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Book Review: Cuisines of the Axis of Evil

2009 September 9

Every once in awhile, I stumble across a book that is just purely enjoyable to read. And as odd as it may sound to classify a book on politics and the nuclear arms race in that category, Cuisines of the Axis of Evil and Other Irritating States: A Dinner Party Approach to International Relations was exactly such a book. As you can probably tell from the title, this wasn’t your average political commentary. One endorser described it as Iron Chef meets The Daily Show – culinary mastery with wit and snark. In short, my type of book.

in the book, author Chris Fair takes a close look at the evil powerhouses in the world (i.e. those countries with the bomb or those who are trying to get it) and humanizes them with an exploration of their cuisine. From the so-called “axis of evil” (Iraq, Iran, North Korea), to nuke-possessing human-rights violators (Israel, India, and Pakistan), to the dashers of democracy (Cuba, Burma, and China), to the Great Satan herself (USA), the reader embarks on a rather peculiar world tour. Fair is unashamedly biased and opinionated, and yet manages to present a balanced perspective on many of these countries. What is extremely helpful is her brief modern histories of each country. Basically she explains why these countries hate the USA and what our past relationship with them has been. So for all of us 30-somethings who were too young to watch the news while, say, the Iran-Contra affair was unraveling, and whose history textbooks and teachers never made it past World War 2 (because what teacher wants to touch Civil Rights and the Vietnam War), these brief histories are the most concise explanations of these events you will have ever heard. One reads of the whole convoluted history of our relationship with Saddam Hussein, how the Taliban got its weapons, and why we let China walk all over us. The author doesn’t hold back – all the countries are equally criticised and celebrated at the same time. It truly is a dinner party approach where friendship has to guide all other conversations.

And I know this sounds bad, but my biggest issue with the book was in it’s treatment of the USA. Now, I have no problem pointing out our flaws. We are hardly ones to point the finger at other “evil” nations when we were the ones who funded their armies and set-up their regimes to begin with. America is far from perfect. And I appreciated the author setting the record straight that the Muslim world doesn’t hate us for our freedom, they hate us for being a bully. But in exploring other reasons why the world hates America, I think the author let her personal opinions influence her focus a bit too much. She argues that the world hates us because a majority of us are so stupid we don’t believe in evolution or at least think God might have been involved. Whatever her opinion on that issue, I highly doubt that most of the world hates us because we believe in God. If she thinks we are idiots, fine, but the argument went a bit too far in that particular case.

But in general, this provocative and satiric take on world politics was pure brilliance, and the featured cuisines were enticing. The author not only describes typical meals in each of the countries – complete with drinks and ambiance, she provides detailed recipes for a full-course dinner party. Since reading the book, I’ve tried a couple of the recipes (and can highly recommend the Margat Bamya stew from the Iraq chapter). They are easy to follow and she takes care to tell you exactly what should be happening with the food at each step and where you can go to find the more exotic ingredients listed. On the whole, I can only say that I wish all approaches to international relations were this entertaining and yummy.

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