BOOK REVIEW: ‘Dinner with Churchill’

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DINNER WITH CHURCHILL: POLICY-MAKING AT THE DINNER TABLE
By Cita Stelzer
Pegasus Books, $26.95, 332 pages, illustrated

CATCH THAT TIGER: CHURCHILL‘S SECRET ORDER THAT LAUNCHED THE MOST ASTOUNDING AND DANGEROUS MISSION OF WORLD WAR II
By Noel Botham and Bruce Montague
Trafalgar Square/IPG, $24.95, 278 pages, illustrated

An alternative subtitle for Cita Stelzer’s delightful account of how Churchill’s gusto for food fueled not only his body and soul but also his policymaking might be “A Serious Account of a (Seemingly) Frivolous Subject.” For Churchill, satisfying food and a salubrious environment to enjoy it were no mere frivolity. Indeed, you might say that he was dead serious about it, if that seriousness of purpose was not leavened by characteristic Churchillian wit. He loved good food, washed down by fine wines and spirits, and this fueled the formidable energy and inventive resourcefulness that enabled him to be his nation’s — and in some measure, the world’s — savior. Ms. Stelzer’s highly informed and consistently insightful study reveals just how much detailed attention he paid to food, not just for himself but for servicemen and civilians in wartime.

Much has been made in books about Churchill of the luxurious consumption he enjoyed at a time when most of his countrymen were subsisting on straitened rations. Ms. Stelzer shows that he did indeed enjoy special privileges, from game shot on the royal estates to citrus fruits hand-delivered by Averell Harriman. But there are also many accounts of wartime meals at the prime minister’s table that were characteristic in their skimpiness and make-do qualities of that particular time and place. His longtime aide, Sir John Colville, testified to the efforts of Churchill’s wife, Clementine, in providing fare that was a cut above normal governmental offerings, doing her best to adhere, even under such difficult circumstances, to the extremely high level of her prewar standards.

The menus reproduced in Ms. Stelzer’s book, along with a photograph of the supremely elegant yet obviously comfortable dining room at their country home, testify to just how Olympian these were. No wonder Mrs. Churchill’s efforts to achieve what her husband demanded sometimes drove her close to nervous collapse. Nevertheless, it is clear, in anecdote after anecdote collected by Ms. Stelzer, that everyone in the household, from Clementine Churchill to the cook, knew that providing for the prime minister was not catering to mere whim but actually facilitating his essential contribution.

Ms. Stelzer provides many instances where dinner tables provided the mise-en-scene for diplomatic demarches and strategic planning. Anyone who worked with Churchill knew that he was at his best when well-wined and -dined, his imagination arcing as his rhetoric soared and sparkled. But he could enjoy simpler fare as well, as long as it was well-cooked and savory: his regular planning lunches with Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower ahead of the Normandy invasion featured a hearty Irish stew. Clearly, he devoted a considerable amount of energy, in wartime as well as in the more leisurely years of peace, to food, and he was marvelously idiosyncratic in his tastes: clear soup, never cream, and only Roquefort or Stilton cheese. However, despite the wealth of gustatory detail she provides, Ms. Stelzer never loses sight of its valuable relationship to the larger picture:

“During the five years I have spent working on this book, I have come to see aspects of his character and personality — humanity, humor, curiosity, zest and resilience — that were revealed at the dinner table to an extent not explicitly noted in many of the biographies that rightly concentrate on his enormous impact on world affairs.”

For those readers who need a demonstration that Churchill’s penchant for detail and hands-on attentiveness were not limited to what was on and around his dinner tables, there is “Catch that Tiger,” a gripping account of his determination to capture the Tiger Tank, an important component of the Nazi war machine. The most powerful tank of its time, its 60 tons and formidable range were wreaking havoc on Allied forces, so Churchill personally chose and briefed a young army engineer, Maj. Douglas Lidderdale, exhorting him to “Go catch me a tiger.” The success of this daring feat on the battlefields of Tunisia so thrilled Churchill that he and King George VI flew out to inspect the tank captured intact after a fierce firefight. Like Cita Stelzer, the authors of “Catch that Tiger” are not professional historians, but they all know how to tell a story and bring Churchill to life on the page.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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