Dinner with Churchill: The Prime Minister's Tabletop Diplomacy by Cita Stelzer

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Dinner with Churchill: The Prime Minister's Tabletop Diplomacy by Cita Stelzer

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Category: History
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: An entertaining yet carefully researched account of Churchill's use of the dinner table to display his conversational talents, and conduct diplomacy on the world stage, as well as his tastes in food, drink and cigars.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: October 2011
Publisher: Short Books
ISBN: 978-1907595424

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Winston Churchill was never a man to don the hair shirt. A comfortable upbringing in the days when elaborate multiple courses were the done thing imbued in him from an early age a taste for the good things in life, and a bon viveur he remained until the very end. Throughout his life he loved his food, and until near the end of his life, his appetite and digestion remained excellent, whereas many men in their advancing years might have cut back a little.

Cita Steltzer has made extensive use of archive and printed sources to regale us with a wonderfully entertaining, good-humoured account of his tastes. As historian Andrew Roberts relates in his introduction, now we have had biographies of the man's grandmother, bodyguard, and even his obscure constituency chairman, why not one of his stomach as well?

In Churchill's time, the social etiquette of dinner parties also provided an opportunity to discuss matters of state with the world's decision makers – with the food and drink playing a major part. Even during the Second World War, the best things in life were always available for those at the top. On Churchill's visit to Stalin at Moscow in 1942, the menu at their official banquet, at which hors d'oeuvres were followed by a main course including sturgeon in champagne, turkey chicken partridge and suckling lamb with potatoes, with coffee liqueurs and fruit petit fours roast almonds at the end, does not reflect or suggest any food shortages in the hard-pressed Soviet Union. There was clearly no suggestion of leading by example – although the Prime Minister did have to sit through 25 interminable toasts, and afterwards told his doctor that the food was filthy. He had made no such complaints after a Christmas dinner the previous December with President Roosevelt at the White House, which included roast turkey with chestnut stuffing, deerfoot sausage and oysters on the half shell, with grapefruit salad and cheese crescents, plum pudding and hard sauce, and ice-cream cake to finish.

If you were eating with Churchill, you could not only count on a mouth-watering meal and fascinating conversation, but occasionally a one-man show of after-dinner entertainment as well. At Chartwell one evening in 1928, a diarist of the day recorded how guests remained at the table until after midnight, when the tablecloth had long since been removed, and the host spent two hours demonstrating with decanters and wine glasses how the battle of Jutland was fought. He even made barking noises to imitate gunfire, and blew cigar smoke across the battle scene to simulate the real thing.

His love of animals occasionally allowed a little sentiment to rear its head. He refused to eat suckling pig as he had raised pigs at Chartwell, and claimed to know them. When food was very short during the First World War, he asked his wife to carve a goose reared on his farm, on the grounds that he could not possibly do so himself as it had been his friend.

Certain standards had to be maintained, however. Ham sandwiches on the aeroplane were fine, as was Virginia ham on an American 1929 tour, but mustard always had to be provided as well, as no gentleman eats ham [or ham sandwiches] without mustard. And any cook who provided tasteless soup could expect a visit to the kitchens where he or she would be harangued for dereliction of duty.

After the main course he loved cheese, although he appears to have rarely eaten fruits, puddings or sweets. But he had a passion for cream, would empty the jug himself, and only then look round the table to ask rather pugnaciously if anyone else wanted some.

Much is made – usually by rivals or enemies – of his prodigious if not excessive intake of alcohol, and he probably did not help his reputation by making gentle jokes at his own expense about his love of drink. Yet although he enjoyed fine wines, champagne and spirits, he could hold his liquor, and took his whisky so weak that some observers described it as 'mouthwash'. He loved his cigars and smoked heavily from his early twenties, yet it seems to have done his lungs remarkably little harm. Reading this book is probably almost the next best thing to being at the table with Churchill. The menus, anecdotes and personal touches all combine to bring its subject and his personality, not to mention his gourmet tastes, very much to life. Dinner with Churchill would have been an experience not to be forgotten.

Our thanks to Short Books for providing Bookbag with a copy for review.

If you enjoyed this, for another book on the era may we also recommend Our Longest Days: A People's History of the Second World War by Sandra Koa Wing; or for a biography of one of Churchill's colleagues and successors, Supermac: The Life of Harold Macmillan by D R Thorpe.

Buy Dinner with Churchill: The Prime Minister's Tabletop Diplomacy by Cita Stelzer at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Dinner with Churchill: The Prime Minister's Tabletop Diplomacy by Cita Stelzer at Amazon.co.uk


Buy Dinner with Churchill: The Prime Minister's Tabletop Diplomacy by Cita Stelzer at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Dinner with Churchill: The Prime Minister's Tabletop Diplomacy by Cita Stelzer at Amazon.com.

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