Chef James’ Interview with Agostino von Hassell
Author of Military High Life: Elegant Food Histories & Recipes
Chef James: Mr. von Hassell, do you do much cooking yourself? Did you cook while growing up?
Agostino von Hassell: I do cook very frequently, often composing complex menus that draw on history as well as fresh seasonal products for small and large groups. It is routine in my house to have elegant dinners for 30 or 40 people. I grew up in a diplomatic household: that environment is s close to a restaurant considering the amount of official entertaining required. This exposed me to food and dinners from an early age. As young as 8 years old I would serve at formal dinners along with the domestics to learn those skills.
Chef James: There seems to be an increasing interest in 'food history' in the U.S. If you agree, why do you think this is so?
Agostino von Hassell: The field of “food anthropology” has literally exploded. A trickle of food history books has turned into a stream. The main reason is that people rightfully question where food come from and what is special. I also sense a rebellion against mass-produced food (hence the boom in farmers’ markets) as well as a desire to explore traditional dishes. Food should be a major interest: the average person consumes over 85,000 meals in a life time.
Chef James: When in prolonged periods of combat situations, having sufficient food is a major concern, but does the variety and quality of the food also affect morale to any extent?
Agostino von Hassell: In any type of combat – brief or prolonged – food is a major morale booster. U.S. infantry units – U.S. Marines or soldiers – can count on their quartermasters to do everything possible to somehow bring out to the field hot meals when possible. Those cooks are amazing and full of courage. Care packages sent from home with “treats” are important also. Throughput history military leaders have recognized that food helps with the spirit. Yet there are times when resupply is impossible and you just make do: it is then you create “virtual” meals in discussions with your buddies as in: “Imagine a chicken….”
Chef James: How have various military forces handled dietary restrictions (vegetarian, religious restrictions, etc)? Have these ever had a noticeable effect in any conflicts?
Agostino von Hassell: In history – i.e. prior to 1800 – dietary restrictions were of little import. Since then – i.e. the British forces in India, U.S. forces in the Middle East – quartermasters have taken great care to meet local needs. U.S. rations often avoid pork products (for Muslim countries) and even offer all-vegetarian options. Again, combat can quickly limit these choices.
Chef James: What are some of your most unexpected discoveries in your research for Military High Life?
Agostino von Hassell:
• That the United States has such a rich history of good military food
• How Britain has adopted tastes, flavors and spices from its former colonial empire: a chicken curry served to me aboard the HMS Fearless in the Mediterranean was the best curry ever – even when compared to top-ranked Indian restaurants in London.
Chef James: Is there an amusing discovery you could share with us?
Agostino von Hassell: It may not be all that “amusing” yet inspiring how Marines in combat end up combining all their rations (no matter what they are…meat, hot dogs, beans, jerky, cheese) into one large pot, heat it up and season it with plenty of Tabasco sauce. Or how you improve the horrible coffee in rations by adding coco powder.
Chef James: What foods, if any, did you miss most during your own military service?
Agostino von Hassell:
• Fresh lettuce
• Good Mustard
• Olive Oil
Chef James: What foods did you enjoy the most during your own military service?
Agostino von Hassell:
• In the field: superb canned tuna packed in olive oil (easy to carry)
• Chocolate chip cookies freshly baked aboard ship
• Arborio rice served with some salt and butter aboard an Italian warship
• Good red wine from Italian and French rations
Chef James: When at home, what do you like to eat?
Agostino von Hassell: I try to be as seasonal as possible and get the best from the land when the time is right. I will never touch tomatoes when not in season; asparagus when in season. I also love pappardelle pasta with mushrooms
Chef James: Do you think you will write any future books or articles about food history?
Agostino von Hassell: I am working with my team on a new book right now with the tentative name ‘Typhoon’. This book tells how the voyages of discovery and the clash of civilizations created new foods and flavor. One example is Japanese tempura – an import from Portugal.
Chef James: Finally, is there anything you can tell us about yourself, or your career that would be interesting or helpful to others aspiring to write about various aspects of food history?
Agostino von Hassell: Try everything; taste a lot; pull lots of corks to try different wines; and experiment
Agostino Von Hassell And Herm Dillon's book, Military High Life, has been highly praised by Chef John Besh, a former Marine, owner of prestigious August Restaurant in New Orleans, Lousiana (USA), and Winner of the 2006 James Beard Foundation Best Chef Southeast Award:
“As a food history buff, I am excited to see a book that connects our fine dining of today with that of the cuisine of the leaders of the Roman Legions... Military High Life was an interesting read for me as a former squad leader, mortar man, and forward observer, who now cooks elegant dishes steeped in military tradition. Enjoy this great work!”
Agostino von Hassell is preparing a book with Chef John Besh on Louisiana cooking Cultures and Recipes. He is working a food history/anthropology book, Typhoon, on the impact of the fall of Constantinople to the Turks (1453) on food, culture, and life in Early Modern Europe until current times and the impact of the voyages of the discoveries on culinary arts. He is a Chevalier of La Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin, and a Member of the Washington, DC, Chapter. An international trade consultant and freelance photojournalist who makes his home in New York and Virginia, Agostino von Hassell has published two illustrated books on the United States Marine Corps, one book on West Point and will release later this year a book on the OSS and Abwehr in World War II. He is a life member of the US Marine Corps Combat Correspondents Association.