You learn a lot about America and its people on a book-signing tour.
I’ve been around the country signing copies of my new book about Winston Churchill, giving talks about the “greatest Briton of all time” and how he effectively used evenings at the dinner table to work in his country’s interests. Lesson one: With the exception of a few lefties, Americans revere Winston Churchill. Lesson two: There are some really thoughtful readers out there. Questions from readers are knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and detailed.
But nothing could prepare me for the wonderful surprise I received in Fulton, where I had been invited by the National Churchill Museum to give a talk. The museum commemorates Winston Churchill and the important and prescient “Iron Curtain” speech he gave at Westminster College in March 1946—one short year after victory in Europe
—warning that Stalin was on the move across Eastern Europe and that communism was an ongoing threat to the West. Harry Truman had approved the draft speech; but when the Soviets strongly objected, Truman backed off his support for Churchill’s warning.
The National Churchill Museum is located in the spacious basement of St. Mary Aldermanbury, a Christopher Wren church from London that was damaged in the Blitz and was transported, brick by brick, to Fulton as a memorial to Winston Churchill. American women volunteered to embroider the kneelers, and a skilled carver copied Wren’s original wooden pulpit. I couldn’t help being moved by this display of affection for Churchill from hundreds of Americans.
When he arrived in Fulton, Churchill was treated to a tumultuous welcome: He was driven along thronged streets, Secret Servicemen hanging onto the sides of his car, to the house of the president of Westminster College for a welcoming lunch. The lunch consisted of Callaway ham, fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, corn, and, for dessert, white sponge cake with strawberry sauce. In praising the lunch, and the ham in particular, Churchill famously quipped that “this pig has reached the highest state of evolution.”
Fifty years after the Iron Curtain speech, the Iron Lady (as the Russians had dubbed her) arrived in Fulton to give a speech commemorating Churchill’s, and was treated to a lunch identical to the one Churchill had consumed. I have found no record of what Margaret Thatcher, at the time no longer prime minister but still a force on the world stage, thought about the Callaway ham, or what was discussed at the luncheon. My best guess is that Thatcher, who personal experience taught me had little use for small talk, shared her views on Winston Churchill and the state of international relations.
All of this is by way of saying that I view Fulton as hallowed ground, of a sort. So imagine my delight when I was welcomed to Fulton—no Secret Service, alas!—with a lunch at the Churchill Museum exactly duplicating the meals served to Churchill and Thatcher. Callaway ham is now available only if it is home-cured, and a staff member had gone to the enormous trouble of doing just that. (I agree with Churchill: This is the best ham I have ever tasted.) The fried chicken, mashed potatoes with gravy, and corn, freshly picked last summer and frozen, were not bad, either.
Everything had been prepared by the staff of the museum, which is lightly budgeted and staffed—meaning these were people for whom this was an addition to their regular jobs. One woman had even brought her grandmother’s silver and glassware to make the table sparkle. Iced tea and lemonade were offered, as the lunch was alcohol as well as tobacco-free—not exactly what Churchill would prescribe for conversation and learning. But equally important, my hosts knew how to convert a meal into a seminar, just as Churchill did: About a dozen of us, including the president of Westminster College and the head of the museum, spent a few happy hours discussing Churchill’s contributions to the defeat of fascism.
There is another lesson here: that there is a deeply welcoming nature, a kindness, and an enthusiasm for heroic history out there in what the coastal elites call flyover country. The roster of distinguished speakers who have come to Fulton includes Mikhail Gorbachev, Lech Walesa, Hubert Humphrey, and Dick Cheney. Yet this scribbler was treated with as much—well, almost as much—kindness as was Winston Churchill.
I say “almost as much” because a room in the college president’s house had been set aside for Churchill so that he could have a cigar, a nip, and a nap before delivering his Iron Curtain speech. But I shall never forget the warm welcome to which my Midwestern hosts treated me. This part of America is called the heartland because it is just that.
Cita Stelzer is the author of Dinner with Churchill: Policy-Making at the Dinner Table.