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Dinner with Churchill

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Churchill and Roosevelt conferring after dinner

Just when you thought there were no aspects of Churchill’s long life that had not received a book-length treatment, along comes a book about having dinner with the great man. As one might expect, it contains tasty morsels.

It is set against a backdrop during the World War 2 period of food rationing in England. Churchill did everything he could to ensure that the underprivileged had access to food. “He subsidized some two thousand non profit restaurants established by local authorities to provide lower-income families with an opportunity to dine out,” writes author Cita Stelzer, a member of the board of the Churchill Centre. They were so popular that he was able to maintain public support for rationing in the bleakest days of the war.

“None of this means,” says Stelzer, “that the Prime Minister led a life anything nearly as austere as the ordinary Briton.” His needs were relieved somewhat by gifts of game from the King himself. Fish, while not rationed, was in short supply. Thus he was very happy to receive, by express train from Scotland, fish from the Duke of Westminster, the richest landowner in Great Britian.

This delightful book covers not just the war years of the 1940s, but his entire life. Turtle soup was a favourite, and it was served to him on his 50th anniversary as a member of the House of Commons in 1950. Despite this, “Churchill had a great affection for animals. “In 1911, on exploring the Admiralty yacht, he found a tank of turtles to be turned into soup. He was much moved by their plight and ordered their immediate release.”

The core of the book is concerned with the dinners held at the great wartime conferences between Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill. But the most entertaining section is about the visit Churchill made to the White House in 1941. Stelzer reveals that the Prime Minister’s preferences were not always considered by the hosts. The person really in charge of such things was not the president, but Henrietta Nesbitt, housekeeper from 1933 to 1946. “She is generally acknowledged by all who were subject to her foods and menu planning to be the worst housekeeper in White House history,” says Stelzer.

“On the day following the first White House dinner, the lunch was led off with a cream soup, much disliked by Churchill.” Even Christmas lunch started with a cream soup! He recuperated from the Washington weather and the food by a visit to Pompano Beach, Florida, where he stayed at a seaside villa owned by presidential aide Edward Stettinus. He describes Churchill’s preferences: “He liked plain English cooking, and enjoyed roast beef or steak. I think he could have been perfectly happy to lunch off cold roast beef every day of his life.”

It is unfortunate that the dinner conversations were never recorded, for it was this venue that Churchill used to deploy his immense charm. Quite often, he got what he wanted from his influential dinner companions. It was also a two-way street for information. It was at a 1945 lunch in Potsdam with President Truman’s Secretary for War that Churchill was told the Americans “had successfully detonated an atomic bomb.”

Combining statecraft was gastronomic delights, Stelzer has written a fine book that concludes with 36 pages of capsule biographies of all the lucky people who got to dine with Churchill.

Dinner with Churchill: Policy Making at the Dinner Table (332 pages, including 31 pages of notes and bibliography) is $26.95 from Pegasus Books.

Clifford Cunningham

Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist currently affiliated with the National Astronomical Research Institute. He did his PhD work in the history of astronomy at James Cook University, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. He is the author of 12 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honour by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in 1990.

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