Breakfast of Dictators

Reading an article about international affairs today, I was stopped short by an interesting, food-focused turn of phrase. John Wolfsthal, a former senior program director at the National Security Council under Barak Obama explained, “We don’t know what Kim Jong-un has for breakfast, so how can we know what his real end game is? We just don’t have great intelligence into his personal thinking.”* I was interested by the idea that breakfast preference would be a short hand for the broader knowledge needed to negotiate productively with the head of a nation. It echoes the well-worn food studies mantra,  Brillat-Savarin’s famous statement, “tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.” If we know what someone eats for breakfast, we can begin to learn their character, as if the beginning of the day is the beginning of the soul.

Is this actually information that intelligence agents gather about world leaders? I imagine a check list on which breakfast choices is the first line. Get that fact and move on from there–lunch favorites, world view,  pet peeves, dinner preferences, secret fears, midnight snack. And it occurred to me that the gathering of this information involves the world’s spies and diplomats in a fascinating, specialized practice of food studies research. You don’t just find out what breakfast is and where it comes from but what it says and what it means. You put that fact with lots of others, but you don’t lose sight of that first choice of the day because if it changes, that may mean something too.

Find out what Kim Jong-un has for breakfast and you reveal what I imagine is a uniquely unique food system, one totally unconnected to the vast majority of people in his country, who lack materials, let alone choices. Find out Kim’s breakfast choice and you find out who he thinks he is–an athlete or a prince? A child or a serious adult? Is the breakfast a manifestation of loyalty to Korean traditions, or does he eat like a global citizen, reveling in his ability to make the kinds of choices unavailable to most?

And naturally my thoughts began to wander to the larger community of Very Important Breakfasters. I don’t know what Theresa May has for breakfast (I suspect wheatabix) but Wolfshtal’s phrase (we don’t even know what Kim Jong-un has for breakfast) suggests to me that because she is not a reclusive autocrat, that is something her allies know about her, data that they keep. It’s just one of many things we can know about her: what she likes for breakfast and whether she’s likely to fire missiles near Guam.