How to dine like Churchill

Jamie Weinstein | Senior Writer

Winston Churchill helped shape the world during his long life — and often did so at the dinner table.

In her book “Dinner with Churchill: Policy-Making at the Dinner Table,” Cita Stelzer, director of Britain’s Churchill Centre and a research associate at the Hudson Institute, explains how Churchill used meals to push his policy views.

“Churchill dined with virtually all of the decision-makers of his long life – people like Presidents Roosevelt and Truman, Stalin, De Gaulle and British and American generals and politicians,” she told The Daily Caller.

“At those dinners, policy questions were discussed and decisions made that affected the course of history. I was fortunate to find at the Churchill Archives, Churchill College, in Cambridge, U.K., many of the original menus, as well as unpublished diaries and letters by those present describing the dinners, lunches and picnics.”

Stelzer says the greatest political success Churchill achieved over a dinner was with Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

“When Churchill dined with Roosevelt for the first time at the White House on Dec. 21, 1941, they agreed, among other things, to establish a Combined Chiefs of Staff – each service would work closely with its counterpart, all polices and strategies would be shared between the two countries,” she said. “I have no doubt that these dinners, and the after-dinner smoke-filled conversations, were immensely important in that they set up the structure that would prosecute the war to its successful conclusion.”

For those traveling to London and Paris who want to dine like Churchill, Stelzer says he did have favorite restaurants in those cities.

“Churchill ate out in both London and Paris at hotels,” she said.

“In Paris, the Ritz; in London both at Claridges and the Savoy, where The Other Club, formed by him, held its regular dinners. And, of course, he dined in the private homes of friends and supporters throughout his life. When he was prime minister, he dined most often at Downing Street or at Chequers, inviting some 10 or 12 guests at a time, mostly men involved in the war effort, both British and foreign.”

As for his food, Churchill had simple tastes, Stelzer says.

“Churchill liked plain simple food, perfectly cooked,” she explained.

“No French sauces, no fancy pies, no concoctions. I would guess his favorite meal would be smoked salmon, roast chicken and potatoes. For desert, a pear and his beloved Stilton. And perhaps some ice cream.”

Stelzer spoke at length with TheDC about her book, how Churchill dealt with the food rationing in Britain during World War II, and whether he was as big a drinker as legend suggests:

Why did you decide to write the book?

Churchill dined with virtually all of the decision-makers of his long life – people like Presidents Roosevelt and Truman, Stalin, De Gaulle and British and American generals and politicians. At those dinners policy questions were discussed and decisions made that affected the course of history. I was fortunate to find at the Churchill Archives, Churchill College, in Cambridge, U.K., many of the original menus, as well as unpublished diaries and letters, by those present, describing the dinners, lunches and picnics.

Did Churchill see dinners as primarily for business or pleasure?

Churchill was always working – lunches and dinners were for the business of making policy. He expected his guests to inform him and he hoped to influence them, convincing them of the correctness of his policies. That is not to say that he did not enjoy these events – he did, thoroughly. But above all, he was working. It was the conversation that mattered and the information shared, opinions aired.

How involved was he with choosing the menu and guests for his dinners?

In all cases in which he was the host, Churchill developed guest lists and supervised almost every detail of seating, menu selection and pacing. For the “big” official dinners with the presidents and Stalin, Churchill, as prime minister, was involved in every detail: He amended menus, arranged seating and worried, for example, where the interpreters would be placed — between the participants or slightly behind? At Potsdam, Churchill decided that he wanted 28 people at his official dinner. So he had his sappers build a round table and used his staff as guinea pigs to see that each diner had ample room for his elbows – but not too much room or conversation would be awkward. For that reason, he preferred a round table.

What did Churchill think of his meals at the White House?

Just after Pearl Harbor, Churchill moved into the White House for three weeks. With the U.S. at war with Germany as well as Japan after Hitler declared war on America, Churchill wanted to ensure that America would not concentrate on fighting Japan first, which Roosevelt was under pressure to do after Pearl Harbor, and would instead focus resources on defeating Hitler – the Europe-first strategy.

It is agreed by almost everyone who dined at the Roosevelt White House that the cook (not chef in those days) was the worst cook in history. Even FDR complained about her food, but Mrs. Nesbitt was kept in her job by Mrs. Roosevelt. Churchill, of course, was on his best behavior so he did not complain: He was not there to eat, but to do what he always did at the dinner table, push his strategies and policies. And push he did. And prevail.

What was Churchill’s greatest political success over dinner?

When Churchill dined with Roosevelt for the first time at the White House on Dec. 21, 1941, they agreed, among other things, to establish a Combined Chiefs of Staff – each service would work closely with its counterpart, all polices and strategies would be shared between the two countries. I have no doubt that these dinners, and the after-dinner smoke-filled conversations, were immensely important in that they set up the structure that would prosecute the war to its successful conclusion.

What is the most interesting piece of trivia you discovered by researching this book?

The manner in which rationing was implemented is not trivial but shows an aspect of Churchill’s character that was a surprise to me. He sought no special favors unrelated to his duties as prime minister. He insisted he would abide by his own government’s rules of rationing. When entertaining at Downing Street or Chequers, he applied for extra rations listing all the guests. The Ministry of Food deemed that arrangement too cumbersome and issued extra rations to Churchill’s cook, Mrs. Landermare, who returned unused portions to the ministry. And in 1945, when the Labour Party won the election, he returned his unused rations cards to the new prime minister, Clement Attlee.

Additionally, he formally applied for a clothes ration so that he could buy a summer suit in which to attend the Casablanca conference. He did benefit from gifts from supporters with estates that included fishing streams and acres of home-grown produce, but otherwise he insisted on no special treatment, requiring Mrs. Churchill to scrounge for food when entertaining the visiting Eleanor Roosevelt.

Churchill is quoted in the book as saying, “If only I could dine with Stalin once a week, there would be no trouble at all.” Was he being sincere? That sounds pretty naïve, especially from someone who seemed to understand the nature of evil like Churchill.

Churchill had a long history of despising the Bolsheviks because of their suppression of private freedoms. But he was also a realist, and recognized that once Germany attacked Russia mid-June 1942*, it was in Britain’s interests to accept the Soviet Union as an ally of the Anglo-American forces. He never denied he had been anti-Soviet, but knew the Soviets would be able to draw off some German armies and ease the burden on the British and American forces. He also believed he could do business with Stalin, another realist, if only they could establish a workable personal relationship. He couldn’t do much when Russian armies were in possession of much of Eastern Europe, but at dinner with Stalin he did obtain a promise, which was kept, that Russia would not interfere in Greece.

[*Editor’s note: Germany’s attack on Russia actually began in mid-June 1941.]

Did Churchill have a favorite dining establishment in London or Paris when he ate out?

Churchill ate out in both London and Paris at hotels. In Paris, the Ritz; in London, both at Claridges and the Savoy, where The Other Club, formed by him, held its regular dinners. And, of course, he dined in the private homes of friends and supporters throughout his life. When he was prime minister, he dined most often at Downing Street or at Chequers, inviting some 10 or 12 guests at a time, mostly men involved in the war effort, both British and foreign.

What was Churchill’s favorite food?

Churchill liked plain simple food, perfectly cooked. No French sauces, no fancy pies, no concoctions. I would guess his favorite meal would be smoked salmon, roast chicken and potatoes. For desert, a pear and his beloved Stilton. And perhaps some ice cream.

Was Churchill as big a drinker as legend suggests?

Churchill nursed throughout the day a small amount of whisky in a glass filled with soda – referred to by his staff as “mouthwash.” At lunch and dinner he drank a 1/2 bottle of champagne — smaller than our 1/2 bottles today — as well as a brandy or two. By today’s standards, this is quite a large amount of alcohol, but not by the standards of his time. And Churchill was never incapable of performing his duties. I’ve read many journals and diaries of the people who dined with him and most agree that alcohol enhanced his enjoyment and his phenomenal ability to hold forth during and after dinner. Only two people reported that Churchill was the worse for wear from alcohol. One was a Soviet staff member reporting to Stalin what he thought Stalin would like to hear. The second was a private secretary to Anthony Eden who also would have liked to report to his boss that Churchill was drunk. But Churchill would never have been able to work as he did, or for so many years, and so successfully, if alcohol had taken hold of him.

Additionally, Churchill like many others in public life, including most recently the former Queen Mother, grew fond of the myths that developed around his personality: He liked that he was known to enjoy a drink.

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