By Cita Stelzer
Pegasus. 332 pp $26.95
During World War II, Winston Churchill’s battlefield was the dining room. Armed with his wit, ever-present cigar and flute of bubbly, he lorded over his adversaries and allies as the world’s foremost dinner-table diplomat. Cita Stelzer’s new book, “Dinner With Churchill,” is a welcome addition to the myriad biographies of and histories about the British prime minister. While most other Churchill books examine his mind, Stelzer’s focus is his stomach.
Although he was by trade a statesman, Churchill seamlessly blended his professional life with his personal interests as a gourmand who delighted in multi-course meals that ended in the early morning with a Cuban cigar. Stelzer writes that Churchill believed there were few political problems that couldn’t be fixed in private company while breaking bread. “If only I could dine with Stalin once a week,” Churchill said, “there would be no trouble at all.”
During the war, Churchill organized several lavish social gatherings at Chequers, the country estate of the prime minister, and at No. 10 Downing Street, the official residence in London. Stelzer describes dinner parties as “an important means by which Churchill rewarded friends, won over rivals and gathered information on all subjects, from diplomatic secrets to social gossip.” He liked the fare at such dinners to be proverbially English — simple, unadorned and filling.
“Claiming a preference for plain food,” Stelzer writes, “was used by Churchill and his contemporaries to wrap themselves in the flag, to assure themselves that no matter how high their station, they had not abandoned their muscular Britishness for the more effete tastes of continental Europe. No drippy French sauces for a true Englishman.”
Stelzer’s research into Churchill’s kitchen pantry extended to the wine cellar. His favorite tipple was Pol Roger champagne. “A single glass of champagne imparts a feeling of exhilaration,” he wrote in 1898. “The nerves are braced: the imagination is agreeably stirred; the wits become more nimble.” In typical Churchillian understatement, he added, “A bottle produces the opposite effect.”