what happens when you mix the basics like eating with higher-order growth needs including ego? You get a messy up-side-down cake, or a Levi Roots concoction. I’m not saying we shouldn’t strive to make food tasty and even pretty, but elevating food and the operating system around it to cult entertainment status is warped, especially in a world facing growing food security problems.

But I have a grass-roots idea to bug the operating system. Yes, it’s childish and probably pointless, but revolutions have started in stranger places (beds even). Invite your worst foodie friends over for dinner and cook them up a plate of really special grub. (See recipe.)

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Crispy Caribbean shrimp (grub) stir-fry

Ingredients: a handful of mealworms, an onion, red chilli, oil, steamed rice, greens, tamarind paste. Preparation: Heat oil and tamarind in a hot wok and stir-fry the diced chilli and onions. Add grubs and fry until cooked (like shrimp), add greens, and a splash of chicken stock to steam just before serving with rice.

If you’re wondering if I’ve actually prepared and eaten this myself… of course I haven’t!  But if you’re up for it, let me know how it tastes.

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You probably have to mask the appearance of the grubs with some garnish – say, coriander – and/or come up with a back-story along the lines that they are a Malian or Caribbean speciality.

After they’ve all complimented your culinary skills, praised the suitability of the wine, and talked about their favourite restaurant TV programmes, you can then decide whether to tell them about the grubs.

Here is also where you could brush up on some bug-eating facts to spice up the ensuing dinner conversation.

Apparently, up to 80% of the world’s population eat one form or another of the 12 000-odd edible insects – from fried crickets in Thailand and roasted termites in Ghana, to the Balinese speciality of dragonflies in coconut cream. Apart from being tasty, they are packed with vitamins and minerals.

Maslow might say spiteful cooking (and journalism) like this is no better than what it seeks to stamp out – ego-inflicted behaviour. But one item in his treatise on “self-actualisation” is the ability to accept facts. So my reply to him: “Get over it!”

A version of this article first appeared in (A)Way magazine. It is republished here with the author’s permission. © Copyright Ray O’Reilly.

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Taking Hitler off the menu

 
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By Khaled Diab

Was Belgian television justified in pulling an episode of a cooking programme featuring Hitler’s favourite dish?

October 2008

Although I’m not particularly big on cookery programmes, we have been watching Plat Préféré, hosted by Flemish celebrity chef Jeroen Meus, which features the favourite dishes of famous people whose one common characteristic is that they all happen to be dead. 

The episodes on Freddie Mercury and Salvador Dali were fascinating, not so much due to the food that was cooked, but more because of the intriguing insights they afforded into these iconic figures’ lives.

Last week, we were surprised to learn that the following episode would feature not an artist or an actor but Adolf Hitler, one of history’s most destructive figures and one of the most horrendous mass murderers the world has ever known. Although dismayed by the choice, I was looking forward to seeing how the programme would approach Europe’s most-hated figure, and whether I would learn anything new about this most-analysed of political leaders.

Alas, I never got to find out because – faced with outrage from some Jewish, resistance and political prisoner groups – the Belgian television channel VRT decided to pull the episode which was due to air on Tuesday evening.

“Everyone who has lost a loved one to Nazi barbarity or the concentration camps felt unsettled by [VRT] dedicating space to this,” said Francois De Coster, president of the Union of Belgian Political Prisoners, last week. Michael Freilich of Antwerp’s Joods Actueel, a Jewish community magazine, denounced the programme as “trivialising” Hitler and turning him into a “simple man of the people”, claiming that it sent “the wrong signal” to the younger generation.

But I wonder if the revelation that Hitler’s favourite dish was trout with butter sauce would actually change any young person’s views of the man’s politics. In fact, the suggestion is an insult to young people’s intelligence.

Is Freilich really suggesting that someone might switch off their TV after the show and think: “Although he started a world war and killed millions of people, Hitler ate trout, which makes him a regular bloke like us!” With the exception of neo-Nazis, who will look favourably on Hitler no matter what, I don’t think this show will make anyone think better of the Nazi leader.

While I appreciate that any programme that deals with Hitler or the Holocaust is bound to trigger painful memories for those who suffered and their families, I do not accept that this programme trivialises his bloody legacy.

Of course, a case can be made that the inclusion of Hitler among all the artists and celebrities featured on the show was a bizarre decision, probably conceived as a ratings-grabber, given the endless public and media interest in the second world war and the Nazis. In fact, the broadcaster admitted to having made a poor call by featuring the Nazi dictator in “a series in which all other protagonists are famous in the positive sense of the word, such as Roald Dahl and Jacques Brel”.

Nevertheless, thanks to the effective bid to dictate what we can or cannot watch, viewers will never get the chance to make up their own minds about the appropriateness of the programme. But based on the trailer, it would appear that Jeroen Meus makes no attempts to whitewash history when he visits Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest hideaway in Southern Germany to cook the favourite meal of an “atrocious man”, as the chef described him.

“Speaking as someone who almost didn’t exist because of Hitler, I don’t see an issue with [a] television show discussing his favourite meal,” commented one perplexed culinary blogger. “As a Jew, I find that the young chef did nothing offensive at all, and can’t understand the mindset of those who are raising a fuss,” agreed a poster.

The fuss stirred up by this programme reminds me, albeit it to a smaller scale, of the controversy sparked by the German film Der Untergang a few years ago because it explored Hitler’s humaneness – such as his love of dogs and affection for Eva Braun – amid his madness.

But does exploring the person and personality of Hitler – and not depicting him exclusively as a dehumanised monster – actually belittle the memory of his millions of victims and give succour to extremists? At the time of Der Untergang, I found not: I emerged from the cinema just as horrified by his actions but with greater insight into the man behind them.

Besides, there have been literally thousands of books, TV documentaries and films that have explored the minutest details of his life and political career. Max, a film starring John Cusack, not only moves away from the Hitler-as-monster formula, but goes as far as to depict the young Adolf as an artist and his friendship with a Jewish art dealer.

The film speculates about what would have happened had the future Führer found more success as a painter and, hence, stayed out of politics. Is the implication that, had circumstance been different, Hitler may not have become a hateful, bitter and murderous tyrant also sending out the “wrong signal”?

It is my opinion that it is the people who gagged this essentially harmless cookery programme who are sending out the wrong signal by curbing freedom of expression and inquiry. As long as they do not represent a danger to others, everyone has a right to express themselves and, as I’ve argued before, even to offend.

 

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 29 October 2008. Read the related discussion.

This is an archive piece that was migrated to this website from Diabolic Digest

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