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Dinner with Churchill: Policy-Making at the Dinner Table

Dinner with Churchill: Policy-Making at the Dinner Table
Cita Stelzer
Short Books   304pp   £20

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Don’t be misled by the title of this book. If you’re expecting something along the lines of Hitler’s Table-Talk (edited by Hugh Trevor-Roper, 1953) you’ll be disappointed. There’s almost no ‘talk’ here. The book purports to show the importance of Churchill’s dinners to his diplomacy, but doesn’t, apart from telling us that he sometimes met other world leaders over meals, which is obvious. But that’s part one of the book. Part two, on Churchill’s gastronomic tastes, is generally sounder.

Churchill’s eating, drinking and smoking habits were part of his persona, especially in later years. They showed in his fatness and that ever-present cigar; but rather less in his deportment, which nearly everyone who knew him expressed surprise was not more affected by his consumption of alcohol. Hitler described him as a ‘superannuated drunkard supported by Jewish gold’; but he of course didn’t know him personally. Hitler’s reputation (at least) was very different: abstemious, teetotal, vegetarian, not known to enthuse much over the good things in life. It is tempting to speculate what effect this might have had on their respective characters. As the punning philosopher put it, ‘Man ist was er isst’ (People are what they eat). In that case Churchill was plain cooking, whisky, champagne and the best Havana cigar smoke; and all that these might be taken to imply.

The Englishness was there, obviously, in the plain cooking. Abroad this was seen as a mark of national inferiority and still is; but in Churchill’s lifetime at least it had always been something the English took a positive pride in. Roast beef was serious, solid and masculine, by contrast with French fripperies. ‘The PM doesn’t like his chicken “messed about”’, complained his doctor, Lord Moran, when he was once offered it cut into bits and smothered in sauces. He preferred consommés to creamed soups; when served the latter once in America he asked if they couldn’t find some Bovril for him instead. At a dinner to mark his memory held at the Savoy in September 1985, the first course chosen for a menu reckoned to reflect his tastes was ‘La Petite Marmite Churchill’; followed by ‘Le Contrefilet de boeuf rôti Yorkaise’, which sounds about right. He also ate game and – when he could get them – plovers’ eggs: not what most of us would call ‘simple foods’, but still solidly British. His favourite cheese was Stilton, though he would take Roquefort at a pinch; his preferred dessert, ice-cream. He rarely ate fruit, even when it was English. When travelling, he took meals when his hunger, not the clock, told him. He called it his ‘tummy time’. He apparently couldn’t cook himself, though when his wife, Clementine expressed concern about leaving him at Chequers with the cook on holiday, he is said to have denied this: ‘I can boil an egg. I’ve seen it done.’

Churchill’s drinking revealed his international side more. He doesn’t seem to have been a beer man. He liked French wines, especially champagne (Pol Roger for preference), which he drank to what most of us would regard as excess; plus Cognac, and Scotch whisky (Johnnie Walker Black Label): ‘the main basic standing refreshment of the white officer in the East’, as he called it. So that could be said to reflect his imperialism. It’s the whisky and brandy that made people suspect him of tipsiness (he started at breakfast); but in fact he nearly always drank them heavily diluted – really no more than a ‘mouthwash’, was how his private secretary described it; and in general it seems clear that he could ‘hold his liquor’, as the saying went. He reckoned it ‘quickened his intellect’.

The cigars came from his time in Cuba in the 1890s, reporting on its war of liberation from Spain. He only smoked the best Havanas, usually nine or ten a day. That must have been a trial for anyone sitting with him in confined spaces; so when flying he sat in the cockpit, which had vents to extrude the fug. With him this was clearly no affectation (like Harold Wilson’s pipe, for example, or even possibly Hitler’s abstemiousness), though Churchill soon became aware of how important it was to what today we would call his ‘image’. Indeed, he seems to have felt that a reputation for overindulgence generally could only boost him popularly and politically. It made him even more English, rather Falstaffian. It also enabled his most famous witticism – the Bessie Braddock one. (‘Winston, you’re drunk’. ‘Bessie, you’re ugly, but I shall be sober in the morning’.) It may have been worth it, just for that. So he cultivated the myth.

Importantly, however, he was careful not to let it interfere with his other (and rather more contrived) image, as a ‘man of the people’. The problem here of course was that most of those people, strapped by rationing, were in no position to over indulge. Churchill managed it by scrupulously keeping to his own ration for both his official households (No. 10 and Chequers); though he was helped in this by a terrific cook (married to a French chef) who could do wonders with spam (there’s a good story here about Churchill’s bursting into the kitchen to warn her to take shelter during an air raid, only to be met with: ‘But sir, the soufflé isn’t quite done’); and by frequent gifts of caviar from Uncle Joe Stalin and of grouse from the king’s moors. That was allowed and probably not greatly resented. On the whole Churchill’s fatness seems not to have counted against him, like Goering’s did among disaffected Germans. Goering cheated; Churchill (strictly) didn’t. Distinguished American visitors sometimes complained at the food served to them at No. 10: ‘They gave us little leftover bits made into meatloaf,’ moaned Henry Morgenthau on one occasion; but it will have done no harm for them to be reminded of the sacrifices the Brits were making for the war effort, while they were still tucking into their prime steaks. Churchill will have been aware of the propaganda value of that.

Cita Stelzer thinks there are other ways his eating and smoking habits reflected his character. His were the appetites of a man of ‘zest and resilience’. His ‘great love for animals’ is demonstrated by his reluctance once to carve a goose: ‘You’ll have to carve it Clemmie. He was my friend’; though he still ate it. His consideration for ‘ordinary’ people is apparently evidenced by his providing tea and cakes – but no plovers’ eggs – for trade union delegations; and giving his gardener the butt ends of his cigars for his pipe. His tolerance came out when, in the Crimea, Pol Roger was unavailable, yet he accepted Caucasian champagne in its place – ‘no complaints’. Others may be less impressed by these traits than Stelzer is. (She admits herself that she is ‘besotted’ by the great man.)

They may also be disappointed by her failure to examine that ‘man ist was er isst’ thing in any more depth. If I remember my Feuerbach rightly the context here was the Irish people’s supineness in the face of English oppression: they were too filled with ‘träges Kartoffelblut’, he thought, to rise up. (The remedy, in the absence of meat, was ‘beans’.) What medium-rare beef and the occasional plover’s egg did to Churchill’s ‘blood’ may be worth pondering.

Little of this is new or particularly important. However, take it for what it is – entertaining trivia – and there’s much to enjoy in this book.

Bernard Porter is Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Newcastle.

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