Monday, January 14, 2013

Review: Dinner with Churchill by Cita Stelzer

Title: Dinner with Churchill
Author: Cita Selzer
Publisher: Pegasus Books, 2013, 336 pages
Genre: Biographical sketch 
Setting: various locations, mid 20th century
Source: Net-galley, ARC from publisher
Why did I read this book now? Interest in Churchill and the period

Dinner with Churchill, published last week, is a delightful look at one of the world's most powerful figures.  Volumes have been written about Winston Churchill: his official biography with all the relatives, his education, his life adventures in the military, as a journalist and as a politician; his philosophy; his politics, etc.  In this book, Cita Stelzer chooses to present Churchill in one of his most eloquent and oft experienced roles - at the dinner table.  In fact, the sub-title, Policy Making at the Dinner Table explains her focus perfectly. 

Spotlighting Churchill's diplomatic conferences and meals during the World War II period, she takes us to the sight of  many meetings of Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin as they planned and executed their countries' responses to Germany's ongoing military attacks.  Many of these gatherings included the top military and diplomatic minds of the day.  She quotes heavily from notes made by personal secretaries and aides, by translators, and then gives us even more insight from butlers, cooks and housekeepers.

We are shown the elegant printed menus from events such as the secret meeting of Churchill and Roosevelt on the USS Augusta off the coast of Newfoundland in August 1941; we catch glimpses of personal railroad cars, small intimate dining rooms, large dining tables both circular and rectangular.  We visit the White House where Churchill stayed for several weeks after Pearl Harbor, spending Christmas with the Roosevelts (somewhat to Eleanor''s chagrin I suspect), meeting Stalin in Moscow in August 1942, traveling and dining in Adana, Tehren, Potsdam, Yalta, and Bermuda.  In each visit, Selzer shows us the preparations, the meal, and the personalities attending.

After these chapters, she then focuses on the food itself (and Churchill's predilection for beef), the wines (particularly Churchill's love of champagne,) the signature cigars, and the whole subject of rationing.  She also gives the reader a clear understanding of Churchill's background so that we come to see how Winston viewed good food and camaraderie as a part of the diplomatic life.  At the same time, we see a Prime Minister who is emphatic about making sure that he is gathering and using ration coupons to obtain needed items, making substitutions if the course he wants is not available, and making sure that the ordinary people of Great Britain share equally in the food that is available.  Of course, he accepts gifts from friends and admirers (even the King sent him some birds shot on his estate).  In the end, however, Churchill never allows his preferences for good food and wine to interfere with the main emphasis of his dinner parties: that of good conversation, bonhommie, and choosing the correct mix of people to meet and become better acquainted.  The food and wine acted simply as the fuel to stoke the engine of his hospitality.

This is a short, enjoyable book that gives the reader a touch of history, an insight into a fascinating giant of public life, and some interesting menus not normally seen by Americans in this day and age.  It's certainly worth the read.  The photographs of the dining scenes, the menus, and the historic figures add much to the enjoyment of the read.

Many thanks to Pegasus books for making the e-galley available through the Net Galley program.

1 comment:

  1. I definitely want to read this, and may end up buying it. My interest in Churchill never wanes, and happily there is a lot to read about him.


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