In 1958, Nikolai Trofimovich Fedorenko (1912–2000) would have been a celebrity at any other Chinese meal but this one. He had championed the author Guo Moruo as a Communist genius; he had translated the socially incisive works of Lu Xun. He had written countless essays for the Soviet media on the greats of Chinese literature, which meant that he knew the subject better than most Chinese. He had even translated the poetry of Chairman Mao into Russian, which you would think might have warranted him a place of honour at a dinner hosted by the Chairman himself.
But Fedorenko, a deputy foreign minister, soon to be appointed the Soviet Union’s ambassador to Japan, was ignored at the table, since he was there as Nikita Khrushchev’s interpreter. He sat at Khrushchev’s elbow, his food slowly going cold, never quite able to lift his chopsticks to his mouth, as Khrushchev put a brave face on a visit that was going inexorably off the rails. Fedorenko had given up trying to remind Khrushchev who the other Chinese diners were, but as he had consistently done for the rest of the trip, he kept shoving their names into his translations to make it seem that the Russian leader had not forgotten them. So it wasn’t “that guy over there”, it was General Peng, and it wasn’t “secretary guy”, it was Yang Shangkun. The only person Khrushchev never had any problem remembering was the Vice Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, and that was because she was a woman, Soong Ching-ling, usually known by her late husband’s name, as Madame Sun Yat-sen.
But Madame Sun wasn’t around today, and it showed. Mao had brought out the baijiu, claiming it was the best in the world, although Fedorenko had to finesse Khrushchev’s off-the-cuff rejoinder that he guessed Mao was saving the vodka until after the Russians who had gifted it to him had gone home.
“Well,” sighed Khrushchev, “if you can’t snag a bird of paradise, you might as well have a wet hen.” He banged the table in lieu of a comedy rim-shot, and the room grew silent for a moment as Fedorenko struggled to remember the word for “bird of paradise” (jile niao) and to explain why a wet hen was better than nothing.
“You should come swimming with me. I’m a wonderful swimmer,” said Mao, jerking his thumb behind him at the pool shimmering outside the window.
“You may be, Mr Chairman,” said Khrushchev. “But please remember: I am a miner, not a swimmer!”
Khrushchev laughed it off, although there was a time delay while Fedorenko conveyed his words into Chinese. Then Mao, laughed, too, taking a swig of his tea and sluicing it loudly around his mouth.
“Tuck in! Tuck in!” bellowed Mao, gesturing expansively at the table. “We’ve got so much food in China, so much to go around. I mean, I’ve been meaning to ask our Russian friends, when Communist productivity proves to be so successful, what on Earth do you do with all the extra food?”
Khrushchev stared blankly back at Fedorenko as he relayed this question, his eyebrows twitching in disbelief.
“Try the Red-Braised Pork,” continued Mao. “It’s wholly different from the way it used to be. Cleaner, better, more modern, like our factories! Lamb with Leeks, from our model farms out in the West. We are taming the desert, we are turning it into pasture, and that lamb is the result. Oh, don’t miss the vegetables, from the market gardens outside Beijing. Bigger than ever.”
The Lazy Susan was in constant motion, as Khrushchev struggled to lift morsels onto his plate with his chopsticks. Fedorenko hissed at him to lift his bowl, to plonk each portion onto the rice, but Khrushchev never listened.
“And this one, here,” said Mao, “this is my favourite. Whole red peppers from my glorious home province, where we like things to be hot! Red, of course, is the colour of Revolution! Gentleman, I propose that we form a Red Pepper Party to show our loyalty to Communism. Anyone who can consume a red pepper will be our comrade. Anyone!”
The Chinese diners shovelled rice into their mouths from their bowls, glancing slyly at the Russians. Khrushchev smiled and nodded, but literally had his plate full with the Red-Braised Pork. The Lazy Susan had stopped turning, and the fateful plate of whole chilies had come to rest in front of the white-haired Nikolai Bulganin (1895–1975).
“Oh, if it’s for Communism…!” quipped Bulganin, snatching up one of the smaller peppers and shoving it into his mouth.
“And that’s the joy of these peppers,” Mao was saying, as Bulganin’s eyes widened in surprise. “The smallest ones are the hottest.”
Fedorenko’s memoirs retell the whole ghastly incident, as Bulganin’s mouth was suffused with a terrible, fiery sting. He snatched at some tea, but that only washed the acidic, burning sensation further afield, to every corner of his mouth, into his gums and down his throat. Bulganin, wrote Fedorenko “almost passed out, coughing and choking, [engulfed in] tears and with a running nose, he couldn’t speak a word.”
As the diners gathered around the choking Bulganin, offering vague advice on water and tea, the embarrassed Chinese only smiled all the more. The Russians, not a race given to smiles at the best of times, were all stony-faced and fuming.
“What a barbaric thing to do,” muttered Khrushchev, glaring at the giggling Mao. “What a fucking Tartar!”
Fedorenko met the gaze of his opposite number, the Chinese interpreter at Mao’s side. He shook his head slowly, and the other interpreter nodded. In silent détente, neither of them explained what the Russian leader had just said.
Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals.