The Magazine

Winston’s Table Talk

Churchill and the art of delicious conversation.

Dec 3, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 12 • By TRACY LEE SIMMONS
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Stelzer spends the greater share of this book trekking us along Churchill’s frigid and sultry routes in pursuit of aid in war and postwar settlements. From his first official meeting with President Roosevelt, off the coast of Newfoundland in August 1941, to his three-week post-Pearl Harbor sojourn at the White House, to Moscow, Adana, Tehran, Yalta, Potsdam, and, finally, to Fulton, Missouri, and Bermuda for his (unsuccessful) meeting with President Eisenhower, Churchill chugged from one dinner to another. He artfully formed the menus and judiciously chose the wines and champagnes when he was the host—and endured tactless or tasteless choices by others when he was not. Once, having discovered that he had run out of cigars, his American hosts scrounged up some White Owls on which Churchill took two puffs, and politely declined the rest. 

We learn many of the diverting, if less consequential, facts that are always welcome to readers of history. For instance, we learn how Eleanor Roosevelt found herself less than pleased with a guest of such a high nuisance quotient as Churchill, who moved himself into the White House, bossed the staff to accommodate his numerous whims, and tirelessly talked a flagging FDR into late, brandy-soaked nights. This caused the frustrated first lady to drop hints—of diminishing subtlety—to knock it off and go to bed. Also, when Churchill visited Stalin the following summer in Moscow, he noted the “totalitarian lavishness” of his rooms and feasts while most of the population beyond the walls of his dacha were starving.

Most tantalizingly, however, Stelzer includes all the menus she could find, most of them reproduced in facsimile from table cards, which give us a clear picture of, say, what the Big Three ate at Tehran: Persian soup, boiled salmon trout from the Caspian, turkey, cheese soufflé, and a bizarre showpiece called “Persian lantern ice.” Fancy enough, but not as elaborate as it might have been. Churchill claimed to enjoy only “plain English” fare, though his diet could have been a good deal more plain than it was. He had a few constants: He preferred more simple (and undercooked) meat dishes, and rarely compromised on soups, all of which had to be clear, nothing cream-based. (The true test of a cook, he thought, was skill at soupmaking.) And all his meals were accompanied by gallons of champagne, wine, Scotch, and brandy.

With Churchill and drink, we move from history to legend. “You can’t make a speech on ice water,” he is supposed to have said. The scantest research reveals that Churchill kept alcohol streaming in his system every hour of every day. One Roose-velt aide said that while the prime minister stayed at the White House, Churchill’s “consumption of alcohol continued at quite regular intervals through most of his waking hours,” though, it was added, “without visible effect.” Churchill did begin drinking whisky in the morning, from a glass hugely diluted with water or soda—what one secretary recalled was practically a “mouthwash”—though he saved his serious drinking for dinnertimes and after, and almost always with company. 

There is no evidence that Churchill’s prodigious drinking impaired his capacity to work. The Canadian prime minister wrote in his diary that dinner wine, for instance, had an effect on Churchill purely of “quickening his intellect and intensifying his facility of expression,” an observation confirmed by almost all witnesses. Alcohol enhanced, not diminished, his companionship. What we call “social drinking” was a prime cause and condition of fellowship for Winston Churchill—it was the forge of bonds among civilized people. Churchill famously said that he took more out of alcohol than alcohol took out of him—and anyway, his drinking seemed to create an image he wished to sustain, happy to allow others to believe that he drank more than he did. 

His drinking provided occasions of mirth. When he joined Franklin Roose-velt for their conference at Casablanca, Churchill wrote a letter of distress at finding the place less than hospitable: “Dinner at [FDR’s villa] (dry, alas!) with the Sultan. .  .  . After dinner, recovery from the effects of the above.” Perhaps he saw the value of posing a counter-image to the teetotalism of Hitler, whom A. J. Liebling called the “archetype of the abstemious man. When the other krauts saw him drink water in the Beer Hall they should have known he was not to be trusted.”

Tracy Lee Simmons, who teaches honors humanities at Lynchburg College, is writing a book about Thomas Jefferson.