Winston Churchill’s dinner table: Clear soup, cigars and above all, conversation

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What went on at Winston Churchill’s dinner table? After 4 years digging through archives to research Dinner with Churchill, Cita Stelzer has answers. She shares Churchill’s fondness for picnics, his dislike of cream soups, and his odd working hours.

I ended up liking [Winston Churchill] and having more respect for him than I had expected. I came to like him because I realized from my research that he was a completely well-rounded human being. I think a lot of people know that he has wit and humor. What they didn’t realize, and what I had not realized, is that he used this on all occasions. At serious dinners with either President Roosevelt or Marshal Stalin, he could make a joke, he could make a witticism and he was simply fun to be around.

Cita Stelzer
Cita Stelzer (Photo: Francesco Guidicini)

For instance, one of the best examples of the reason I like him as a person is that he loved picnics. I’d read a lot of history of the Second World War, but I never knew that Churchill loved picnics, and he went on them whenever he could. He had a routine where he would insist on singing Indian Army songs that he’d learned when he was in India as a subaltern. I would have liked to have been sitting next to him on pillows wherever he had a picnic. 

All of Churchill’s dinners were working dinners; they had purposes. As an example, let's take a dinner during WWII. It was at Chequers, the prime minister’s country house. The evening would have started with guests getting together in the main drawing room, and the guests would have been quite varied. There would have been friends, definitely a family member, some press people, intelligence officials, admirals, Air Force generals, certainly Americans, probably the American ambassador, and one or two Free French people.

They would have started off with champagne about 8:30 p.m. -- no mixed cocktails for Churchill. Dinner would have moved into the dining room at Chequers and would have lasted from about 9 to 10 p.m. or 10:30 p.m. The menu, because Churchill paid attention to menus and what he wanted to eat, was known to everybody throughout his staff: a clear soup -- perhaps turtle soup, maybe consomme (he hated cream soups; he made a fetish of them) -- then perhaps a roast chicken, game if it were in season. Fruits and vegetables would have been served.

Dessert, by his choice, would have been ice cream, perhaps a little chocolate sauce. And after that, a pear and some Stilton cheese, which he loved. Now, during the dinner, he would have served his guests red and white wines. Churchill himself would have kept a bottle of Champagne by his side so that he would not have to depend on butlers; he could serve himself as he wanted it.

Toward the end of dinner would be the time for brandies and cigars. Churchill used his cigars to extend the dinner conversation; these were working dinners, and the conversation was the most important part of the dinner, rather than the food. He would have used a slow, ritualistic lighting of a cigar to extend the conversation, and he would have served brandy.

Early on, a doctor had told Churchill not to drink port because he thought that it would hurt his indigestion. Churchill, with great humor, called his indigestion his “indy,” and whenever he referred to it he’d always pat his little fat stomach and say, “I have to worry about my indy.” 

He drank brandy after dinner -- that would be about 10:30 p.m. or so. He would rejoin the ladies, which was something that was then perfectly acceptable, and they would all watch a movie for an hour -- even during the war. All of them, staff included.

After the movie, Churchill and the military staff or the secretaries -- the principal private secretaries --  would get down to work from about midnight until about 2:30 a.m.

He did have a nap during the day between 5 and 7 p.m. He would get totally undressed, cover his eyes with a black silk cover, and get under his bed clothes and sleep. And that probably gave him a lot more working hours within the day, so he was able to work until 2 or 2:30 in the morning. It was very hard on his staff because they didn’t get to nap in the afternoon and they had to be up at 7 a.m., and back in Whitehall running the war. 

It must have been absolutely enchanting to have been at one of Churchill’s dinner tables. One guest described how Churchill outlined the naval battle at Jutland: He had used cutlery to show where the ships were off the coast, then he used his cigar smoke, puffing away, to show how the guns would have looked. Another guest described how Churchill outlined some Civil War battles at the dinner table using matches and salt and pepper shakers.

It must have been absolutely riveting to be at a dinner with him. I wish I had been there. But 4 years working with these archives has certainly been a great joy.

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